Religions tend to be portrayed as monolithic institutions, within which members share rituals and worship styles, belief in the same deity, and socio-cultural mores. Since major world religions get so much press, smaller religious and spiritual communities with beliefs and traditions of their own are often overlooked. With his new art exhibit Golden States of Grace: Prayers of the Disinherited, Rick Nahmias aims to redress that balance.
Nahmias, whose Los Angeles-based company Rick Nahmias Photography is known for its striking photographic presentations, set out three years ago to examine some of the spiritual and religious complexity that exists just within the state of California. The result is a striking exhibit of black-and-white photography, recorded interviews, and texts, which will open at Santa Barbara’s Karpeles Manuscript Library tomorrow, September 19.
In college, Nahmias’s fascination with narrative led him to double-major in film and religious studies, a background that informed his current project. “Religions that have lasted are the ones that have told the best stories,” he said in a recent phone conversation. “There’s a reason they call it the greatest story ever told.” The stories told in Golden States of Grace are the ones we hear most rarely- and the ones Nahmias finds most relevant.
In producing the exhibit, Nahmias visited 11 spiritual groups. While some of these are affiliated with larger religious institutions, they’re at least outliers on the bell curve-groups of people whose genetic, accidental, or chosen differences have dissociated them from the mainstream of both society and their chosen religions.
Transcendence, a San Francisco gospel choir composed entirely of transsexuals, is an example of a group whose differences are chosen. With both a difficult relationship with mainstream Christianity and trouble adjusting to voices altered by hormone therapy, the transgender members of Transcendence have found an outlet for their own spirituality, and perform frequent concerts both in San Francisco and on tour.
A group of deaf members of the University City Branch of the Church of Latter-Day Saints face different challenges-also physical, but outside of their control. It isn’t their lifestyles that alienate them from the mainstream, but their physical inability to participate in so many aspects of a typical worship service. While members of Transcendence produce music to show their faith, the deaf members of the Mormon church have found ways to work around sound’s integral relationship with worship.
Nahmias said it was the ironies he found in almost every group that were also the most fascinating discoveries. The most welcoming group, he said, was the Cham Muslims, a group of Cambodian refugees who have settled in Orange County. “I had to go to three Muslim groups before I found the Cham Muslims,” he said. “Ironically, once I found them they were so incredibly trusting : especially for people who are survivors of genocide.” The group’s Sunday school, he added, was poignantly familiar, evoking his own childhood memories of Hebrew school. For him, this experience reinforced what he called the “common denominator in all of these groups:” the humanity of their faith.
While Nahmias hasn’t worked much with religious subjects in the past, this project isn’t as much of a departure for him as it might appear. A member of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio in San Francisco helped spark the idea when he suggested that Nahmias’s strength was in “seeing human stories that affect us all through marginalized society.” Taking this to heart, the artist reconsidered his interest in religious groups. “Looking at it through that lens, literally and figuratively,” he said, “these groups started rising to the top in the sense that they became far more visible to me in their range and their diversity.”
With Golden States of Grace, Nahmias has now made these groups-including Latina sex workers devoted to Sant-sima Muerte, Zen Buddhist inmates at San Quentin, and Jewish 12-step program participants-visible to the rest of us, in a way that viewers won’t soon forget.
The exhibit will be more than just visual, however. It’s enhanced by recorded interviews and by music chosen by participants. The presentation is a “full-on 3D experience,” according to Nahmias, and is the result of an intense and synergistic collaboration between him and the sponsoring organizations: Just Communities and the Walter H. Capps Center at UCSB.
“I hope the audience experiences even a fraction of the surprises I experienced collecting and gathering this work,” Nahmias said as we concluded our conversation. “I’m trying to shatter some stereotypes: articulate sex workers, Buddhists who happen to be inside prison walls, or Muslims who are not terrorists.” But the greatest surprise for the audience will probably be the sense of familiarity with the show’s subjects; like Nahmias, viewers will find a surprisingly wide common ground between themselves and the people whose stories of faith and difference are told in this exhibit.
Golden States of Grace: Prayers of the Disinherited opens September 19 at the Karpeles Manuscript Library, with a reception from 6-8 p.m., and shows through December 12. For more information, call 962-5322 or visit goldenstatesofgrace.com.