Art, Dreams and Miracles: Reflections and Representations
Location SOAS Senate House - S311
Date and Start Time 03 Jun, 2018 at 11:00
Sessions 3


  • Nada Al-Hudaid (University of Manchester) email

Mail All Convenors

Discussant Lydia Degarrod (California College of the Arts), Ammara Maqsood (University of Manchester)

Short abstract

This conference panel will explore the relationship between art and the oneiric experiences (dreams, miracles, visitations and/or visions) and how such encounters are materialised. Papers that explore this topic ethnographically are welcome.

Long abstract

Oneiric experiences among various communities are translated into reality in different ways; stories, sermons, specific actions and art (Degarrod 2017, Edgar 2016, Mittermaier 2011, Price-Williams and Gaines 1994). This conference panel will explore the area between art, miracles and dream experiences cross-culturally. Papers that explore this topic ethnographically are welcome.

Some dreams and miracles may be represented through art such as painting, poetry, song and dance. The creative process of translating dreams and miracles to various art forms can be significant and may lead to specific social encounters, controversies, or actions. Studying such encounters enables us to learn more about modes of representation and states of reality. Any type of art (visual, oral, written or performative) is welcome. Papers that include non-textual media such as video, sound recordings, photography and illustrations are highly encouraged. All types of dreams and miracles are welcome, whether religious or secular.

Papers can include (but not restricted to) any of the following themes:

- How do dreams and/or miracles get materialised?

- What role does art play in representations of dream and miraculous experiences?

- What theories are there that speak about representations of oneiric experiences?

- What are the theoretical and ethnographic challenges of researching dreams and miracles?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


A Quest for the Dragon's Egg in the Artworld of Mohd. Din Mohd.

Author: Douglas Farrer (University of Guam) email

Short abstract

Malaysian artist Mohammad Din Mohammad embarked upon a hunt for the mysterious dragon's egg. Here we trace the artist's 'dragon journey': a lifetime quest to articulate knowledge and skills honed in Malay martial arts, Sufi lore, and indigenous healing through fine art, jewelry, and sculpture.

Long abstract

During fieldwork in Malaysia and Singapore the artist Mohammad Din Mohammad recounted to me his quest in search of the mysterious dragon's egg. This narrative provides an ethnographic and symbolic gateway into his life and artworld, which is suffused with orang asli and Malay plant and animal spirits, demons, and ghosts. The artist combined his knowledge (ilmu) of Malay martial arts, Sufi lore, and indigenous medicine to articulate a shadow ontology encapsulated in fine art, jewelry, and sculpture. Beyond 'agency' in artwork, I wish to regard Mohammad Din's oeuvre from a theoretical ground of 'immanence', and 'potentia', to raise questions pertaining to representation, materiality, and the State in Southeast Asia. My 'paper' combines text, still photography, recorded depth-interviews, and film to present the artist's miraculous fine art and dreamlike dialogue in search of the dragon's egg.

The Trickster at Rest: Andalusian Dreams in the Maqamat al-Saraqusti

Author: Brad Fox (CUNY Graduate Center / City College) email

Short abstract

This paper will look at the nested disinformation in the dreams recounted within the the 13th Century Andalusian Maqamat al-Saraqusti, considering the implications of tricksterism within the Islamic tradition of dreams and dream interpretation.

Long abstract

Badi al-Zaman Hamadhani attributed the need to travel the world collecting stories of schemes and ruses to the onset of "evil dreams." But when he formed the tales he amassed into his tenth-century Maqamat, or "Assemblies," there was not a single dream included. Neither are there dreams in the imitation by Hariri—whose Maqamat was at one point nearly as widely read as the Qur'an. It would be almost three centuries before the Andalusian writer, Muhammad al-Saraqusti, included dreams and dream-interpreters within the trickster tales of the maqamat form. Given the central place dreams are granted within Islamic tradition—the prophet himself was an interpreter—the conspicuous absence of such stories in Hamadhani and Hariri draws our attention to the dreams that do appear in the Maqamat al-Saraqusti. This paper will look at the dreams recounted in chapters 43 and 50. As in every chapter, the narrator al-Saib Ibn Tammam is fooled and outwitted by his nemesis Abu Habib, who appears in Chapter 43 posing as an elderly ranter who recounts dreams of the lost nobility of times gone by, and in Chapter 50 as a solitary mystic who has recanted his scheming ways, having been instructed to do so in dreams. These stories of nested disinformation associate the narrative term plot with subterfuge and assassination. Emerging from a tradition that rests on the earthy and everyday, it is possible to see in Saraqusti's Maqamat an argument that such delusional energy is also binding.

