First Arab artist at CERN lab talks about spirituality and science

Dubai-based artist Aisha Juma during her residency at CERN, Geneva, October 2016. (Photo: Sophia Bennett)

UAE-based artist Aisha Juma’s artistic practice attempts to bring together creativity and traditional knowledge. Having studied visual art in Cairo, Boston and Dundee (UK), she has been teaching art in Dubai for several years and now works at the Al Jalila Cultural Centre for Children in Dubai.

Apart from teaching she has been actively involved in various regional and international group art shows.

Supported by Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation (ADMAF) and CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), Aisha Juma spent October this year at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator.

It is one of many residencies that CERN offers through ‘Art at CERN’ program where international artists are invited to stay among a society of 2,250 scientists, scholars and theorists who spend their time in different experimental sites researching in particle physics.

She is the first Arab artist to do a residency at CERN. On her return to Dubai from Geneva, Aisha Juma describes to Al Arabiya English her experience and close encounter with the cutting edge of science and discovery.

While at the particle physics lab, Juma says she basically got many introductions to the diverse experiments and projects that are located between Geneva and France. “I met physicians and theorists, talked to them and discussed various questions and thoughts. On my own pace I could search deeper into the theories behind their work so that I can relate to the complex research and understand the rationale behind such powerful massive machines.”

Juma says the more she searched, the more she wanted to know and became motivated to understand (not just how the technology works), but to comprehend the very obvious passion behind the founding of such a remarkable place.

“I had to revise my outdated school physics knowledge and replace my invalid version of the periodic table into the brand new standard model. I enjoyed rediscovering the up-to-date structure of the atom and be introduced to the new version of the sub-particles family and understand the role of the LHC in creating endless scenarios of the beginning of the universe and how that is leading the world into deeper discovery of the universe’s structure and technological revolution.”

Juma was also witness to the endless birth of data emitted by the “contentious collisions which are beautifully visualized at the incredibly huge grid computer center.” 

‘AccelerateUAE’ 

Her residency called ‘AccelerateUAE’ which is relatively a short stay doesn’t require an end product. She could spent all her time at CERN “searching for a point of interest and trying to find new ways to look at the world around me which might directly or indirectly inform my upcoming Art approach.”

About the trajectory of her art and career till now, Juma says during the last decade, she had been devoted to seeking an understanding of the spiritual side of her life, “my non-physical presence and contemplating the reality of my world beyond the body and mind. This is what has been reflected in my latest artworks.”

Juma describes vividly her experience of scientific exploration into the heart of matter, the building blocks of the universe, as it were. “Being at CERN was a sharp turn for me. It brought my old beliefs back to where I had left them more than 10 years ago. To understand the physics, I needed to have a strong belief that matter is all there is, which I didn’t.”

“It was interesting to me to be surrounded by people who see matter as the only building blocks of the universe, whereas spiritually there is an experience of the realm of consciousness that does determine the nature of everything, including matter. Spirituality depends on removing the intellect and contemplating human consciousness as an essential part of experiencing the world, whereas physics has no direct involvement of the consciousness or the experiencer. It rather demands the robust presence of the intellect. So I was haunted by the question: what about the experiencer? I literally had to, but also enjoyed to drive my mind to remember that I am made of the same particles, just like the tables and the doors around me. This in itself is potential for an art project.”

One of Aisha Juma’s recent artwork ‘Inner Pilgrimage’, is part of the ADMAF Collection, an indicator that thematically and artistically she was mentally prepared before hand for this kind of exploration into the inner world. “Absolutely. Actually, this journey pushed me to take some extra effort to familiarize myself with sciences, in addition to particle physics. You cannot help not look at quantum physics and astronomy just for the sake of finding a link between who we are as humans and how we fit in this universe as a main component, and not just as external observers,” says Juma.

“The ‘inner Pilgrimage’ is very much about the viewer’s experience. The search in physics is a wonderful realm that awakened me to look inside not just ourselves, but inside the environment around taking into consideration the earth and sky as well.”

Juma says the machinery at CERN were incredible in size, function, complexity and specialties. “They have an impact on me as an artist yet I do not know how and when the refection of that will appear on my own work, I am sure it will in an unexpected way.” 

Relationship between art and science 

Her biggest question ‘Who are we and where are we going?’ is printed out large on the walls of the ‘Globe of science and innovation’ at CERN’s main public exhibition.

“I believe science and Arts are speaking two parallel languages - evolution and transformation – which are both necessary for humanity’s growth outside and inside. Art has long come out of its shell and is now using science as its medium as well as subject matter.

“Science, since the beginning, had been uncovering the universe’s most beautiful structures, unity and harmonies. CERN’s biggest dream is to find the ultimate equation called ‘Super symmetry’.”

Juma contends that old nations had built great cultures and cities based on their understanding of symmetry in nature, especially Islamic Culture. “Open-ended research methods are common for both artists and scientist. Artists are interested in hospitals, labs, math equations, industry as tools and subject matters. I believe that art and science are intertwined at their core, what we need is to allow the new generation to explore them both as one, right from the beginning.”

After this experience will she be acting as an evangelist for Science and Scientific Research in the region? Juma says in her role at Al Jalila Cultural Cerner for Children in Dubai, she is trying to expose the children for non-traditional and non-academic approach to Art, through the community of practising artists who are working at the center not as teachers but as explorers where the art experience is a dynamic conversations between the spontaneous child and the professional Artist.

“One of my goals is to bring science into the Art center. In fact, we have been approached by many science professionals like medical specialists and astronomers who have expressed their interest in creating Art projects informed by science with the children. We are looking at the right approach and time, and we invite anyone who are interested to come and meet us.”

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