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Portfolio Introduction


Mason Hsieh


Culture & Belief 12

Portfolio Introduction

On the first day of class, Professor Asani explained how the inspiration behind his unconventional grading style was to push his students to think in new ways to acquire knowledge. The goal of the course was to get us to think outside of the box. Thus the class was not only about religion, but about creativity as well. It was this aspect of Professor Asani’s pedagogy that I fell in love in with. I was so intrigued by this unconventional creativity aspect that I really took this to heart and modeled my portfolio after it. While the portfolio is a collection of creative interpretations on traditional religious discourses, I challenged myself to find unconventional ways to conceptualize them, thus inspiring my innovative visions. My goal was to take the least likely path to depicting the major themes in the class. While this goal in and of itself is a major theme that underlies the inspiration of my creative projects, the projects themselves can be categorized under the major themes of religious “light” and visualization.

When I started the class, I was afraid that I would be unable to come up with works of art under such structured time constraints. Six projects in thirteen weeks, I thought to myself, how could creativity be forced into such a short period of time? While I initially grappled with finding inspiration in the selected readings, I ultimately found that the Islamic concept of “ayat” applied to the creative process.

“Ayats” or signs of God, is an Islamic belief that God is everywhere. Allah is in nature and manifested in everything we see. As stated in the Quran, “wheresoever you look is the face of God” (Quran 2:115). Through starting my creative projects, I found that creativity functions as an analogous construct. Once I began actively looking for creativity in the readings, I found that it was in fact everywhere. Inspiration was in lecture, section, the films we watched, and everywhere I looked.

As an artist outside of the classroom, I realized that I did not have to sit and wait for inspiration to hit me to create works of art. Creativity was an ayat. Perhaps creativity is a godly endeavor, or perhaps it is a gift from God himself. Either way, the class has awakened an active creative mind within me, which I plan to continue and cultivate. It is this creative mind that has led me to the fun, unconventional art pieces that make up my portfolio.

The challenge of creating unconventional art pieces can be seen as the most obvious underlying theme of my collection. I really wanted to think outside of the box and create pieces that no one else would think of: pieces that were truly my own. One of the main ways of achieving this was by taking the focus of discussion readings and reinterpreting them in a completely different medium. For example, the aural Quranic recitation became a visual, synesthetic picture. Standard, linear calligraphy became three-dimensional as a tangible sundial. Poems of love and birds became narrative pictures and origami sculptures respectively. By reinterpreting these readings in entirely different fashions, I was able to fully personalize my creative projects. Ultimately, I am very proud of my completed portfolio. I see it as an accurate representation of my creative mind: fun, unconventional, and colorful. All in all, the creative responses are all art pieces that I would be proud to show my judgmental, Asian parents.

The concept of Light is a major motif in the Islamic tradition, and thus, thematically pervades my portfolio. “God is the Light of the heavens and the earth….God guides to His Light whom He wills (Qu’ran 24:35). Similarly, the light of Muhammad and the prophets is particularly noteworthy. All the prophets, especially Muhammad, are said to have a light within them that makes them beacons to guide others to God’s divine message. Because this idea of light is important to the Islamic discourse, I tried to incorporate it into my creative projects.

All of my projects, both literally and figuratively represent at least one aspect of light. The most explicit links can be seen in the calligraphy project and the n’at poem. The two pieces directly relate to God and Muhammad as figures of light. My calligraphy project, a three-dimensional carving of the word “Allah” as the centerpiece of a sundial explicitly highlights Allah’s power over light. While God is light, light controls time. In this piece, “Allah” literally controls light and the lack thereof. The carving determines where the shadow falls and thus, what time it is. In a similar vein, the n’at poem indicates the importance of Muhammad and the guidance that he provides. The poem proclaims the power and warmth of Muhammad’s spiritual light. The narrator professes his love for Muhammad, suggesting that this love in a sense is another guiding light.

The rest of the creative projects are linked to light as well, but represent a less explicit correlation. These projects are primarily visual, and since light is a necessary component for sight, light plays a big role in how these art pieces are perceived. I categorize these creative projects as visual interpretations of the non-visual themes in the discussion readings. These are the projects that I think really highlight my “outside of the box” creativity. For example, my interpretations of the Quranic recitation and ghazal imagery manifested themselves in visual pictures. I took the original audial and poetic prose and gave them physical forms. In a similar vein, the origami bird sculpture makes a theoretical creature into a tangible figure. To see such projects, one needs vision and light. Light also comes into play in the coloring, shading and shadows of these visual pictures and sculptures.

