Sarah Khan, “Sliver or Slash (Smooth), Carve or Cleave (Jagged),” porcelain, glaze, decals, 24k gold, 11″ x 2.75″ x .50″ each. Photo courtesy of the artist

Labor-intensive, archaic craft and art techniques are used to express very contemporary ideas in shows up now in Portland and Searsport.

There’s less than a week left to see “Sarah K. Khan: Pleasure & Defiance” at Cove Street Arts (through Oct. 7), so don’t wait. “Ripeness Twice Over: Work by Stephen Burt” at Zero Station runs through Oct. 21. And a pairing of shows at The Parsonage in Searsport, “From Branch to Midrash: Asherah Cinnamon” and “Poems from Kay Pacha: Returning Home by Rosalba Breazeale,” runs through Oct. 22.


Khan’s vision is so holistic and multifaceted that you should allow plenty of time to take it in. The premise of the show arose during a residency at the Indigo Arts Alliance, which curated this exhibition. It’s a multimedia reimagining of the Kitab Ni’matnama-i Nashirshahi (Nasir Shah’s Book of Delights), a 15th-century Persian-language manuscript from Central Indian recipes illustrated with miniature paintings that also chronicled eating rituals, new ingredients and speculations about future epicurean trends. The nearly 30-year-long project was commissioned by the Sultan of Malwa (Ghiyath Shah) and completed after his death by his son, Nasir Shah.

“Pleasure & Defiance,” however, turns this paragon of Indian culinary literature inside out, focusing on the African, Arab, Turkic and Central Asian women depicted throughout the book who pliantly serve the shah delicacies and minister medicinals and aphrodisiacs of their own preparation (as well as, most surely, performing sexual favors). Khan exiles the shah entirely from Mandu, the capital of Malwa (known in its day as “The City of Joy”) and recasts his zanāna (harem) as a female-led operation engaged in earthly sensual pleasures of the sort the original tome reserved only for the shah.

Not only is Khan interrogating traditional Indian mores – and the art that depicted them – from a feminist perspective, but she is doing so through storytelling, a revival of ancient craft techniques (for instance, the production of porcelains from Jingdezhen, a Chinese prefecture known for over 1,000 years as the “capital of porcelain”), and a variety of media (other than porcelain, there is printmaking and video).


The personalities Khan assigns the women of her reinterpreted tales have shed their servile mantles and apotheosized into heroic characters in their own right. My favorite is Abebach, whom Khan describes as an “Ethiopian freedom fighter, armed with her German Luger pistol” who battles “cruel enemies of climate science reason.” She is depicted – throughout prints, porcelain plates and cooking implements – atop a horse, aiming her pistol at any number of human perfidies.

Sarah Khan, “Defend or Destroy,” matte porcelain, glaze, decals, 8″ x 4-1/2″ x 1″ Photo courtesy of the artist

The doorway to the far gallery, where a sumptuous table is set under a slightly unsettling cloud of porcelain cleavers and slicing knives, is surrounded by Lugers, many pointed at the viewer. There’s no mistaking the female empowerment on display throughout the exhibition, which paints Abebach and her sisterhood as self-reliant, self-possessed, in charge, and fighting both millennia-old prejudices and very contemporary ills – patriarchy, misogyny, enslavement, colonialism, environmental disaster – while also elevating cultural specificity and diversity, ancient civilizations more in touch with their origins and Mother Earth, so-called “women’s work” and traditional healing arts.


The impossibly intricate and laborious processes of Stephen Burt’s work – drawing and printmaking primarily – date back centuries. Their subject matter does too, though much of what’s on display at Zero Station also feels urgently of our time. Most particularly, I refer to his depictions of the formidable powers of nature, which always seems to be roiling angrily with righteous, biblical forces of wind and water currents, maelstroms and lands set aflame.

If this work had been produced in the Cinquecento, we would call it prophetic. But at a time when we wake up daily to reports of massive, lethal environmental disasters – wildfires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes – it’s impossible to deny that Burt’s art, as much as it draws on Old Master techniques and Renaissance art, is being produced right here, in our increasingly precarious now.

