Art Historian
Faig Ahmed – The Artist as Shaman
Faig Ahmed is a visionary artist. Always in search of limitations, whether personal, cultural or social, his goal is to go beyond them, to push boundaries and to reach a point of greater freedom. In his solo exhibition "Points of Perception," the artist's common thread is Sufism, a mystical path to wisdom of the world, to inner knowledge and truth.

The exhibition includes both a series of carpet works - the works the artist is best known for - as well as a series of all new works specifically made for this show: with these, the artist leads the viewer on a spiritual path and through a series of rituals. The "points" from the title refer to "stations" - works in this exhibition that could be compared to steps on his spiritual path, of Sufism in this case. His works all have a great visual and visceral impact on the viewer and it is through this impact that the viewer can re-enact – at least in his/her mind—the spiritual process of this path. The actions/rituals performed by the artist are documented in his videos as well as through the objects used in the videos: the works of art, like powerful shamanic tools, were witness to the events.

Sufism is an ancient mystical path usually seen as related to Islam but not necessarily so. It is a path to inner knowledge and truth, often secret due to its long persecution, but not reclusive. It can be related to other spiritual paths toward enlightenment such as Zen Buddhism or Native American Spirituality. In this exhibition the artist as shaman leads us through mystical practices used by the Sufis. These include prayer, meditation, the characteristic Sufi Dervish dance that allows the dancer to enter an altered state of consciousness, pain (as in walking on nails), rhythmic repetition (prayer beads) and music. As the artist is following the various steps toward enlightenment, he records his experiences and leaves powerful symbols for us to contemplate.

The artist as shaman is not a new concept; it has a long history in art, not only in native cultures but also in 20th century (Joseph Beuys) and contemporary art (Nam June Paik, Marcus Coates etc.) But unlike these artists, in this exhibition Faig Ahmed shares his own mystical experiences directly with the viewers.

Introducing the exhibition are two of his most powerful carpet works, which ground us in the Azerbaijani tradition of carpet making and show us how the artist has pushed the limits of these traditions, dissolving the rigid patterns in "Liquid" and stretching them in "Double Tension." It is a way of altering the old patterns and prejudices in order to make room for the new, for growth, making the old rules more fluid and stretching their limits. In a way the carpets represent Ahmed's previous work, the physical world, while the new works take us on a spiritual path.

Introducing this path is a video entitled "Pir," which shows the artist clad in long black robes performing a circular ritual in Gobustan, a beautiful semi-desert landscape in central Azerbaijan known for its rock engravings and ancient caves. The artist embodies the figure of a Pir, the title of a Sufi master or spiritual guide. An old Azerbaijani tradition associated with holy places has it that people could make a wish and, as they climbed a rocky mountain, they would circle the trees and bushes, wrapping them with red string… if the string didn't break the wish would come true. It was a difficult undertaking as one had to climb a rocky mountain and at the same time focus on the thin thread. In the video the artist walks around a large boulder, encircling it with a red thread instead of wrapping a tree and climbing a mountain, but the idea is the same – a meditative walk in order to reach a spiritual goal. The notion of the circle is an important one in many shamanic traditions as it symbolizes the completion of a cycle. A circle has no visible beginning and no end; there are no hierarchies, only endless continuity. In nature time is cyclical, there is constant death and rebirth. The circle is also associated with the feminine archetype, the vessel and the egg from which all life is created. Just as circles have been used in rituals and ceremonies since the beginning of time, Faig Ahmed begins his spiritual journey by circling a huge boulder in nature, in a very sacred place.

This idea is continued in the second "station," the work entitled "Alef," represented by an installation consisting of a huge book, a chain of large clay "prayer beads" and a video. The large book recalling ancient holy books is covered (by the artist) with only one letter, the alif, the first letter in the Arabic alphabet, endlessly repeated. Unlike traditional holy books, which usually feature religious laws, nothing except this repeated symbol is written in the book; it is a meditation on the letter alif, symbolizing a new beginning. Mystics are not interested in laws, they are interested in energy, in the unity with the divine. According to Rajab Borsi ("The Orient of Light") all letters are derived from the first letter; the alif itself, he says, is the secret of the Word. Its look resembles the numeral "1" and symbolizes divine unity. To know the alif meant for the Sufis to know divine unity. Alif is isolated in Arabic script, it cannot be connected to the letters following it. The alif thus symbolizes the transcendent essence.

In the video the artist contemplates the book, turning the pages while counting a large rosary – the clay beads in the installation. The beads are made from earthen clay taken from places that are sacred to the Sufi. Like the beads of the rosary, the repeated letter presents a meditative rhythm, nothing and all. Repetition is useful to achieve concentration and focus. Enlightenment comes when a state of void is achieved, a state of emptiness and freedom from which one can begin one's life's creation.