My personal experience with the art has deepened my connection to the class content. By allowing myself to work with the material on more than just an analytic sense, I have engaged with the content on a mental and visceral level. Before I can take any creative liberties on a discussion reading, I must first fully understand the material and what it is saying. I need to truly grasp the essence of the literature before I can reinterpret it. So to create my projects, I must understand and soak of the meanings behind the readings. Then I let this understanding fuel my creative process. I find that I do not bond with other class’s material in much the same.

Many of the art projects also gave me a first-hand view into Islamic culture I would not have gotten through my normal life. For example, when drawing my visual depiction of the Quranic recitations, I had to listen to the audio recordings on a loop. This allowed me to focus in on the individual sounds. I got to luxuriate the articulation, voice quality and flow of the reader. I also listened to six different recitations of the same verse, something I would never have taken the time to do in my daily life. However, by forcing myself to really focus in on the nuances of the six different readings, I got to experience, first hand, how individualized and beautiful the different recitations can be.

Similarly, though I have no personal experience with Sufi ecstasy, the process of folding cranes for my Simurgh sculpture put me in a meditative state of mind which is the closest equivalent that I have experienced. At moments, while repeating the same hand movements to fold 30 cranes, I realized my mind was completely blank. I almost felt as if I was distanced from my body. I am not sure what Sufi ecstasy feels like, but by engaging in this repetitive motion in an attempts to reinterpret a Sufi poem, I may have gotten closer than ever before.

Many of the art pieces mean a lot to me, as the mediums I use are reminiscent of my childhood and family. Two of the pieces are done in crayon, which in an odd sense seems almost sacrilegious to myself. As a child, coloring with crayon was an activity I did exclusively with my mother. I would not color alone. I would only allow myself to use crayons in her presence. The Quranic Interpretation is the first time I have used crayons without my mother around. Metaphorically, this is huge step for me. In a sense, it represents me stepping out of my childhood role and into my own independence.

The origami cranes and poster on Western and Islamic dress similarly represent mediums that remind me of my sister and father, respectively. My sister taught me to fold origami, and we would sit in silence and make cranes, penguins, frogs, and every other animal under the sun. The poster, on the other hand, is done primarily in graphite, my father’s preferred medium. He taught me how to shade and contour graphite as well as sharpen and define edges. Thus, I incorporated many of my familial influences into my art projects. They were the ones who taught me how to make art, so it seems only fitting that they are commemorated in my creative pieces.

In conclusion, the creative aspect of this course has helped me learn about religion, creativity and myself. On the most basic of levels, the class is on Islam, a completely foreign tradition and religion to me. By making art to represent Islamic themes, I have bonding with these concepts on a deep level. The ones I have connected with most, and are showcased in this portfolio, are those of “Light” and visualization. As an artist, the creative deadline forced inspiration out of me, and pushed me to grow. It started a creative flame within me that I did not know I had. Finally, by utilizing unconventional mediums, I have made personal connections with and through the art pieces. Ultimately, this portfolio can be seen as a study on the unconventional side of my mind. It represents unconventional, scholarly projects; nontraditional interpretations and mediums; and unusual personal connections. Thus, Professor Asani’s innovative class has truly challenged the way I think about learning.



Posters for Persepolis (Week 12)


Mason Hsieh


This creative project was inspired by the art and message of freedom in Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi. The graphic novel is an autobiographic recounting of her childhood during the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The first page is of the comic is of her in a veil. She is ten years old and clearly not enthusiastic about this fashion choice. The veil itself became obligatory for all Iranian women to wear during this time period and came to symbolize both traditional religion and female oppression. As Marjane reaches adolescence, she, like many of her friends becomes obsessed with the Western life style. She buys jean jackets, Kim Wilde and the Camel cassette tapes, and even convinces her parents to smuggle in posters of her favorite American musicians. This leads to an odd dynamic as her body represents the synthesis of “East” and “West.” She is partially dressed in Western clothes, but has her hair veiled.

The discourse on Western and Islamic fashion and freedom really intrigued me. In the Western world, women are “free” to dress as they please, but often times are forced by the media and societal gaze to objectify themselves. Feminist theorists often critize this system, maintaining that Western women are “slaves” to the public’s gaze. On the other hand, in Marjane’s world and much of the Islamic sphere, women veil themselves. The argument has been made that the veil actually “liberates” women as it frees them from the judgmental, sexualizing gaze of society. However, in Marjane’s case, the veil has been imposed and forced upon her. It is national law that she veils herself in public.

