Ritual of Remembering
"Remains" was created for The Religion, Spirituality, and the Arts (RSA) program of the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute. The theme for the 2020-21 cycle was: Noah’s Ark and the Environmental Imagination. Participating artists of this program were asked to explore the story of Noah through the lens of modern environmental crisis and quarantine due to global pandemic, Covid-19.
In this piece, a mask is used to represent a “teva”, the Hebrew word for “basket”. The word “teva” is only used twice in the Old Testament: First, as the vessel baby Moses was placed into when floated down The Nile River to safety from certain death. Second, as Noah’s Ark, which was used similarly as a vessel of safety for those on board during the flood.
The common feature of Moses’s basket and Noah’s ark is that a “teva” cannot be steered, it can only float, drifting undirected to an unknown place in an unknown future.
After God returned the earth to its pre-creation state by bringing a great flood, sparing only those upon Noah’s Ark, he rescinded his decision with a covenant that he would not destroy all life on Earth again, “So long as the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter…” (Genesis 8:22).
7,000 biblical years later we are left to wonder if those words were indeed conditions for us to follow lest we bring about another form of extinction upon ourselves and the Earth.
If we look at the current Anthropocene, in which human activity has become the dominant influence upon the climate and the environment it is clear that our increased globalization has led to wide-spread effects in climate, mass extinction, depletion of resources, and the degradation in the fertility of our very soils to support agricultural demands. Add to this the increase of worldwide pandemics (the most recent being Covid-19) our global landscape is undeniably interdependent on our collective actions.
Within the context of God’s covenant and taking these effects of the Anthropocene into account, we can begin to seriously ask ourselves: Will there continue to be a seedtime and harvest, a summer and winter? Or, are we breaking the conditions on which God’s covenant was made? And, if so, what would it take to restore this covenant and prevent our future demise?
In this altarpiece, I weave together symbols from the morality myth of Noah’s Ark with spiritual practices to create a sacred space made entirely from natural materials from which to explore our role within God’s covenant and to ritualize ourselves as Stewards of the Earth.
The foundation for the altarpiece is made from locally-harvested clay circumscribed with the paraphrased words of God’s covenant, “So long as the earth remains. Seedtime and harvest. Summer and winter.” (Genesis 8:22) painted with white and black pigments made from charcoal and diatomaceous earth powders, a symbol of black fire on white fire as inspired by the Torah. Stuck into the clay along the back of the altar are the black feathers from a raven’s wing. This bird cemented itself into history as a disappointing and ominous outcast when Noah sent it from the ark to find dry land - It circled to and fro and never returned.
Upon the altar are two clay offering cups: One cup containing a pine sap resin cone for burning, the second cup containing a bed of moss on which to place a piece of ice which ultimately melts back into the clay. Together these cups provide a physical reminder of the effects of global warming.
The central piece of the altar contains a mask made from corn husks with a symbol of the four earth elements air, water, earth, and fire encircled by a divine presence painted with pigments made from charcoal and terra cotta. Functioning like an illuminated manuscript, the lips of the wearer are meant to touch the symbol as an act of moving closer to the Divine.
The mask is secured with linen straps colored with plant-based indigo dye and adorned with cochineal-dyed cotton, clay beads, and feathers from a dove; The second bird Noah released from the Ark - It victoriously returned to Noah’s hand carrying an olive branch.
Today, as we collectively experience the current global pandemic of Covid-19, our most tangible path to safety has become to wear our own “tevas” and to distance ourselves from surrounding environments of uncertainty. Just as Moses and Noah kept themselves afloat in their “tevas”, we too must adjust to daily life with the risks of the unknown outcomes and conditions surrounding us.
But is that all we can do? Float along into an uncertain future?
Through the use of this altarpiece, we make our mask - our “teva” - into a sacred object bound by the daily ritual of acknowledging our place and part in the global ecology we belong to. Through this repeated practice we uphold God’s covenant, codify our connection to the Earth, and come into remembrance of our responsibility to steer our actions to the highest benefit for a better tomorrow where all God’s creation can thrive together.