'Mirages are common here': oneiric mediations in artistic responses to the Nigeria-Biafra war

Author: Matthew Lecznar (University of Sussex) email

Short abstract

This paper explores the significance of oneiric mediation in select artistic responses to the Nigeria-Biafra war. It argues that the recurrence of dreams, visions and mirages in these art works make manifest alternative, intersubjective and partly unknowable versions of its entangled legacies.

Long abstract

Towards the end of Chris Abani's novel Song for Night, which is set in the midst of an unnamed war reminiscent of the Nigeria-Biafra war (1967-1970), the narrator observes of his surroundings that '[m]irages are common here'. Building upon this perception, this paper studies the significance and recurrence of moments of oneiric mediation - in the form of dreams, visions and mirages - in artistic responses to the Nigeria-Biafra war. The internecine conflict, waged between the Nigerian state and the breakaway eastern region, resulted in a humanitarian emergency and Biafra's eventual capitulation. Despite not being widely commemorated in the country today, the conflict has become a vital imaginative touchstone for creative writers and artists concerned with mediating Nigeria's postcolonial history. This paper suggests that moments and forms of oneiric expression - in novels such as Abani's Song for Night and Ben Okri's Dangerous Love, as well as in paintings by artists such as Ben Enwonwu and Middle Art - offer a useful prism through which this multivalent mediating impulse in the post-war Nigerian arts can be illuminated. By synthesising Bill Ashcroft's theorisation of dreaming and utopianism in Caribbean literature and Augustine Nwoye's psychological study of dreaming in African contexts, it contends that oneiric expressions and experiences represent a destabilising as well as generative mechanism in these works. By refracting the history of Biafra through various oneiric lenses, they engage in a form of ethical mediation, making manifest alternative, intersubjective and partly unknowable versions of its entangled legacies.

Dreams, Art Making, and Ethnographic Knowledge

Author: Lydia Nakashima Degarrod (California College of the Arts) email

Short abstract

This paper presentation will explore the use of art making in advancing ethnographic research on dreams. It presents two interdisciplinary projects which combined visual art and ethnographic research.

Long abstract

Dreams, as internal and multimodal experiences, pose challenges to ethnographers in translating or conveying these experiences using traditional ethnographic methods. Using examples from two interdisciplinary projects that I created combining visual art and ethnographic research, I discuss the role of art making in advancing the ethnographic research on dreams, and their gallery exhibits as venues to provide alternative forms for transmission of ethnographic experiences. I also discuss problems and issues associated with using this ethnographic approach.

I present the creation and exhibition of Heavens of the Imagination which included 33 paintings I made based on the narratives of dreams of visiting heaven of the Chilean Mapuche. I show how the making of the paintings illuminated my ethnographic understanding of the concept of the küme, the beauty described by the Mapuche dreamers. I also present the creation and exhibition of the installation Atlas of Dreams which included paintings I created of the places where San Francisco residents narrated their memorable dreams, and the audio recordings of their accounts. In both of these examples, the process oriented aspect of art making, involving a series of embodied activities, created stages which allowed me, as the ethnographer/artist, to reflect on and engage in embodied forms of learning. Artmaking also created a vehicle for the sharing of these experiences between the ethnographer and the interlocutors. Finally, these exhibits presented alternative forms of ethnography by transmitting socially embodied forms of ethnographic knowledge to the audiences that differed from the solitary readings of text.

An infrastructure of images across the everyday life, the digital and the Imaginal realm

Author: Karen Waltorp (Aarhus University) email

Short abstract

In working across modalities and registers in body and mind, this paper suggests digital technologies and dreams as particular techniques for researching questions anthropologically. Collage-work and film excerpts are shared as part of a discussion on representation of material in these modalities.

Long abstract

In working across modalities and registers in body and mind, this paper suggests digital technologies and dreams as particular techniques for researching questions anthropologically (Waltorp 2017). Dreams, among the young Muslim women in Copenhagen I work with, are understood as relating to the future. This is to be understood in connection with the concept of the imaginal realm (alam al-mithâl) (cf. Chittick 1994; Corbin 1976; Marks 2016), also described as the world of 'Images in suspense' (mothol mo'allaqa) (Corbin 1976:10). The analogy of images in suspense is the reflection in a mirror - describing the relation of images to the empirical world. This has a resemblance to the 'selfies' and other digital images in social media that my interlocutors share with others, particularly in the Snapchat platform, where an image shared will cease to exist after ten seconds. (Waltorp 2017). Through looking at this infrastructure of images, I could analyse certain events that occurred during fieldwork in Copenhagen, and interrogate how dreaming and digital technologies are ways of enduring hardships patiently (sabr), and of simultaneously seeking to facilitate a better future. Collage-work and film excerpts are shared as part of a discussion on representation of material in these modalities.