Thus, my project is supposed to be a political poster that speaks to this debate over freedom in Western fashion and Islamic clothing. It questions which culture actually liberates their women. The woman on the left is veiled. Though this is not the type of veiling that Marjane has to undergo, it is an “extreme” form of veiling that I used to further juxtapose the two models. Only the veiled woman’s eyes are visible. On the other hand, the woman on the right is dressed in “Western” clothing. While this is also by no means the standard American fashion sense, I used the skimpy shirt and naked midriff to highlight how much of the Western woman’s body can be shown and still be culturally acceptable. This woman’s eyes are blacked out, suggesting that she is not seen as a real person by society. I implicate the viewer through my slogan. I ask them to look at the two women and decide who is more liberate. Is it the woman hidden behind the veil and may have no right to display her body in public, or the woman who feels she must objectify herself to the controlling social gaze? I ultimately ask the viewer to think about “Who sees freedom.”


Constructing the Conference of the Birds (Week 10)


Mason Hsieh


The Conference of the Birds is an epic, mystical poem about 30 birds that venture out to find the “Simurgh,” a theoretical bird “God.” When the birds finally find the “Simurgh” they simply see a reflection of themselves. It is important to note that Si-murgh literally means “30 birds.” If the birds are metaphorical representations of humanity and their quest to find the Simurgh is religion, then the Simurgh itself represents Allah.

When I first read this, it made me question what Allah and the individual are. Are we all part of Allah, or is Allah in all of us?  In the case of the birds, do the collective group of 30 birds make of the Simurgh, or is a part of the Simurgh’s essence in each of the 30 birds? Thus, my creative project was literally a representation of this.

I started off by folding 30 individual origami cranes to represent each bird that ultimately made the journey the find the Simurgh.

I then taped the birds together in the shape of a larger origami crane to represent the Simurgh.Thus, this sculpture literally represents the Simurgh (the bird diety) and Si-murgh (30 birds).

This sculpture answers my original questions. The individual birds are all parts of the larger Simurgh whole, but also have a piece of the Simurgh within themselves. As a religious extension, we are all part of Allah, but carry a piece of Allah within us.

On a slightly related note: the poem is also part of the Sufi mystical tradition, where practitioners seek ecstatic experiences, or a brief connection with Allah. The process folding cranes, for me, actually felt like one such experience. I started folding the birds as a break from my studies and paper writing during Reading Period. I realized that the repetitive motion while set to classical music helped me clear my mind. At certain points it almost felt as if I left my body and could see myself folding paper cranes from a third person perspective. Though this may not be a religious experience per se, it was an important experience to me as it was the closest thing I have personally felt to the Sufi experience of ecstasy.


Visualizing Ghazals (Week 9)



My fourth creative project is a mixed medium picture of a boy reaching out to his beloved as she flies away from him towards the moon. The moon is also an eye weeping green tears. Behind the boy, there is a tree with flame colored leaves. This picture is my attempt to visually depict the themes often used in ghazals.

As Agha Shahid Ali puts it, ghazals are about an ‘ashiq (lover) who is, “by definition, hopelessly in love with an indifferent, even cruel, beloved and is therefore generally miserable” (Ali 3). Therefore, a major theme in ghazals is that of separation. The ‘ashiq is in love with a woman he is far away from or cannot be with. Similarly, a commonly mentioned place where the ‘ashiq finds himself is, “the garden…where he sits alone…waiting in vain for a glimpse of her” (Ali 8). This is what inspired the figure of the boy sitting on a hill. He reaches towards his fleeing lover, arms stretched out in yearning to be with her. His devotion to her is so extreme that he has fallen to his knees, practically prostrating himself in desire to be with her.

Much of the imagery in ghazals focuses on the beauty and form of the ‘ashiq’s beloved. The beloved’s height and stature is often likened to that of a tall, elegant cypress tree or candle (Ali 6). Thus, in my interpretation, the black tree behind the ‘ashiq is my interpretation of a cypress tree. Cypresses are coniferous, so their leaves do not change colors. Thus while the red and orange coloring looks like foliage, it is actually the tree set aflame. This not only represents the ‘ashiq’s burning love for his beloved, but also likens the tree to a candle.

Commonly, the sight of the moon, “reminds him of his beloved’s beautiful, lustrous face” (Ali 4). I took this image to link the ‘ashiq and the fantasy of his beloved. While his beloved is flying away from him towards the moon, the moon itself is the ‘ashiq’s weeping eye. I ultimately wanted to suggest that the ‘ashiq could simply be remembering his beloved. The inversion of colors speaks to this affect. The grass is blue while the tears are green. This ultimately suggests that the ‘ashiq is not seeing clearly and in fact, may be imagining the image of his beloved while he gazes sadly up at the moon.


