The Arts as a Creative Process
- some aspects from the Bahá´í Writings -

Sonja van Kerkhoff, The Netherlands (

O people of Bahá! The source of crafts, sciences and art is the power of reflection. Make ye every effort that out of this ideal mine there may gleam forth such pearls of wisdom and utterance as will promote the well-being and harmony of all the kindreds of the earth.

Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 72.

Ablutions, video projection onto cloth. new window

In this new century the attainment of science, arts and belles lettres, whether divine or worldly, material or spiritual, is a matter which is acceptable before God and a duty which is incumbent upon us to accomplish.

'Abdu'l-Bahá, Tablets of 'Abdu'l-Bahá Abbas, p. 448.

Another view of Ablutions,
video projection onto cloth.


This means that art for arts sake or for the sake of the aesthetic is acceptable.

In this work I could also say that I am influenced by Baha'u'llah's words:

The deepest wisdom which the sages have uttered, the profoundest learning which any mind hath unfolded, the arts which the ablest hands have produced, the influence  exerted by the most potent of rulers, are but manifestations of the quickening power released by His transcendent, His all-pervasive, and resplendent Spirit.

  Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 85-86

I could not call this Bahá´í art because 'Abdu'l-Bahá referred to all works of art and science, not just ones made by Bahá´ís or art containing recognizable cultural expressions of a particular Bahá´í community. Although this work is likely to have a special meaning for anyone who performs ablutions.

Would this work called The Season of small breaths be any more or less interesting to those engaged in the spiritual than the previous work?

Some people would find this work easier to relate to because it is figurative, hangs on a wall and like any painting or drawing fits into a widely accepted definition of what a work of art is.

Here you see figures engaged in various actions; on the left a figure raises its hands to hold its clock face. The shields are Maori symbols for learning. One figure emerges out of another as if it is a soul or spirit; you see worlds layered above each other, with one figure striding across, bearing his/her reflected face instead of hands; and below a figure wears a deflated snail form.

Te Wa o nga hau iti
(The time/place/season of small/short breaths)
Computer print,
Edition of 19, 2001

Larger View (64kb)

This work relates to a number of works I have made on the theme of physical and spiritual struggles and passions.

The soundtrack for the video "Grains of Salt" is of three whispering voices which tell diverse stories (in two languages) about the ability to switch between modes, to find 'truths' in all sorts of ways, or learn how to filter salt.

I think Bahá'u'lláh's exhortation:

"On this journey the traveler abideth in every land and dwelleth in every region. In every face, he seeketh the beauty of the Friend; in every country he looketh for the Beloved. "

The Valley of Search, in The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys by Bahá'u'lláh, Wilmette, U.S.A., 1986 edition, p. 7

can mean either keep looking for that one truth such as modernity's utopia. Or it can be postmodernist: which means, look for all sorts of things, in all places and there will be truths in all these places, which the in Baha'u'llah's text leads on to the valley of love.
Grains of Salt, video

I made this video for an international symposium on electronic media in 1998 in response to their theme "Terror". I called my presentation Making Salt. It was a performance in a lecture theatre where people saw this video projected on a background wall, while I typed in texts which were projected onto several smaller screens just in front of the

Making Salt, performance

audience. It seemed as if the texts floated in the space. It was my response to the theme of the terror of the information age, where like salt, information is all around us. It is something we need but it needs to be filtered, and my message is that we need to filter information ourselves.

Although I am a Bahá´í, this doesn't mean that my art will be of interest to any Bahá´í community. One reason for this is that art is a language. Within the art world in general my language here, performance combined with projection, is not unusual, whereas a particular Bahá´í community might find this doesn't fit their definition of what art is. Only because the language I have used here is unfamiliar, not because they think the art is good or bad, although they might express it like that.

Almost everyone seems to have an opinion about what is art or even what is good art. This means that in one way or another art touches most people but ironically, misunderstandings can arise because people do not realise that art is like a language.

One of the names of God is the fashioner. He loveth craftmanship. Therefore any of His servants who manifesth this attribute is acceptable in the sight of this Wronged One. Craftmanship is a book among the treasures of His heavenly wisdom.

Compilation on the arts, p. 3, # 10

Creativity is a universal human attribute, but the way it is expressed depends on the capacities and preferences of each individual along with the cultural influences of the environment they live in.

The Way, from the Essences and Particularities Series, 1981

Kaitiaki Text written along the silkscreen print: He toa takitini taku toa, ehara i te toa takitahi (My courage was the courage of many, not of just one).

When I first moved from New Zealand to study art in the Netherlands, these images were called monsters, and if people were kind, they saw them as exotic rather than as weird.

In New Zealand they were easily recognizable as 'matua' ancestor images. Those familiar with such images also could see my artistic innovations as well.

