An exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, on view through December 5, offers a timely and thoughtful counterpoint to the tremendous turmoil of recent weeks. Faith Need Not Fear Reason, a solo show by Carlos Vega, presents a series of mixed-media works inspired by a more peaceful era of religious coexistence. The pieces take as their starting point a brief period during the twelfth century in Spain, when a number of influential Jewish, Muslim, and Christian philosophers pursued their studies, guided by science and reason above all, and whose commitment allowed them to transcend their cultural and religious differences.
The exhibition largely focuses on three great thinkers of the time: Averroes, an Islamic philosopher; Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher; and Alfonso X, king of Castile, Leon, and Galicia. The works variously take the form of portraits that reflect on the philosophers’ legacies, creative renderings of their personal spaces, and meditations on their lives and deaths.
For Vega, this interest in the past is deeply rooted in the present. “In the twelfth century, the religious harmony was only present for a few decades,” he said. “My emphasis on the past and present is to point out how fragile peace and ‘brotherly love’ are. We have had a semi-sustained peacetime since the Second World War, and it’s our responsibility to disarm this argument that religion and faith are insurmountable obstacles. In every interaction, we must look for points of commonality in humanity rather than the instinctive fear for the stranger or foreigner.”
To this end, his works also reference modern-day figures, like Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist for female education and teenage Nobel Prize laureate, who, when faced with injustice and inequality, risked everything to fight back. “Education is the key to embrace diversity, and that is why people like Malala are such important role models,” said Vega. “The forces of conservatism are so ingrained in each of us that every generation has to build the argument for empathy and compassion and thinking beyond the small group we all belong to.”
Through the exhibition, Vega not only explores an often-overlooked age of cultural and religious enlightenment, but also encourages visitors to engage with our present moment through the lens of these figures. Below, he shares the thinking behind a selection of works in the show.
—Abby Margulies for Guernica
The philosopher and legal scholar Averroes is best known for spurring the revival of Aristotelian thought by rescuing it from the forgotten libraries in Babylon, translating it, and developing extensive commentary on Aristotle’s writings, which was then disseminated to Christian Spain and to universities throughout the rest of Europe. Aristotelian thinking privileges reason above any other quality as a means to discerning truth. Averroes died in exile, and his body was returned to Cordoba strapped to a donkey, with bundles of his writings serving as a counterweight. Later, these same works were burned as Spain fell to a conservative caliph. Here, I depict the sad irony of this great thinker brought to burial in such a plain manner. Blue rocks mark the philosopher’s grave and the distant hills are collaged with pages from Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra.
Alphonse the Wise was king of Castile, Leon, and Galicia. His diverse court included Jewish, Muslim, and Christian scholars who founded the Toledo School of Translators, in which thinkers from all three faiths worked together on translating religious, astronomical, medical, and historical texts. Ultimately, Alphonse’s governing principle of brotherly love did not bode well with the aristocracy and civil war forced him to find a safe place in Seville where he remained until the end of his life. Some historians speculated that he lost his mind.
In this piece, I represent the dualism of Alphonse on one side, and on the left the urban planning of the cities where religious coexistence took place. My portrait of Alphonse has a visual catch: his feet are turned backward while he is facing the viewer, and his arm is coated with an engraved sheet of lead. Alphonse was involved in urban planning and that side has small canvases with universal themes such as death, the cosmos, or diagrams of relationships. In this work, I have employed materials often used in construction–glazed tiles, aluminum tape, and an ultraviolet coating. For the past year and a half I was involved in several renovation projects and these materials found a way to my worktable.
Born in Cordoba, Maimonides and his family left the city when he was ten to escape from invading armies from North Africa. He and his family found temporary refuge in the house of the Averroes in Almeria before crossing the Mediterranean for the coast of Africa, and finally settling in Cairo. A Jewish philosopher, astronomer, scholar, and doctor, Maimonides worked as the physician to the Egyptian royal family, but also gave back to the poor. He was so hardworking—a doctor during the day, and then spending his free evenings doing charity work for the Jewish community—but he still had time to write theology and poetry. This work is me imagining Maimonides’s creative space. I like to think of people like Maimonides as artists, and their studios, with such a broad range of sources, as a metaphor for global learning. This work takes the form of a freestanding wall, with a view of the cosmos on one side, and a kind of interior with figures and symbols of food and drink—my conceptualization of Maimonides’s studio, or the place where he came to write and focus.
I grew up in North Africa and my nanny was a Muslim woman who did not have a formal education. I discovered how difficult her life was as a widow who had to provide for her five children without any male help. Her influence early in my life sensitized me toward the role of women, especially in rural areas of the Arab world.
This work is a portrait of Malala, who is not a philosopher, but is the daughter of Ziauddin Yousafzai, a teacher in Pakistan, who brought attention to the unfairness of limiting education only to men in Pakistan. The world has witnessed this young girl evolve from an idealistic child to a world force, advocating for education for girls by creating the Malala Fund, which aims to provide girls with twelve years of free, safe, and quality primary and secondary education. Here I portray Malala studying with the help of a propane lamp, which gives off fumes that take the shape of portraits of women (depicted in the form of stamps) who have trailed before her: suffragettes, Eleanor Roosevelt, Indira Gandhi, Jane Austen, Oprah Winfrey, the virgin of Guadalupe, Rosa Park, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, among many others.
I have long been interested in postage stamps because they serve as little time capsules of the aesthetics, values, history, and aspirations of each nation. I like tracing how the subjects evolve from kings, presidents, and political figures to represent the broader cultural role models of every society, becoming a platform for integration, social justice, popular culture, or even slogans promoting “love” or “give.” Stamps mimic human intentions and how humanity moves from generation to generation. They are a means to track human aspiration and intentions of the soul, which are as countless as the stars.
Stamps are like stars in that I only have access to a small amount of all the stamps that have circulated in the world. In this composition I wanted to experiment with movement spreading, converging, and synchronizing like a cosmic dance. The title references this constantly moving process. The works are made by force—impacting the lead sheet with a chisel to expose the stamps on the canvas underneath. Often people interpret these marks as bullet holes and I like that association; when new thinkers first shared their work, they were all too often shocking and sometimes violently received.
For this work, I have organized the stamps by gender, arranging the male and female collections to appear as interacting galaxies in a harmonious integration. This may sound easy, but it is a real achievement, as most stamps of women have only been produced since World War II. They are now produced more frequently than they used to be, but there is still not enough representation of women on stamps. Placed on the canvas is a glass ball, which was once used for fortune-telling, and now magnifies a picture of a white pigeon, a symbol of the Holy Spirit and peace. It represents the whisper of God that has a place in all of us, making Him sometimes visible.