Reinterpretation of the Ta’ziyeh (Week 5)


Creative Response 3

“The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husain” is an English translation of a typical ta’ziyeh script.  The t a’ziyeh is a dramatic reenactment of Husain’s martyrdom at Karbala and has become a long ingrained ritual in Shiia culture. It is performed every year to allow the audience members to take part in and relive the experiences and grief of losing their religious leader Husain. Though most ta’ziyeh scripts are passed down orally, “The Miracle” is written in English in the style of a Shakespearean play. Personally, I find this esoteric language taxing and hard to understand. It is particularly difficult for to get swept away by the characters and story purely based on the abstruse language. A large part of a traditional ta’ziyeh performance is audience interaction and emotional connection to the story, and if the audience cannot follow the story, or feels removed from the characters because of incomprehensible language, the play cannot succeed in evoking emotions and feelings of loss, grief and piety. Thus, I reinterpreted the play as a modern day movie.

The sample scene I wrote focuses on the part where Husain and the Darwish are talking about Husain’s martyrdom after he and his family have been surrounded and are cut off from water. I updated the language and setting, placing Husain and the Darwish in the visitation room of a jail cell.

I chose this scene to highlight Husain’s untapped powers and abilities as an intercessor. Husain speaks of how he could command unimaginable things to happen because of his direct tie to Allah, drawing attention to his power as a spiritual intercessor. Yet he chooses to die of thirst and allows his family to as well, so they can be martyrs for his people. Thus, I set the scene in a jail to translate the same message. The Darwish and audience believe that Husain has been passively thrown into his fate, yet Husain has chosen to go along with the plan himself. He chooses to be incarcerated. He chooses to die as a selfless act to save others. I use a series of close ups to slowly reveal that Husain is in jail to further emphasize the importance of this choice.

The parenthetical “(O.S.)” that is shown on the side of The Darwish’s lines for the majority of the scene refers to  “Off Screen.” This means the shot is just of Husain, making the audience assume the Darwish in another location, talking to Husain via the phone. Only through the slow reveal is it shown that the Darwish is in fact in the same scene, talking to Husain through the jail phone. However, until this is revealed, the Darwish acts as the audience’s voice and lens. I ultimately used this device to allow for another level of audience interaction in the ta’ziyeh performance. When watching the movie, the audience will feel as if Husain is speaking directly to them, allowing even greater interaction with and emotional attachment to him, allowing the Ta’ziyeh to drive its point home.

Poem Dedicated to Muhammad (Week 4)


Beautiful Light

Oh God’s beloved, the beautiful light

Your golden flame shine through the darkness into

My heart of glass, which without you, shines cold.

You warm my soul from within

Your compassion radiates throughout me

And my body sings with love.


You are a part of me, apart from me,

A section of my soul never truly divorced

But never fully mine to hold.

Your love surrounds me, and though it may never be

Only mine, in your love, my heart shatters

And flows together with all that you are.


I lie here, thinking of your warm love

Wrapped around my rising chest

Your golden flame radiating through my glass.

In this moment, your love is not mine.

Mine is yours, all yours, with all my being.

And though I am only a stoneworker, what you are shapes my heart.



After reading about the different Urdu styles of poetry in praise of the Prophet Muhammad, I was inspired to try my own hand at a N’at. N’at poems are used to, “fervently express [the poet’s] powerful, all-consuming love and devotion” to Muhammad (Asani 173). I chose to write a musaddas, a poem consisting of six-line stanzas, using the major theme of Muhammad as not only a shining, guiding light as often alluded to in the Qur’an, but also a heart warming entity. Many poets use, “language borrowed from the…realm of human romance, while avoiding any explicit eroticism” (Asani 174). Thus, I wrote my poem from the point of view of a lover, lying in bed, desperately missing her beloved. The beloved is in fact Muhammad who not only warms her heart, but also inspires her to be a better, more compassionate person. One of my most peripheral goals was to show that Muhammad is not only God’s beloved, but the speaker’s beloved as well. However, as a mere human, the speaker cannot claim Muhammad’s love for herself. She can however dedicate her love entirely to him. My ultimate goal was to highlight the fact that there is only one ego: God’s ego. Muhammad is the intercessor that allows individuals to fully take part in and understand love for Allah, an entity that is all encompassing, who’s love is infinite. On a more technical note, I also included my takhallus or penname in the last line, as per tradition in N’at poetry. Since my name is Mason, I alluded to it using my penname, “stoneworker.”