In the Netherlands, I was told that I had better make large independent abstract paintings.
So I took a canvas and covered it in tar and then cut a text out of it and gave it legs so it could be independent of the wall.

It was my response to the idea that art is independent or original. Looking back, I see now that in fighting back, I moved into using a lot of different media. Before this I had only used printmaking, paint or drawing.

Most art comes out of some personal experience an artist encounters but in order to communicate, the art must be more than just a re-telling. This work called "Wrapping for a marginal citizen" is not just about my own feelings of enstrangement as a foreigner and mother, living in the Netherlands.

That extreme egoism

Wrapping for a Marginal Citizen, 12 metre long silkscreened cloth.

The texts are associative and relate to the theme of inclusion or exclusion in the form of a series of short dialogues projected towards the viewer.

The world changes and so does the context of anything, including an artwork.
In 2002, 8 years after the first version of this work, my now 9 year old son and I used the work as part of our performance Movement for Mother and Child.

Now the texts were related to the dancing, music playing child and a mother who stuttered and dragged herself on crutches.

Movement for Mother and Child, 2 minute performance.

Art is holistic. It is not limited to one theory or one inspiration. It is a working process between the artist, the environment of the artist and the culture and environment that the work is exposed to or exhibited in.

So like being a Bahá´í, art is a working process with diversity and change, and not something that just happens or something someone is suddenly inspired to do, like magic. Although it might feel like magic when we suddenly see a new interpretation in the Bahá´í Writings or when we come up with an new idea or response or make a new work of art.

Certain Measures

Creativity comes when we make space for it and being exposed to new things helps us. Looking at art, listening to music or seeing theatre or dance can help us to feel new things. Or old things in new ways.

...the pure leaven that leaveneth the world of being, and furnisheth the power through which the arts and wonders of the world are made manifest.

Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings, p. 161.

Certain Measures

Certain Measures, engraved rods.

Certain Measures

This work, called Certain Measures, consists of engraved texts inspired by the Hidden Words by Bahá'u'lláh.

Each time I lay these sticks out in a new location, it seems to be like a new work. Here the table, an old school desk, was placed in the middle of a shopping street in Oxford.

Below the rods were placed on a moss-covered table in a museum with other work of mine.

Bahá'u'lláh tells us that creation is not a fixed environment within which we live but an ever expanding word.

No sooner is this resplendent word uttered, then its animating energies, stirring within all created things, give birth to the means and instruments whereby such arts can be produced and perfected... In the days to come, ye will, verily, behold things of which ye have never heard of before.

Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings, p. 141-2, LXXIV.

Certain Measures

This work is called First Lessons in Relativity and the dolls in various shades from blue to pink move when people walk under them.

My aim here was to show how what we call female or male can be ambigious. There is no clear line where the dolls stop being blue and start being pink.

First Lessons

The colours are a continuum just as colour physically is in nature. It is culture which gives different wave lengths different names. After making this work I saw other associations such as that of social relations in general and the way we perceive ourselves and others in the context of social relationships.

Carrying a Message, lithograph

There is generally an emphasis on the creative process itself in the Bahá´í writings and the process is intended to end in a result, and in particular, those arts which benefit humanity are seen as particularly praiseworthy.

At the outset of every endeavour, it is incumbent to look at the end of it.

Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 168

It is up to the artist to be moderate in the same way that every Bahá´í is to be moderate in their conduct, but of course, what this means in terms of artistic expression is dependent on the context and is in part a question of culture.
Bahá'u'lláh is not saying that any particular type of art, sensation or endeavour is more worthy than another, but that we should think about why we are doing it.

I made this work as a postcard. The text (

Make not your deeds as snares to entrap the object of your aspiration

) which comes from the Kitab-i-Aqdas, asks us to question our motives for doing good for another. The apple could be seen as being possessed or given and the double image hints at the dualist nature of this type of question. I chose a postcard as this medium because postcards are a souvenier artform, to reflect the act of giving and taking.

Give and Take, postcard edition of 3000

God has given us eyes, that we may look at the world, and lay hold of whatsoever will further civilisation and the arts of living.

'Abdu'l-Bahá, Secret of Divine Civilisation, p.3


Just as Bahá´ís are encouraged to investigate all aspects of life, so artists who are Bahá´ís are free to explore the arts in any way they wish.

Bahá'u'lláh is not condemning the sensual, the very things that are the artist's tools when he wrote:

The purpose of learning should be the promotion of the welfare of the people, and this can be achieved through the crafts.

Bahá'u'lláh, compilation on the arts, p.3

I'd argue the opposite, that Baha'u'llah is sayng that the crafts are a way of promoting the welfare humanity.
I'd also claim that any art work is able to promoting the welfare of humanity when not obviously about a human cause.

This work, Mutability, gets darker or lighter in response to the lighting of the room.
It is a response to the Bahá´í principle of equality.
Here the seemingly immutable can change. A man can mother.

