Using art as a tool for education, the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill breaks new ground with its exhibit Five Artists * Five Faiths: Spirituality in Contemporary Art. The exhibit incorporates the Ackland’s existing collection of religious art and artifacts, and combines it with the work of artists from five major world religions.

Stephen Antonakos, from Greece, explores Greek Orthodox Christanity in his “Meditation Chapel of Saints Peter and Paul”; Ahmed Moustafa, from Egypt, represents passages from the Qur’an and the Hassid (Traditions) in his mixed-media exploration of Islam; South Korean Kimsooja explores Buddhism and meditation in the video installation “A Laundry woman, Yamuna River, India”; Pamela Singh from India explores feminism and Tantric Hinduism, and Helene Aylon from New York makes a bold feminist statement in her installation “The Liberation of G-d,” incorporating the Five Books of Moses.

Assistant director for art and education Carolyn Wood says the project was began in 1997 by former curator of education Ray Williams, who was “interested in and concerned about the changing religious landscape in the area.” Williams realized that all North Carolina schoolteachers were required to teach world religions, yet no sufficient curricular text existed on the topic.

“The idea was to provide a safe way of talking about religion in the classroom [by] using works of art, in which one can interrogate the work of art and get some answers about a particular faith without fear of offending anybody or without the teacher having to worry that he or she might be mistaken to be proselytizing,” says Wood.

After Williams moved on, the idea evolved further and received national recognition as well as funding from organizations such as the Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. “It’s a very exciting project,” says Wood. “We’re charting new territory, so it is a model for other museums across the United States, whether they use their collections to talk about religious traditions in their area or they use their collections to engage with diverse communities in other ways.”

The Independent recently talked to curator of exhibits Barbara Matilsky about putting an exhibit like this together.

The Independent: What criteria did you use to select the artists for this exhibit?

Barbara Matilsky: The most important [criteria] was that the work be visually engaging–that when people came to see the show, they would be moved by the artwork itself.

And then the question was, “How does it relate to the older traditions?” The faith, the philosophy, the rituals, practices, beliefs, and/or the art traditions that emerge from it–stylistically, formally. If the contemporary artworks complemented either the philosophy or the art tradition, then that was even better.

I was also very concerned that the media be very diverse because I felt it was important that the community understand that contemporary art is so varied.

The other criterion was that the works and the artists be international.

Our fast-paced society seems to allow no time for spirituality. This work seems to show the modern person that faith and the way we practice it can evolve with us into our technological times. Was this a goal of the exhibit?

That’s a very good question, because one of the other criteria that I didn’t mention was that the artist respond to the contemporary times, our lifestyle today. What seemed to unite all of the artists was the fact that there are so few opportunities in our daily lives to meditate, to process things that are happening within ourselves. Stephen Antonakos, for instance, in the “Meditation Chapel” creates a space to contemplate, and almost all of the artists do that in some way. So yes, they’re definitely responding to the times.

All of the women artists make feminist statements. What does that show?

The impact of women in contemporary art as well as contemporary culture has been steadily increasing over the decades, and I think that it’s noteworthy that three of the artists are women. The personal discovery of themselves within the traditions can be seen in the way that, for instance, Pamela Singh and Kimsooja use their bodies in the work itself. It’s a direct relationship between themselves physically, with the viewers, with the faith, with the symbolism, with the meditation–and this kind of artwork would not have existed 30 or 40 years ago. First of all, women wouldn’t have been included in a show, it would have definitely been all men–so the fact that three out of the five are women is significant.

How do you think this show could help shed understanding on the major religions for someone not familiar with their beliefs and traditions?

I think just knowing about some of the major aspects of each of the faiths is helpful in starting to get people to think about their relationship to that faith [and] opening up their mind to it. I think that the exhibition does show the parallels so that it’s not so incomprehensible. For instance–I keep mentioning Stephen Antonakos–people have gone into that space, in fact several Jewish people have gone in and said, “That piece looks like the Ark of the Torah.” I think that even if you’re not of that particular faith, when you look at the work, there are aspects that resonate no matter if you have a particular faith or don’t even practice.

What are the parallels and differences you see between the works, and thereby between the different faiths?

There are many parallels. I think the idea of meditation being so central to each of the faiths, as well as the fact that we don’t have this opportunity to allow ourselves to ponder the important things in our lives, is something that unites the artists. The use of light in their work, in different ways the idea that the light inside of us and the light outside have this connecting link–the light of the divine and the light within, is important; and geometry–the fact that many of the artists use geometric symbols that relate to concepts of harmony, totality, and the interest in dualities–light and dark, male and female–and finding a way to bring them together in a balance.

