This year I have seen the sun rise in four different countries. Well, almost. In three of them I watched the darkness inch its way towards light: dawn in Berlin in January was grey and melancholy; London a month later was predictably overcast; at home in New York, though the city has enjoyed bright blue morning skies this winter, the skyscrapers make it hard to see a sunrise.
But this month in Sharjah, I had a soul-expanding view every morning. I would wake up, take my hotel-room coffee out on to the balcony and watch as the sky seemed to stitch seams of orange, red and yellow bands of light, before a radiant yellow disc made its way up from the horizon. I watched, mesmerised, until it was glowing-hot white and blinding in the sky.
I have long been fascinated by the power of this distant star, the way it plays with our environment, casting shadows, streaming light, illuminating corners and dancing in our midst. People in the past had a more pronounced relationship with the sun, an attunement to its daily rhythms, which industrialisation and technology have increasingly curbed. But we are still dependent on this celestial wonder, even if we aren’t forced to recognise that fact daily. I wonder how our lives would be affected if we were a bit more attentive to the star whose daily rising reminds us that, by no effort of our own, we’ve been blessed to see another day.
I could gaze all day at Edvard Munch’s “The Sun” (1910-11), a massive painting that hangs in the Aula hall at the University of Oslo. A white radiating orb sits at the centre of the work, holding court like a deity. Its light emanates out on to the water, mountains and greenery in concentric golden circles and red, blue and white beams of power. Munch’s sun feels alive, pulsating beyond the boundaries of the canvas and into our very lives.
Munch’s work seems to honour both the scientific realities of the sun, which holds all of the colours of the spectrum in its blaze, and its expansive, soulful symbolism. It triggers a deep awareness in me about the primacy of galaxies and creation, a reminder of how the living planet existed before any of our furthest ancestors walked the Earth. Void of human figures, this canvas reminds us that the Earth was perfectly fine even without us present. We are its guests.
Yet, as the ongoing climate crisis evidences, our delusive tendency is to live on Earth as though we made it, own it, and can create more of the resources we abuse and deplete. The word that comes to mind the longer I engage with Munch’s sun is reverence: that mix of homage, appreciation and love due a thing or a being. The sun reminds us of our human limitations. And when we are reminded of our limitations, I think we are more open to a renewed sense of curiosity and wonder, as well as a recognition of our need to collaborate with others. Reverence is just another doorway to an illuminated and active imagination, where all our actions and behaviours, good or bad, begin.
The bronze sculpture “Anyanwu” was created in 1954-55 by Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu. A towering, lithe woman is dressed in traditional attire, with a headdress and jewellery from Benin. She arches her body forwards, her arms stretched gracefully out. The sculpture symbolises a vision of a new nation rising towards independence. It is also an imaginative representation of Ani, the Igbo goddess of the Earth, as she rises to salute the sun, which to the Igbo is a spirit deity known as Anyanwu. In Igbo the word translates to “eye of the light”.
The sun as a life source has inspired peoples across history and cultures, from the ancient Egyptians to the Greeks, Aztecs and beyond. Besides the elegance of form and sheer aesthetic beauty of Enwonwu’s sculpture, I’m drawn to it because it’s like an icon, an image suggesting a spiritual worldview that has the potential to shape our behaviour, our beliefs and our intellectual considerations.
The sculpture’s posture is also beautifully symbolic, prompting me to ask, to what do we first turn our own bodies at the start of each new day? Where do we first direct our attention each morning? Towards worries, fears, gratitude, praise? Because I think that whatever we bend towards is what influences us, and shapes the decisions we will go on to make.
Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson draws on his love for light, colour and the natural world, and increasingly his concern for the climate crisis, to create art that invites people to consider their engagement with non-human creation, the world and each other. His sculptures and large-scale installations often use natural elements — light, air and water. His 2003 Tate Modern installation “The Weather Project”, a gigantic recreation of the sun in the gallery’s Turbine Hall, drew more than 2mn visitors. But it’s a smaller Eliasson work, from 2023, that currently lures me.
“The slow life of sunlight” is made from handblown panes of coloured, layered glass, set diagonally into a shelf created from driftwood from Iceland. The overlapping panes create a blended spectrum of orange, yellow and green, and feature large circle and ellipsis cut-outs and gold reflective discs. The arcing pattern gives the illusion of slow movement and the passing of time. To me, it invites meditative reflection.
Eliasson’s work makes me think of our grand illusion that the sun is pirouetting its way across the sky, when all the while it is the Earth that is spinning on its axis, taking us from sunrise to sunrise. We feel nothing, but we are constantly in motion.
We may mark time by the sun but, like the illusion of the sun’s movement across the sky, our time demarcations are illusory as well. They are constructed to give us a sense of order, to help us with the discomfort of chaos and uncertainty. What I love about Eliasson’s sculpture is that, even if we live within the perceived safety of making order by marking time, in the end it’s what we do in the present that matters. And there is a radiant beauty and life-force energy to that realisation.
Our lives are a sequence of now moments. What we do with them determines the type of light we ourselves might shine on to the world.
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