A queer American performance artist, Athey has engaged with religious visual and aural forms throughout his career. Athey’s performances boldly probe the intersection of sexual, religious, and political discourses. Utilizing imagery and ritual actions deeply rooted in Pentecostal traditions of faith-healing as well as Catholic and Orthodox iconography, the artist perforates traditional pieties, enacting new visions of the sacred in their stead. He has performed regularly since the early ’80s, including such significant works as his collaboration with Rozz Williams on the experimental musical project Premature Ejaculation. In the ’90s, Athey explicitly turned his attention to religious motifs in works such as Surgical Stigmata, Martyrs & Saints, and Torture Trilogy, which were assailed by conservative cultural critics. These jeremiads often had as much to do with the artist’s identity as an openly HIV-positive gay man as the content of his work.
Wadada Leo Smith
Born in Mississippi in 1941, composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has a musical background as diverse as his output. Whether playing in blues bands or avant-garde ensembles, Smith has always understood music to be not only an aesthetic practice but a vehicle for historical, political, and religious investigation. His Ankhrasmation Symbolic Language is constituted of symbols and graphemes indicating "rhythm units" through which players could "calibrate the relationship between sound and silence." For Smith, these are fundamental, generative properties of the "divine life force," which act transformatively on players and listeners. Many of Smith’s projects are more overt in their socio-political implications. Cosmic Music focuses on “the issues of borders, refugees, and immigrants.” Tabligh “deals with the issue of the way people look at Islamic ideas and people in Islam.” Smith believes that his music can establish new ethical worlds for audiences, focusing on “creative images that cause people to think in a provocative way” about these and other issues.
With a career spanning more than fifty years, Scorsese is widely regarded as one of the most important directors in American cinema. For scholars of religion, Scorsese’s filmography holds particular significance in its frequent meditations on faith, apostasy, and morality—from allegorical references in works like Cape Fear (1991) to the more overt engagement of religion in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997). Critics have hailed Scorsese’s most recent release, Silence (2016), as a culmination of themes that have influenced his work from the very beginning. Like so many of his films, Silence brings religion into public consciousness and conversation, serving as only the latest example in a long and storied career meriting this recognition by the Religion and the Arts Award Jury.
Sikander is a Pakistani-born American artist whose artwork is deeply rooted in Muslim and Hindu traditions of Indian and Persian miniature painting. From tiny layered drawings that insert the personal into traditional ritual forms, to video projections that re-interpret the miniature for the digital age, Sikander’s work ranges across media, including drawing, painting, large-scale installations, and performance. Her work is owned by numerous modern art collections around the world, and has been exhibited in solo and collective shows throughout Asia, Europe, and North America. In 2004, Newsweek listed Sikander as one of the most important South Asians transforming the American cultural landscape. She is a member of the Asian Art Council at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, and has also served on the artist advisory team for the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
Robinson is an author who continually investigates the place of religion in modern life through her fiction and nonfiction alike. A highly respected professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Iowa, her writing has garnered both national and international recognition including a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, a Hemingway/Pen award, the Orange Prize, the Grawemeyer Award in Religion, the National Humanities Medal, and several nominations for the Man Booker International Prize. Her newest novel, Lila, won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award. Robinson advises that for her, "Religion is a framing mechanism. It is a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions. It talks about the arc of life and the quality of experience in ways that I’ve found fruitful to think about. Religion has been profoundly effective in enlarging human imagination and expression."
Fujimura is an artist and writer whose work represents a spiritual and bicultural contemplation of the world. As a Japanese-American, Fujimura was the first non-native to participate in the Japanese painting doctorate program at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts, and having lived and trained in Japan and the US, he has fused western styles with the traditional Nihonga techniques. Fujimura’s work is internationally recognized: he was a presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts from 2003–2009 and he is the founder of the arts advocacy organization International Arts Movement (IAM). Much of Fujimura’s art is deeply religious. His second book, Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art and Culture, is a collection of essays by contributors of various religious and cultural backgrounds reflecting on art, faith, and the world.
Monk is a composer, singer, director/choreographer, filmmaker, and creator of new opera and music-theater works. Over the last five decades, she has been acclaimed by audiences and critics as a major creative force in the performing arts, and a pioneer in what is now called “extended vocal technique.” In 1968, Ms. Monk founded The House, a company dedicated to an interdisciplinary approach to performance. In 1978, she formed Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble to further expand her musical textures and forms. Ms. Monk has been a practicing Buddhist since 1985 and in 1999 performed a “Vocal Offering” for His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the World Sacred Music Festival.
Cotter, a 2009 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, is one of the most prominent art critics in the United States. He has been a staff art critic for The New York Times since 1998. Cotter's work has consistently called attention to religion and its roles in artistic production across time, space, and multiple religious traditions.
Snyder is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, essayist, and environmental activist. He has published eighteen books, which have been translated into more than twenty languages. Snyder’s work and thinking has been featured in video specials on BBC and PBS, and in every major national print organ. A key member of the mid-twentieth century San Francisco Renaissance literary movement, Snyder is currently professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis, and lives in Northern California. He has spent ongoing time in Japan, undertaking extensive training in the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism.
Heller, the Executive Director of the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA), New York City, has focused on building places of learning within museums. While working on a Ph.D. in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, she learned the workings of various museum departments through jobs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. After graduation, she focused her attention on establishing new places of learning through art, first at the Gallery at the American Bible Society and later as founding director of MOBIA. MOBIA was conceived as a learning museum, whose unique mission is illustrated by noteworthy exhibitions and publications.
Nawaz is the driving force behind Fundamentalist Films and the creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie, which debuted to large audiences and tremendous acclaim in 2007. Nawaz, born in Liverpool and raised in Toronto, had a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Toronto in her hands when she realized that staying out of medical school would be her greatest contribution to Canada’s health care system. Unfazed, she coolly switched career plans and received a Bachelor of Applied Arts in Journalism from Ryerson in 1992. Nawaz worked as a freelance writer/broadcaster with CBC radio, and in various capacities with CBC Newworld, CTV’s Canada AM, and CBC’s The National. Bored with journalism, Nawaz took a summer film workshop at the Ontario College for Art and made BBQ Muslims, a short film that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 1996. Other short film credits include Fred’s Burqa and Random Check. In 2005, Nawaz’s documentary entitled Me and the Mosque, a coproduction with the National Film Board and the CBC, was broadcast on CBC’s Rough Cuts.
Betye and Alison Saar
In multiple media, prints, collage, assemblage, sculpture, and installation, Betye Saar (b. 1926) and Alison Saar (b. 1956) push the boundaries and categories of art and religion. With works in the collections of the finest arts institutions and museums, the two have been hailed as "conjure women of the arts." Each one practices a synthetic art, creating material shape for persistent spiritual and cultural questions of identity, ethnicity, race, religion, and gender. Betye Saar's Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972) has acquired virtual iconic status. The shrines and altars she creates explore mysticism and vodou as well as racial and sexual politics. Alison Saar's installations, objects, and sculptures pursue relations among spiritualities in African cultural diaspora. Each one of these women might be justifiably hailed as an insider artist for persuasively, creatively bringing personal encounters with visionary, vernacular, and "outsider" arts of many cultures to public attention.
A pioneering video artist whose internationally exhibited work explores universal human experiences—birth, death, the unfolding of consciousness—and has its roots in religious traditions including Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism, and Christian mysticism.