Arts Listings

Images of the Buddha and of Nigerienne Men and Women

By Peter Selz Special to the Planet
Thursday August 13, 2009 - 10:28:00 AM
Garaya, by Susan Matthews.
Garaya, by Susan Matthews.

Two notable artists currently share the exhibition space at the Graduate Theological Union Library. They both produce very different paintings, based on photographs. 

Cherie Raciti’s paintings are the result of an elaborate process which begins with a photo of a sculpture of a Buddha head, seen from the back, which she transforms to line drawings and then transfers, adding water-based paints, to wood panels on which she builds shallow relief paintings of subdued color. The results are low-relief paintings which communicate calmness and tranquility. Raciti’s work, going back to an exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum in 1972, is basically abstract, and she states that these paintings are not to be “interpreted as religious or votive images.”  

By contrast, Susan Matthews’ portraits of African men and women, based on photographs she took in Niger, strike the viewer with their spiritual power, reminding us of Greek or Russian icons. Matthews, aware of the tradition of Byzantine painting, uses gold, copper and silver metal leaf paint to transport these portraits into a spiritual realm, suggesting timeless space. The golden background of these portraits is also due to the dust powder that fills the air in the dry desert in Sahel at the edge of the Sahara. Matthews was a welcome visitor in Niger, where her brother had been living for many years, and she was able to observe and photograph the men, women and children of these nomadic tribes at work and at rest. They wear shells and other found jewelry as talisimans and have scars on their skins. In fact, Niger slaves, that were brought to the New World were able to identify each other by their scarification. Garaya (2009) depicts a beautiful young man with his penetrating eyes turning to the sky. He would sing resoundingly and play a two-stringed musical instrument, called Garaya, which is shown in the lower left of the panel. Combining skilled realistic portraiture with traditional iconography, these paintings are also the work of a modernist painter, who placed the head against a background of flat, diamond-shaped geometric design, which emphasizes the two-dimensional essence of the picture plane.