Part of a visual pilgrimage toward Easter, this piece is the fifth in a series of spiritual meditations by Griffin Oleynick, who will visit a different art gallery each week through the season of Lent. Catch up on past installments here.
Ahmed Mater: Mecca Journeys, on view at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, December 1, 2017 through April 8, 2018
In the 16th-century spiritual classic Ascent of Mt. Carmel, the Spanish mystic and Carmelite friar St. John of the Cross warns readers that if they want to know God, they must travel by an unknown path. Even the most sincere seekers, afraid of losing control over their inner lives, often succumb to the temptation of mapping the contours of their prayer in advance. As a remedy John counsels radical obedience to the will of God (the same attitude adopted by Jesus, as Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews reminds us this Fifth Sunday of Lent), which entails abandoning all preconceptions concerning the shape and destination of one’s spiritual journey. This willful vulnerability prepares us for pilgrimage, where God alone reveals the way we are to walk.
John would have been hard pressed to find a better student than Ahmed Mater, the Saudi-born artist whose new exhibit, Mecca Journeys, brings us inside the rapidly changing cityscape of one of the world’s great pilgrimage destinations. On view at the Brooklyn Museum through April 8, Mater’s multimedia show uses photography, large-scale video, and sculptural installations to document Mecca’s unprecedented urban renewal, which has completely reshaped the spiritual home of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims in the short space of a single decade.
With as many as 3 million pilgrims now arriving in Mecca during the annual hajj, the Saudi government has encouraged massive infrastructure and hotel construction to accommodate the increase in traffic. These developments have greatly accelerated since the 1970s, with 95 percent of the city’s historic sites and more than 400 historically significant buildings disappearing in that time (the scale of demolition is reflected in the seal of the municipal government, which prominently features the image of a bulldozer). Much of the cost has been borne by the city’s poorest residents, whose neighborhoods are systematically leveled and replaced with blocks of expensive towers, pushing them further into the shadows. Mater approaches these dynamics critically, but tempers his observations with a degree of humility and inquisitiveness that invites viewers to ponder slowly and draw their own conclusions.