As the owner of Turner Carroll Gallery, I spend a lot of time talking and writing about artwork by the phenomenal artists I represent. Lately, I’ve been consumed by the destruction of some of civilization’s greatest artifacts.  Ancient art is one of my passions, and I am devastated to see sites all over the Middle East, one after the other, lost forever. The Buddhas of Bamiyan, Nimrud, Aleppo, Palmyra–all contained visual information that helped us decipher the values and wisdom of the ancient civilizations that created them. With the loss of these artifacts comes the loss of our ability to understand the important messages contained in the history of the cultures that shaped our own.  With these “irreversible acts of annihilation,…the entirety of humanity…loses a piece of its memory as surely as if a slice of our collective brain had been removed by a mad lobotomist.” (Simon Schama, 3/13/15, Financial Times).

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Often people remark that they feel visual art is “an inside joke,” filled with its own lingo and mystique.  In reality, visual art is (by nature) the universal symbolic language that can be understood not only by art critics trained in deciphering the meaning of its symbols, but by any human being who cares enough to engage with the image. To ignore the visual image is to make a conscious choice to close oneself to messages other human beings attempt to share.

Ancient cave painting,
Chauvet Cave
Cave painting, Rock Shelters
of Bhimbetka, India

Throughout the history of civilization, humans have told stories visually, to communicate with other humans.  Stone Age cave paintings, Mesopotamian cylinder seals, Egyptian tomb reliefs, Native American petroglyphs, religious icons, political propaganda posters, Communist Era Social Realism, and contemporary images of social empowerment all present themselves as creative manifestations of our shared human experience.

Ancient Mesopotamian low relief image,
depicting governance, religion, rites of civilization
Ancient Egyptian relief image depicting love
Human beings have always needed to procure food, governance, emotional connection, and spiritual beliefs to make order of chaotic civilization. These are the same basic needs human beings possess in contemporary life.  If we take the time to seriously contemplate the art of other cultures, we see that we are one human-kind, and that our similarities far outweigh our social, religious, and political differences.
Thousand armed Avalokitesvara, Budhha of Infinite Compassion
stone Buddhist carvings in Leshan, Sichuan, China.
(Photo by McKay Savage)
Navajo drawing by Shemar George
This ancient Chinese carving of Avalokitesvara communicates compassion for all living things. Likewise, a contemporary drawing by a young Navajo boy in the American Southwest uses natural symbols for the four elements to depict the innate harmony of nature.
Hung Liu, China, “Dandelion 11,” oil on linen, 2015
Hangama Amiri, Afghanistan, “The Wind Up Dolls of Kabul” 2011
Though from cultures as different as Afghanistan and China, both Hung Liu and Hangama Amiri found the humble dandelion as a symbol of female strength.  Afghan and Chinese cultures might prefer women to be beautiful and graceful, like flowers.  By using the dandelion as an autobiographical symbol in their paintings, these artists show us that while women may be regarded as pretty, fragile, flowers, they are simultaneously strong, stubborn, resilient, and able to spread their essence throughout the world.
 Unlike a written or spoken language that takes much time to learn, the pictorial language has immediate impact on both an implicit and an explicit level.  Therefore, if we allow ourselves to engage with the images we see, we can’t help but increase our appreciation for perspectives, cultures, values, and ideas other than our own.  Visual art is the language that helps us realize our interconnectedness in the vastness of the human experience.
This quotation by Mohammed Rabia Chaar, about ISIS’s destruction of ancient artifacts in Syria, appeared in the New York Times. “Go and see…how all the ancient (artifacts) have been destroyed and looted, how bulldozers are digging.” he said. “The feeling of sickness is growing more and more, day after day….Daesh wants people with no memory, with no history, with no culture, no past, no future.”
 
When we focus on the differences, rather than the similarities, in what the visual language portrays, we disrupt the progress of our global society.  We divide and destroy, rather than enhancing the greatness of humankind.
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