Happenings Live on the Surface of Dreams

Author: Chris de Selincourt (London College of Communication) email

Short abstract

Our approach to dreams is often limited by conceptual language or fixed cultural conditions. Artists can play a role in taking the public beyond such constraints. This paper examines the material environments artists have produced for transforming audiences' attitudes toward their oneric experience.

Long abstract

Since the 1960s two contrasting strategies have emerged in the UK in artist's work in relation to dreams. These two strategies transfer authorship, in the understanding of dreams, from an external source toward aesthetic judgments generated by audiences themselves. One approach has waking audiences encounter the performer asleep and the material analogue of their dream. For example 'Studies Towards an Experiment into the Structure of Dreams'; a collaboration between Mark Boyle, Joan Hills and Gaziella Martinez, which materialized dream activity in a sound and light show. The show ran for seventy performances in the winter of 1967 at the Arts Lab in Drury Lane, London - a setting of temporary autonomy for the communitas of young minds transformed by the liminal state of British culture during that period. In contrast Luke Jerram's installation 'Dream Director', which last toured the UK in 2007, had audiences of strangers sleep overnight within a gallery space and experience their own dreams within the artwork. Both strategies are united in treating the dream as a live happening rather than attempting to represent its content after the event.

Why make art in relation to dreams but without representing dream content? The artworks discussed in this paper reflect the material conditions from which the dream state emerges but avoid the conditions of meaning that absorb its psychic potential. They might sit uncomfortably in relation to art and science, but create an experimental setting whose analysis might help to reveal changes in cultural attitudes toward the dream and public space.

Restoring the Faith: Vernacular repainting of Catholic devotional statuary in Ireland. A photographic documentation by Tim Daly.

Author: Tim Daly (University of Chester) email

Short abstract

The act of repainting and retouching allows devotees to re-tell miracle stories by proxy. Layering their own narratives onto figure groups and tableaux, this act of restoration and reconstitution provides essential maintenance to the community shrine and spiritual redemption for the decorator.

Long abstract

Catholic devotional statuary, shrines and grottoes are a widespread and familiar sight in the Irish landscape. Rather than carved from marble, many are cast from concrete, fibreglass or plaster and require ongoing maintenance from the pervasive damp climate. Using non-traditional materials such as house paint and pebbledash local church dignitary and devotees extend their personal faith by adding the sign of their own hand to familiar tableaux. Without the sculptors grasp of form and without a painters eye for symbolism, this vicarious act of creation however, show official stories retold in a local visual dialect. Whilst not the primary narrators of miracles and visions, these statues and groups are treated as blank templates ready for customisation and local interpretation.

In this paper, I will show a photographic documentation of these artefacts; this is flexible to be presented either as an illustrated talk, a series of prints, a projection or any combination of these.

Art and Karamat (Miracles) among Shia Artists in Kuwait

Author: Nada Al-Hudaid (University of Manchester) email

Short abstract

In Kuwait, art serves as a mediation between Shia artists, God and Ahl Al-Bayt. The exchange of service with the latter results in specific rewards and gifts Known as Karamat. This paper will give an overview of how art is used as service to saints and what type of encounters are known as Karamat.

Long abstract

In the west and most academic literature, it is believed that figures are forbidden in Islam and Islamic art is mainly known in the form of architecture, textile, ceramics and geometrical shapes. In this paper, I will briefly present an art form that is very common among Shia in the Arabian Gulf, notably in Kuwait and it is all about figures.

The term Karamat does not have a direct translation in English. It can be a kind of a miracle or a marvel, depending on context. Karamah (sig)/Karamat (plu) stems from the Arabic noun Karam which means generosity and it can be a verb by adding and removing some letters which gives a range of meanings like hospitable, kindness, and respectable. One of the important pillars in the Shia faith is the belief in Ghayb (the unknown) which gives a platform for topics like karamat and dreams to be taken seriously.

Mu'jizat and Karamat can be both translated as miracles. Mittermaier (2015) discusses the difference between these two terms in the context of Egypt and states that Mu'jizat is used among Muslim and Christian circles, whereas Karamat is generally only used by Muslims and it refers to saint's miraculous deeds which are different from those of prophets. By focusing on two stories, I shall draw upon the type of art prevailing in the region, what role a karamah has and how it is different from place like Egypt for instance.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.