DETROIT — Inside an abandoned church, a membrane stretches dreamily across the space, forming a false horizon within the four walls. The scrim is fleshy, dancer-grade mesh in a neutral color, and it was installed in the space by interdisciplinary artist Manal Shoukair, with the help of her friends, as part of her final thesis project at the College for Creative Studies.
The surrounding neighborhood, which penetrates the space visually and at times physically through its blown out windows, is just north of Detroit’s upscale Boston-Edison district, the main corridors of which are lined with lavish mansions built during the heyday of retail empires in Detroit. By contrast, the homes surrounding the church on Muirland are modest little boxes in various states of entropy — many occupied and in reasonable condition, others a bit rag-tag and wanting some upkeep, some burned completely out or boarded up — and of course the vacant lots that hold only the memory of a long-gone structure. This place has, thus far, escaped the notice of realtors and developers, and so has yet to be assigned a catchy new neighborhood name — though as Shoukair’s installation attests, the area has already come to the attention of local artists. Several years ago, not too far off from this deteriorating church site, a sprawling former industrial campus on Midland was converted into “The Factory” — an independent art facility that has hosted massive survey exhibitions of large-scale painting and sculpture. Everything in the area seems to convey a sense of transition, either toward something new, or away from what was.
This is particularly true of Shoukair’s installation space. Originally founded as a synagogue in 1925, Shiloh Tabernacle became a Church of God (COGIC) in 1984, but has stood abandoned for three decades at this point. Now, the space has transformed again, into Shylo Arts —an experimental, site-specific art project under the direction of curator Jessica Allie.
The choice by Shoukair, a practicing Muslim and Arab-American woman, to engage with a space containing such inter-faith history speaks to her interest in charged places and porous boundaries. The tense, flexible membrane is stretched to bisect the entire congregational space at roughly chest height, dragging the horizon through the room, and allowing light to pool across its surface to create the fragile illusion of a high floor; the falsity of this impression is quickly betrayed in the glimpses of cloudy details through the mesh. Visitors edge into two doorway cut-outs to view the space, or access a slightly higher vantage point inside a padded chamber that must have once served as an AV booth. But if one enters the membrane-space — as Shoukair does intermittently in her video work, and did throughout the exhibition’s opening on May 13 — she is forced to stoop at the waist. The membrane will stretch to accommodate the graceful sweep of the artist’s arm, or the bump of her head as she kneels on the floor, but every movement must be considered and negotiated within this space.
Elevate, as the installation is titled, is deeply poetic and infinite in its simplicity. Shoukair has an understated presence, and is slow to put words to her work — but it hardly seems necessary when she has struck upon such a malleable and universal bit of symbolism. In her associated video work, on display at College for Creative Studies as part of Shoukair’s undergraduate final project, the artist moves through the space, and the camera dips above and below the scrim, giving a feeling similar to the moment when the perspective of an underwater photographer breaks the surface. The work evokes the purest transitions: of birth, or aging, or between spiritual planes, or in a more abstracted state of moving and becoming. The value Shoukair has managed to imbue in her elements — light, graceful movement, silence, stillness, and even natural detritus that sifts in through the windows and gathers on the scrim — is profound and stirring in its simplicity.
For an artist in her early 20s, Shoukair already demonstrates clear, singular vision carried across multiple disciplines; ease and fluency with ambiguity and discovery; and a honed, editorial eye. As a graduate project, one could not imagine a better visual metaphor for the birth of an artist.