Visitors to Shylo Arts rapidly gain an idea of the building’s former uses. Signage for the Shiloh Tabernacle Church of God in Christ is still prominently in place, and bifurcating male/female entrance paths point to the building’s original incarnation as a synagogue. It is an unlikely location for an art space, tucked away in a sparsely populated neighborhood obscurely positioned between a freeway and the fringes of Detroit’s solidly middle-class University District. But if visitors may be unfamiliar with this part of the city, they will surely arrive knowing something of the demographic shifts behind the history and current dilapidated state of this modest structure.
Recently, the main space hosted Elevate, a site-specific installation by Manal Shoukair that filled the entire 54-by-26-foot area with a neutrally colored, semi-transparent membrane (actually a tightly woven mesh) stretched horizontally across the room. It was a bold and surprising intervention, simultaneously evoking a sense of great calm and a heightened awareness of surrounding details. In preparing for the work, Shoukair had stripped the room back to its studs and floor-boards, removing surface layers to reinforce the feeling that her concerns are fundamental ones. She also removed boards from the building’s (mostly glassless) window frames, literally and symbolically opening the installation to light, air, and ambient sound from the surrounding neighborhood.
The membrane was positioned at the height that Shoukair, a practicing Muslim, occupies when she kneels to pray. The act of kneeling has clear associations, both culturally specific and trans-cultural, that relate to the history of the site; and within the context of an art installation, it also refers to tensions between art and faith. Shoukair was conscious of navigating the distance between Islam’s history of aniconism and a personal desire to express her identity as a Muslim woman artist. The membrane’s semi-opaque qualities—from certain directions, it revealed details; whereas from other directions, it hid them—point to issues at the intersection of faith and gender. In conversation, Shoukair describes the complexities of growing up in a household with a religiously progressive, but tradi- tionally patriarchal father, who prohibited her mother from veiling her face.
By dropping to knee level, viewers were able to move around under
the membrane and physically engage with the work. Many headed to a single wooden pew, an obvious focal point and the only significant object left in the space from its time as a place of worship. The membrane provided a boundary of sorts, but a flexible one that allowed visitors to move around as they wished. Mostly, though, it created a cocoon- like environment that worked to bring people together into an often wordless sense of communion. The issues of faith, interfaith dialogue, and identity that Shoukair’s installation touched on are fraught ones, and they were raised in a building that encapsulates the condition of a city in seemingly perpetual economic and social turmoil. For a brief moment in time, Shoukair created a still point, a place of calm in a chaotic world.