How is the show visually laid out to draw visitors through the exhibit?

In this case, we were very interested in placing artworks throughout the museum, because one of the ideas was to show the relationship between older works of art and the contemporary works. For instance, Kimsooja and Stephen Antonakos’ installations are in the areas where you can see other works from that tradition.

When you select the work you think about what kind of experience you want to create for the viewer, and that experience, in this case, was intimacy with the viewer. And then, of course, the size [of the work] dictates it.

Ahmed Moustafa’s work was really big, so he had to have a special type of space, and then the other ones fit depending on their size and atmosphere. So it’s definitely an artistic plan that we engage with our installation designer.

I should mention that the design and installation staff Kirby Sewell, Patrick Krivacka and Joe Gargasz were instrumental in actually constructing two of the pieces, and without their work as artists as well as craftsmen, it wouldn’t have happened. This is a very labor-intensive process of several months of construction. Building walls, buying equipment, and making sure all the video, monitors and DVDs are working properly. All these hidden things require a lot of foresight and skill in putting it together.

Do artists usually help or make decisions in how their work is displayed? How much is it up to the curator?

It depends on the artist. If it’s an installation artist like Kimsooja, Stephen Antonakos and Helene Aylon, they were very much part of the collaboration on how their work was going to be shown. It had to be according to the dimensions that they wanted, and then it was up to us to complete that process.

The artists were there during the selection process, so they knew what we were going to show, but they were not part of the actual installation itself, so they were surprised–or at least Ahmed was surprised when he came in. And he said, “Oh, it looks good!”

What sort of research goes into putting an exhibit like this together?

There’s lots of research [that involves] going to galleries and museums and seeing what’s happening, using the Internet to find artists, reading magazines and periodicals in the arts as well as talking to colleagues and getting input and advice as to what they think would be useful in an exhibition like this.

But ultimately, it’s about the curator’s eye in what he or she feels is going to work visually, because it’s always the visual element that is going to dictate. Unless people are engaged and feel excited by looking at the work, then they’re not going to want to delve deeper into “What does it mean?” and “How does it relate to me?” They have to be taken by the work in some way.

How did you feel when you saw the exhibit finally coming together?

It’s really an amazing experience to see how it all plays out at the end. You might have the best plan in mind but once the works are here, you see the objects all in relationship to each other and then you start moving things around. “Well, I think it’d be better to have this work here on this wall, and I think that the impact of the viewer coming in from this gallery is going to be more rewarding if you show this piece as opposed to that piece, so things get moved around a lot É the walls sometimes as well (we have temporary walls that we move around), and definitely the artworks themselves.

How have people received this exhibit?

Well, reading the press reviews it seems that the show has impacted people in a positive way. I guess to me when I go into the galleries and I see people talking about the work, or I see little kids responding and I see the light in their eyes when Ahmed Moustafa was talking about the mathematical aspect of his work to a bunch of kids who were taking geometry. I can see the connection and if there are enough of those connections–not everybody has to connect, not everybody will, and some people will connect with one work and not another, and vice versa. So I think there’s enough there, enough variety that there’s something for everybody on some level, so the hope is that people will come back and experience it a number of times, because each time you come it’s a little bit different.

What impact could projects like this one have?

We always hope as curators, as educators, as directors, as people in the museum field that the exhibitions will make an impact, and educate people and transform people in some way. Everything we do is geared toward an experience for people, and our ideal is to keep that experience open so we’re not telling people how to feel or how to react. It’s just providing the forum, the setting for them to have that personal experience. Sometimes they can vocalize it, articulate it, other times it’s something that will take many months to sink in and maybe take hold in some way.

Do you feel that much progress has been made in recent years to transcend misunderstanding and differences between religions?

We all know that there is much misunderstanding in the world. Even within our own country, it’s very divided. I am hoping, and I believe the museum hopes, that art can be a vehicle for quality discussion and observation about the faiths and about ideas in general. I think that progress is slow–but it’s moving and that’s positive. I suppose I’m an optimistic, and I feel that there is openness, at least in our own culture, for conversation.

What is the major goal you hope to accomplish through this project?

I guess the goal of the exhibition and the five faiths project is to challenge people in a positive way to leave their prejudices behind and open themselves to the other, to new experiences with works of art that express some of the beliefs and aspirations of peoples around the world, and experience the beauty of it. Because in the beauty there’s hope and optimism, and also knowledge–positive knowledge that can be gleaned.

The Five Artists * Five Faiths exhibit runs through Jan. 16. Visit for information on programs and events in conjunction with the exhibit.