There was a time, centuries ago, when a confederation of Muslim, Christian and Jewish faithful lived in relative peace on the Iberian peninsula, overcoming the challenges of their disparate beliefs while elevating art, architecture, and literature to new heights. It was a time that came to be known as the Convivencia.
The word, which is Spanish for "coexistence," reflects a centuries-long era in which these faiths and societies lived, worked and upheld each other as in no other time in history. It was far from utopian, a time fraught with ups and downs, but its imprint upon the world through long stretches of peace is undeniable.
Robbie Steinbach, one of Taos' most notable photographers and printmakers, has embarked upon an exploration of the history of Convivencia and its contemporary relevance with her latest show, sponsored by the Taos Center for the Arts in collaboration with the Historic Taos Inn.
"Geometry of the Spirit" opens next week on Thursday (Jan.18) with a reception from 4 - 6 p.m.; however, those anxious to visit the exhibition will be rewarded beginning Monday (Jan.15) when Steinbach's photographs, monoprints, and fabric hangings will adorn the walls throughout Doc Martin's and the Adobe Bar. The show will continue through May 14.
Steinbach's fascination with the period, and the flourishing of the iconic Alhambra of Granada, Spain was sparked by her childhood favorite card game, "Authors." After she pulled Washington Irving's "Tales of the Alhambra" card, she turned to her encyclopedias to learn more about this extraordinary time and was quickly obsessed.
Finally, in 2016, Steinbach made her first visit to the Alhambra and other sites throughout Spain and Morocco.
"The whole area was like nothing I had ever seen," she recalled, noting that she is both an accomplished traveler and a collector of imagery. "The architectural patterns, repetitive and interlocking, were fascinating." The mirrored archways, intertwined patterns, and exquisite lettering all captured her fancy.
The Alhambra, whose roots may reach as far into the past as the Roman Empire, saw its footprint grow during the Convivencia, becoming known as the Red Castle. Its significance, beauty and mystery lives as its own character in not only Irving's book but also Paulo Coelho's "The Alchemist" and Salman Rushdie's "The Moor's Last Sigh."
In fact, it was described by Rushdie as "the palace of interlocking forms and secret wisdom, of pleasure-courts and water-gardens, that monument to a lost possibility that nevertheless has gone on standing long after its conquerors have fallen; like a testament to love that endures beyond defeat, to that most profound of our needs, to our need for flowing together, for putting an end to frontiers, for the dropping of the boundary of the self."
And, in a 1970s BBC documentary titled "The Ascent of Man," Jacob Bronowski studied the influence of the Alhambra on Western mathematics, art and philosophy owing to the enormous "impact of Pythagorean thought in the Islamic Empire," illustrated nowhere better than in the ratio and designs of Alhambra's tiled walls.
This descriptive is what both captured Steinbach and inspired that which she endeavors to bring to life with "Geometry of the Spirit."
"I became fascinated with the intricacies of the stonework and the tiles and, keeping in mind the diverse populations that created them, I thought of how we can still create a world where beauty and peace can prevail," she explained.
The exhibit Steinbach has prepared for her audience is a stunning display of that reflection, from the Alhambra and beyond. Blue stucco doors that open onto a sky of the same color, as she captured in the mountainous town of Chefchaouen, Morocco, is a particular delight. Clinging precariously to the craggy sides of the Rif Mountains, the town was cut off from the outside world until 100 years ago.
The Alcázar of Seville, Spain the oldest continuously occupied royal palace in Europe, is also a subject of Steinbach's astute eye. The 'Baths of Lady Maria de Padilla' - the only woman in Peter the Cruel's harem of whom he never tired - is a stunning image of stone reflecting upon water.
Steinbach, who is renowned for her portraiture, has moved into a bolder, brighter place that embraces her traveling instincts and her love of imagery, of which she says, "is the opening of a door and of seeing a worldview."
"It's about creating a new awareness. There is always a need to bring something fresh if you're an artist," she said. "Trying to stay open to new opportunities, being interested in new things and bringing a new perspective is what being an artist is all about."
In addition to photographs, Steinbach will be exhibiting black and white tiles and monoprints created from her photographs, and hangings that originate from transparencies of her photos laid upon fabric to add depth and definition to the images she collected during these extraordinary travels.
It's clear in speaking with Steinbach that "Geometry of the Spirit" is the culmination of her life's dream, both as a photographer and a philosopher. "I hope everyone can tap into the significance of this time period and into the organic beauty of what Convivencia embraced," she reflected.
This is both a timely and assuring exhibition upon which we can all reflect.
The exhibit and opening reception are free and appropriate for all ages.
The Historic Taos Inn is located at 125 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, and may be contacted at (575) 758-2233, or at the website, taosinn.com. You may also contact TCA at (575) 758-2052, or tcataos.org.