Interestingly it is not posed, but a snapshot of my husband with a son. This is why it is possible for me to be an artist, a mother, and I work 3 days a week as well.

When I work on my ideas as an artist, I do not worry whether it is going to be for the good of humanity or not because I believe that any investigation will lead to something useful, even if I end up throwing the work out. I will still have learnt something from making the effort.

The Gesture

What would be the result if humanity were left in its natural condition without education or training? All scientific discoveries and attainments are the outcomes of knowledge and education.

'Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgaton of Universal Peace, p. 309

There are many ways of gaining skills. I am sure 'Abdu'l-Bahá was not referring to just formal education, although it would be much harder for me to continue my career as an artist if I had not gone to art school. In fact, I see art school as just the beginning. If I had not continued with my education as an artist, since then, I would not feel I was progressing in my work. Artists, like other professionals, need the possibility to work on a regular basis. It is hard because often there is very little money.

Bahá´í communities can help their artists by being as positive as the Bahá´í Writings are about the arts and by realising that artists need time to develop their art. Of course, this does not mean that we have to like what all artists make, but like consultation, it is the diversity that helps us to see other perspectives. We do not have to agree with them, just hear and respect them. That's unity and diversity. And to paraphrase Shoghi Effendi, that's wildfire, too.

I will end with two examples of my work.

This work called Letters of the Living consists of 19 flags, each with a figure or several figures batiked on it.

It was made for the 1996 Oerol international arts festival. That year´s theme was magnetism,

Letters of the Living

and I chose a period of nineteenth-century Iranian Bahá'í history as my starting-point.

The first 19 followers of this religion took great personal risks, in leaving an established religion to become part of a newly emerging one and to follow the Báb.

As I worked on these drawings, I realised that uncertainty, restraint and alienation were as much a part of any quest as desire, passion and conviction.

So these drawings and flags became the result of my own quest to express the magic, attraction, uncertainty and challenge of the spirit.

Each flag waving in the wind symbolised the spiritual while each branch from the forest on the island symbolised the material.
Letters of the Living

The nineteen flags were arranged along a ridge of dunes and from a distance appeared to be in a line. They were visible from the main village on the island.

During the two weeks there were 40,000 visitors to the festival.
Letters of the Living

Change is a law of Nature, Hull Museum of Art, U.K.

For a festival on the theme of money, I created the performance: Change is a law of nature.

I informed people that I had currency to trade and presented them with a palette-shaped tray on which there were 5 plastic coins (in shades of translucent grey).

Most people took a coin in their hands and looked at it and fiddled with it while we talked.

My job was to convince them that this currency had some worth.

Although it appeared that I was encouraging them to buy or trade with me, what I was really doing was getting them to consider the issue of ´value´ or ´values´.

Change is a law of Nature, Hull Museum of Art, U.K.

What they really were valuing was the trust they developed in me -the artist and through that the art object.

And that was the concept behind the whole thing. That value or values are based on how much we trust the product, and in the art world the product is really the artist's act, not the paint.

Change is a law of Nature, Oxford, U.K.

Commerce is as a heaven, whose sun is trustworthiness and whose moon is truthfulness

Bahá'u'lláh (Compilation on Trustworthiness)

The coins are transluscent 'small-change', as tokens of the exchanges taking place in the immaterial economy when people trust and then really communicate.

An explanation or information about the theme of an art work or about the artist is not necessary, but often it helps us to get more from the work.

However artists should not be expected to explain their work. I have not explained my work either. I can't. An artwork is more than what can be explained in words. Here I have just shared a few ideas about what I was aiming for or why I chose a particular medium. HOwever, if I think a person wants me to justify my art to them, then I go silent. I do not need to defend my profession anymore than a doctor needs to.

In The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Baha'u'llah wrote:

Arts, crafts and sciense uplift the world of being, and are conducive to its exaltation. Knowledge is as wing's to a man's life, and a ladder for his descent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone.

p. 26

It says we all have a duty to acquire a knowledge of the arts, sciences and crafts. Most of us have some knowledge of the sciences. We would not ask a scientist to justify their work. It is the same with the arts. Artists, like scientists or doctors also have their own audiences and specialities. One artist cannot speak for another or on behalf of all art.

Bahá´ís who are artists are often alone in their Bahá´í community.

In the Netherlands, I do not have contact artists who are Bahá´ís in my circle of the art world, and this is not unusual.

This is part of the reason why I am so active in the Bahá´í Association for the arts. It is a way for artists around the world to hear about each other's work and from this to feel support. For 17 years we published a magazine (Arts Dialogue) 3 or 4 times a year. Our first book on the arts (Just Let the Wind...) is to be published by Kalimat Press later this year. It will be run to pre-order because we cannot afford to do this otherwise.

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