From this point we enter the main work of this exhibition: Wave, a huge installation made of prayer carpets and an eight meter high metal structure which lifts up the carpets and curves around in a wave. The first part resembles the carpet in a mosque: made out of many single prayer rugs, the floor seems to be covered by a grid, each carpet like the others, so that each praying person is considered equal. But then the two-dimensional structure becomes three-dimensional. While this work could have many connotations – one could think of a tsunami or the wave of immigrants from the east - the artist himself explained that after all the religious and spiritual paths he experimented with, he realized the truth is always within. Within oneself. Like a wave, everything turns back onto oneself and each of us has to find his or her own truth. Like in a mosque, the viewer is invited to walk on the floor, to lie down or sit. The artist gives the viewer a visceral experience of his/her own path. The seductive beauty and impressive size of the work recalls the inside of a mosque, the shadow of its structure the broken sunlight we can see inside of Islamic architecture. But, unlike in the three main religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) the Sufi disciple does not pray to a god/force outside of himself, in Sufism the search is inward. Thus the carpets rise into a wave which symbolically returns to us.

The exhibition continues with the video and elements (large, elongated black hats) of "Dance" and in fact the work recalls a Sufi Dervish dance. Even though the "dancers" in the video are walking slowly rather than whirling frantically, each dancer – like a Dervish Dancer - is both alone and part of a united group. All the participants balance long black "hats" on their heads, which symbolically connect them to a higher force. The Sufi Dervish dances/turns in a repetitive circle and thus falls into a meditative trance in order to reach the source of all perfection. The long black felt hats recall the camel hair hats worn by the Dervish dancers: they represent the tomb of the ego and the unity with God.

More colorful carpet works bring us back to reality, to the here and now, which balance the "spiritual" works. The last work in the exhibition, "Limits", exemplifies Faig Ahmed's search for limits and how to overcome them. It consists of a circular carpet with golden nails and traces of blood. The round shape again refers to a sacred circle, while the golden nails refer to our suffering on earth. Like disciples of various religions/beliefs, Sufi mystics achieve a state of liberty through suffering: fasting, pain and sacrifice are important parts of many rituals. In this video, Ahmed walks in circles on the nails in the carpet, his bare feet only partly separated from the nails by the bloody hearts of animals tied to his feet. Blood from the animal hearts and the artist's feet symbolize his suffering and pain. However, using the hearts of animal could also symbolize the way of the heart: Sufism is a path of Love. The idea of reaching one's limit and crossing the boundary is that you experience something you never knew before – you discover your own strength, which makes you grow. While on the one hand fasting and extreme pain can lead to an altered state of mind, by training the mind some fakirs can jump through fire or walk on nails without feeling pain.

The idea of the circle and cyclical movement as alluded to in the four main works by the artist in this exhibition (Pir, Alef, Wave and Limits) can also be elucidated with the help of shamanic cosmology and the Native American Medicine Wheel, which consists of the four directions and the corresponding natural elements (air, fire, water, earth). The starting point is in the east of the wheel, with "Pir", which shows the artist outside, in nature: the corresponding element of the east is air, it stands for new beginnings, for the sunrise. The east corresponds to the archetype of the teacher (Ahmed circling the boulder). From the east we circle sun-wise (clock-wise) around the wheel to the south: the work "Alef" is related to the South and its corresponding element is fire. In fact, the symbol of the Arabic letter alif is fire (see "The Chishti website"). The South correlates to the archetype of the visionary (Ahmed contemplating the book and counting the rosary beads). "Wave" obviously refers to the element of water, the direction of the West, where we begin our journey inward. The West correlates to the archetype of the healer (Ahmed inviting us to look inward). Continuing on the wheel we arrive in the North, the element of the Earth which can be intuited in "Limit". The North traditionally refers to winter, to no-thingness, where we return to the Great Mystery to receive a vision. It correlates to the archetype of the warrior (Ahmed walking on nails).

As in the initial video, "Pir," in "Limits" the artist walks in a circle and metaphorically completes the cycle of this spiritual journey by reaching his limit: In the end he goes beyond his physical limits to achieve a liberating spiritual enlightenment. As he takes us on his path, the viewer can identify and re-enact this journey. Like a shaman, Faig Ahmed leads us on our way and shows us avenues to greater personal and eventually cultural and social freedom.
Writer and editor
Ph.D. Curator, Islamic World, Royal Ontario Museum