Qur’anic Recitation Art (Week 3)


Since the Qur’an is believed to be the direct word of God, recitations of the Qur’an are considered divine experiences in and of themselves. In a sense, the listener is hearing God speak as “the actual sound [is that] of the Divine, the model of perfect beauty” (Nelson 257). A major crux of the Islamic religious experience is placed on this specific practice, yet Qur’anic recitations are highly subjective. The same sura can be read a multitude of different ways, emphasizing and highlighting different aspects of the same text.

I have synesthesia and associate sounds with very distinct images and visual motifs. Since “only in the sound [of the Qur’an] the full miracle is realized” (Nelson 258), I wanted to see what the “divine” looked like to me. Similarly, I was intrigued as to how five different recitations of the same text (Sura Al-Qadr) would manifest themselves in my visual art. Since I do not understand Arabic, I felt as if it would give me a pure visual image of the sounds and melodies uninfluenced by the meaning of the words.

The first recitation by Hajjah Maria Ulah manifested itself as the large, sky-blue shape in the middle of the picture. Ulah’s voice was nasally while similarly fluid and undulating. This inspired the fluid, rounded shapes. However, the repetitions of “Al-Qadr” were unexpected and abrupt, resulting in the sharp points at the tips of the undulations. The fluidity and fluctuation of the recitation evoked images of water, which influenced the blue coloring. I chose to shade the edges of the figure as the recitation sounded full and round, giving it an almost three dimensional appearance in my mind.

Ulah’s second reading came out as the multi-colored, turquoise, red and green shape in the upper left corner. The majority of the imagery came in the form of colors. I did draw some shapes, such as the zig-zag, turquoise square, representing the modulation and vibration of her voice, however I mostly saw pure colors in this reading. The coloring in this section was the deepest and most concentrated as the recitation was strong and loud. The quality of this recitation evoked the most visceral reaction within me. I found this recitation grating and unpleasurable, and it manifested itself in my drawings. The entire left corner of my picture is similarly not aesthetically pleasing.

The grey spirals and curls at the top of the picture represent Sheikh Abdul Basit Abdul Samad’s recitation. The reading was rounded and curling, manifesting themselves in the spiral shapes. The tinny, resonating quality of the recording evoked an image of metal and influenced the grey and silver coloring. Samad’s full voice sounded, “creamy” to me and became the yellow color that fills out the circles.

Sheikh Mahmoud Khalil Al Husary’s reading influenced the rounded, almost “flame” like shapes at bottom left corner. His reading was smoother with fewer abrupt pauses. The sounds flowed into one another, creating the rounded, smooth curves.

Seemi Bushra Ghazi’s reading became the tan curves at bottom right corner. The two words that embody Ghazi’s recitation in my mind are, “sensuous” and “voluptuous.” As soon as the recording started, I immediately saw shapes and colors similar to sand dunes I had seen in the Saharan Desert. I modeled this part of the picture after those.

Though all the recitations took on different forms and colors, there seemed to be a common shape that influenced all the depictions. Though I was not aware of it at the time, all five major shapes took on a similar “U” shaped formation. This may be due to the fact that they are all inspired by the same underlying sounds and text, suggesting that the divine, regardless of how it is conveyed or read, evokes consistent reactions.

Mason’s Calligraphy Project


Calligraphy Project

Mason Hsieh


“God is the light of the heavens and the earth.” (Qur’an 24:35)

I set my calligraphy of Allah as a three dimensional sundial to highlight God’s role as the creator and controller of both light and time. I focused less on the physical shape of the word “Allah” and more on how the shape changes based on light conditions. This speaks to the idea of God as a subjective form. In the Qur’an there are many links drawn between the Ahl Al-Kitab, or the People of the Book. It is believed that these people; the Jews, Christians and Muslims; all derive their religions from the same divine narrative. Thus, one major goal of my calligraphy project was to embody the belief that God is the same overarching concept manifested into different forms depending on the individual’s perspective. Using light and shadows, the image of “Allah” depends solely on what light is shined on it, and as a metaphorical extension, is shaped by the individual’s religious outlook.

My other goal was to showcase God as a figure that transcends time. On a literal level, the word “Allah” in my calligraphy stands above the clock below, on a separate axis. This represents the idea that God transcends our linear concept of time. Similarly, light determines time. Without light, time does ceases to exist. Following this logic, if God is in fact, “the light of the heavens and then earth,” then he is the controller of time. However, time measured on a clock or sundial can be seen as a human invention, while light and God are eternal and undying. My ultimate goal was to suggest that much like time, humans attempt to codify the divine. Whether the supreme being is called God, Allah or Yahweh, divinity transcends our concept of it and may just be a small facet which we grasp at and believe we know.


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