Lamia Khorshid: Reverent Images for Sacred Altars
Written by Genie Davis
Photographic artist Lamia Khorshid is creating a rich and reverent body of work photographing the outdoor edicole sacre or contemporary sacred altars. It’s a project she began in 2017, and which is ongoing in Naples, Italy. She describes these modern altars as “built by the people of the community and added onto the existing exterior walls and spaces of the historic city. There is a layering of time and history that is inherent in the photographs as the architectural elements get added on and carved out of existing space.” According to Khorshid, “The structures transform the urban fabric in a dynamic way, depicting the intersection between public and private space, and the integration of worship into the daily life of the community.”
The altars are found in every city in Italy, from crossroads to city corners, and along with depicting these spiritual spaces, Khorshid is revealing “the culture of the city in which they were built” and the ways in which the altars differ from city to city.
Deeply engaged with her subject, the artist describes what she sees in them, which she reveals to viewers in an intimate, cumulatively magical series of images.
“In the altars, we often find not only a portrait of a holy figure such as the Madonna con bambino (Virgin Mother and Child), or the revered saints such as Padre Pio and Sant’Antonio, but also photographs of loved ones that have passed away that people leave behind in a ritual of honoring the dead. We can also find prayer cards, figurines, rosaries, fresh flowers, and the other relics of worship and prayer. Additionally, the secular space of the street interacts and vibrates around the altars.” Adjoining the altars, Khorshid also finds examples of domestic life from mops and brooms to strollers, and urban elements from electrical wiring to cars and mopeds. She finds the detritus of modern life as well, such as graffiti, advertisements, and cigarette butts. And she captures the enclosures built around the altars, separating the sacred from the secular, if only by an inch.
Khorshid says the ongoing series is a departure with some connections to previous bodies of work. “In past work, I was using the physical body, usually my own, within an architectural interior space to speak about culture, heritage, and experience. I was photographing myself in domestic spaces that are not my own to speak about ‘home through displacement.’” She adds “In another project, I was expressing my transition with my family from the East to the West, and photographing my Muslim family in the United States today.” She describes her work as having now shifted from photographing interior, private space to the exterior, public environment. “The environments in which the portraits took place, including architectural clues, hinted at the subject matter. In the current Sacred Altars Series, I am still paying attention to the architecture in relation to culture, religion, history, and ritual, yet the subject is very different…The current work is all outdoors instead of indoors. I am not using my body or another body within the environment, instead I am focusing on the environment itself as subject.”
That said, there is a reference to a portrait style in Sacred Altars as well, within “the posters or within the framed photos of loved ones who have passed away. Their portraits are placed within the altars, but they exist as reproductions or referents.” Like the altars themselves, Khorshid deals in many layers, revealing images within images, a kind of visual soul beneath the “flesh” of the image.
This spiritual quality is hardly surprising, as her heritage serves to inspire her. “I grew up in a Muslim family, where religion was integrated into daily life and there was a rich tradition of ritual and worship. Similarly, I view the tradition of building these sacred altars as a way the people of the Catholic faith integrate religion and ritual into their daily lives. There is an inherent invitation to the public to participate in the ritual of worship, even as they are just passing by.” She explains that using architectural elements to “delineate sacred space” is intrinsic to the Muslim tradition; one of the many things she finds fascinating about these Catholic street altars is their use of architectural enclosure. “They can be quite extravagant, or minimal and simple, often made with a variety of different materials that can experience damage over time.”
She describes the figures presented in the street altars as “sociological portraits” that reveal the “beliefs, culture, rituals, traditions, history, and contemporary moments of the people that live in the community.”
While Khorshid primarily works as a photographic artist, she has also used video in her work; often, she says as an extension from a photographic series to affect the viewer’s experience, bringing an image to life. With this in mind, she plans to record audio on her next visit to Naples: street sounds of traffic and people and mopeds which she plans to mix with “calming sounds of ritual and prayer such as the Gregorian chants, perhaps the sounds of prayer from different religions.”
The idea of universal prayers heard in an audio track ties in with an overall interest for Khorshid “in pushing the work toward the intersectionality of culture, religion, and ritual in a way that depicts diversity as well as universality.”
With an educational background in architecture and the fine arts, as well as having taught photography in Florence, Italy for many years, Khorshid says the combination of her own personal and work history has led her to her interest in how “built- environment reflects, like a mirror, our culture, our history, our traditions, our beliefs, our struggles, our fears, our hopes – right back to us.”
Her use of color is rich, and extremely important in this series, she relates. “Color can create meaning, mood, and associations. Physically, in the process of making the images, I was stopped in my tracks, glued to where I stood in front of each one of these altars when I decided to make the photograph – initially because of extremely vibrant hues.”
One of her first photographs is this series “Madonna azzurra e rose, Blue Madonna and Roses,” glows with a blue that vibrates with light. “Another photograph I was drawn to make was ‘Negozio della chiesa, Store of the Church,’ which has an extremely vibrant red door,” she attests.
At times, she only noticed the significance of color after she created her work, and it was only when reviewing it as an observer that its color associations and meaning stood out to her.
“Often, we find other strong colors in the domestic and urban space that seem to echo the colors of the sacred space. The colors also describe the city itself. Vibrant yellow buildings, as seen in ‘Madonna and Child, Broom, Stroller, and Bicycle,’ neutral colors of stone and brick, the grays of the cobblestones, the layers of peeling paint, the splashes of color from the plants and flowers that adorn the altars, even the fresh vibrant colors of graffiti are all part of the characteristics of the city of Naples.”
Khorshid presently lives in San Diego, but still travels to Naples for three months every year. She’s planning to expand her work to other Italian cities, and to other international locales. “I’ve been studying how the Catholic altars in Mexico are extremely tied to culture and tradition. The Virgin Mother and Child has a different iconography and is depicted differently in Mexico as compared to the Madonna depicted in Italy for example,” she notes. When she begins to depict altars in Mexico, she says she would also like to “slowly and carefully start introducing the portrait – such as someone from the community, the resident, the neighbor, the caretaker of the altar, the passer-by, interacting or having a presence alongside the altars.”
Overall, she wants to continue “creating what I view as a cultural catalogue, and allowing the photograph to call our attention to study these symbols of our humanity.”
Khorshid’s 2019 beautiful, evocative, and vibrant photographs from the Sacred Altars series can be viewed at a variety a group show with the Strong Strong Women San Diego Women’s Art Collective, opening Saturday, January 25, 2020 along with artists Amanda Dahlgren, Morgan DeLuna, Jodie Hulden, Allison Lindblom, Kris Moore, and Louise Russell. The exhibition will be on view from January 11 – March 28, 2020 at The Frame Maker Gallery in San Diego.