Stephen Burt, “Elemental Changes – FIRE” Photo courtesy of the artist

The two most astonishing pieces to me are diptychs portraying the elements: earth, wind, fire and water. They are long, scroll-like works from 2017, with “Earth and Air” depicted in one, “Fire and Water” in the other. Each is composed of two sheets of abutted paper onto which Burt lays a variety of watercolor washes and gouache in different colors. Then he begins complex drawings using India ink that limn visual manifestations of each element – swirling and funneling clouds, terrestrial landscapes, earth-scorching flames, churning waves. Often a cloud or a wave will morph at one end into a dragon or serpent, birds with hooked beaks, fish.


The colors and drawings meld into one another, erupting across the seam between the papers as unified narrative compositions. They’re like a Renaissance sacra conversazione, but amongst the forces of nature rather than saints and disciples. The juxtaposition of Burt’s obsessive technique with the seamless fluidity of visual storytelling can take your breath away. And while they can seem apocalyptic, there is also a dazzling magnificence to what we are looking at.

A detail shot of “Maelstrom” by Stephen Burt. Courtesy of Stephen Burt and Zero Station Gallery

In fact, this juxtaposition feels like an intentional challenge to the human cognitive disconnection between horror and beauty. In this way, Burt continues a tradition known as the art of the sublime, where scenes of nature’s often terrifying grandeur – specifically its unfathomable magnitude and mystery – evoked intensely emotional responses in viewers that ranged from awe to fear. Caspar David Friederich in Germany, J.M.W. Turner in England, Théodore Géricault in France – these are Burt’s forebears.

The show also includes prints, sketches and handmade books. Burt’s “Flowers for the Age of Iron” prints are noteworthy. The one hanging on the gallery’s walls depicts the deadly sin of sloth. But riffle through the unframed prints on the center table to closely examine “The Flowers of Wrath.” All of them appear nominally decorative (Burt is inspired by decorative form), but this one in particular is anything but innocuous. People are impaled with arrows, bludgeoned, their eyes driven through with spikes. Oh yes, Hieronymus Bosch sensibilities seem present in Burt’s gorgeous works, too.


The press materials for Asherah Cinnamon’s show describe the “Midrash” of the title as “a form of interpretation in which scripture is given fresh meaning and relevance through imagination.”

But another Talmudic term is also relevant: “Tikkun olam,” the concept of repairing the world, which Cinnamon, the child of two Holocaust survivors, has adopted as a central tenet of her art. She would be the first to tell you that there is much to repair. Her methods of doing so are deeply connected – physically and spiritually – to nature.


Asherah Cinnamon, “Genesis” Photo courtesy of The Parsonage Gallery

Cinnamon works organically with renewable and repurposed materials from the land around her, employing centuries-old First Nations craft techniques like weaving of bark or saplings to create ritualistic sculptures intended to heal. “Genesis,” for instance, resembles a 5-foot chalice. Its base is a stripped maple trunk, its bowl a woven cup-shaped web of red dogwood and willow. Around the “rim” are pieces of root that look like anthropomorphized ceremonial dancers celebrating a central root that resembles nothing so much as a female form positioned for childbirth.

It is an offering to Mother Earth, which we have much maligned, a sacred object that reveres her and beseeches her forgiveness. Its title acknowledges Mother Nature as the source of all things, as origin. Here, Cinnamon’s material, craft and intention are one holistic expression of praise and healing.

There are also various vessels constructed of bark that has been stitched together – a metaphor for mending and repair. This is a craft Cinnamon learned, at least in part, from Wabanaki practitioners. Yet, she points out on her website, “Unlike the exquisite perfection and complexity of local Indigenous artists, I use torn pieces of bark and am pleased to show visible mending, because the earth needs mending and humans need mending, and hiding our brokenness prevents healing.”

Upstairs, the work of Peruvian-born Rosalba Breazeale – currently a David C. Driskell Fellow at Indigo Arts Alliance’s Blackseed Studio – blends modern alternative photography techniques with Khipu (also the Spanish Quipu, explained below). Breazeale records earth processes by leaving photography paper piled with plant material (which Breazeale called “plant relatives”) exposed to natural light for up to two months. The resulting image is fashioned into wall pieces and vessels, the latter often incorporating Khipus.

Cecilia Vicuña has used Khipus poignantly to speak of the destruction of Indigenous cultures. It is a system of knotting used by Incas and other South American civilizations. Some believe it to be, like an abacus, a numerical method of record-keeping, while others argue it was a language. Again, however, an archaic technique is being used to draw our attention to the contemporary awareness around theft of Indigenous lands and the need for reconciliation – with those whose lands we stole and with nature itself.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: 

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Sarah Khan’s last name.

Comments are no longer available on this story