Reclaiming the narrative

November 8, 2015

A unique exhibition showcasing art by American Muslims aims to break stereotypes and build bridges -- and help the homeless

Reclaiming the narrative

Pakistani and Indian American Muslim artists are participating in a unique and perhaps unprecedented art show that opened at the historic City Hall in Providence, Rhode Island, on October 8. Titled ‘More Than My Religion’, the exhibition will run till November 17.

The subject matter ranges from still life and landscapes to portraits and abstracts using various media -- pastels, photographs, oils, acrylic, henna, mixed media and more. Participants include professionals as well as amateurs.

Professional documentary photographer, Jill Brody said she feels "privileged" to have been invited to jury the show, paring down some 170 contributions to the 40 pieces on display.

"As a non-Muslim, I find it incredible to be a part of this initiative," she says. "We can never hope to know each other’s experiences intimately, but participating in such events does bring us closer."

More than half the work on display is on sale through silent auction, with prices ranging from 200 to 15,000 dollars. Thirty per cent of the proceeds, and hundred percent of works donated by four artists, will go to the non-profit MAE Organisation for the Homeless.

"We are honoured and humbled," says Martinha Javid who founded the organisation in 2007, as Martinha’s Artistic Evocations (MAE). ‘Mae’, she explains, is the Portugese word for ‘mother’ adding that the organisation was named after her "spiritual mother, Mary".

Every Friday, members of the non-faith based volunteer group cook in the kitchen of a restaurant that belongs to a friend of Javid’s, and serve a hot meal to some 300 homeless people in Providence and Cranston. They provide blankets, socks and care packages to people out in the streets, help get them to shelters or put them up in hotels overnight when the shelters are overflowing.

The all-volunteer organisation facilitates rehabilitation and healing through art therapy, yoga and meditation aimed at helping with anxiety and depression.  Currently, it is raising funds to start a wellness facility where they it can conduct these activities.

The link between ‘More Than My Religion’ (MTMR) and MAE stems from the voluntary work of exhibition co-curator, intensive care physician Dr Ehsun Mirza, a Dow Medical College graduate settled in the area since 1995. He and his wife Saira Hussain (also a medical doctor), as well as their teenage children, have volunteered with Mae, cooking and serving food to the homeless.

Son of the respected educationist-activist Dr Quratulain Bakhtaeari in Pakistan, Mirza, a well-known amateur photographer and social worker as well, frequently travels donating his time and skills for good causes, including disaster relief efforts, for example the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, the 2010 floods in Pakistan and recently, the Nepal earthquake.

Artist Irum Haque, who co-curated the exhibition, lives in Massachusetts and works as the head of the language department in a private school for dyslexic children. She brushes off the days she had to miss work and instead go on a two-hour drive each way to be in Providence a few times, saying, "It was a lot of fun".

The genesis of the exhibition lies in the growing feeling among Pakistani American Muslims that it’s time to stop running scared and sticking to a narrow path with blinkers on.

"For years I kept my head down," said Mirza. "I focused on my immigration, my residency, raising a family. Meanwhile, as things kept worsening in Pakistan there was growing Islamophobia here."

The turning point for many was the Dec 16, 2014 attack on an Army Public School in Peshawar that killed over 140 young students and several teachers. "Then there was the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris," added Mirza.

Along with his friends and family, he joined community protests and demonstrations against these attacks looking to refute the crimes being committed in the name of Islam, as well as to assert his identity as a Muslim who refuses, renounces and condemns the extremist version of Islam upheld by the attackers. At the time, Pakistanis all around the world were holding rallies on or around the 16th of every month to commemorate the Peshawar attack.

It was at the April rally in Boston that Mirza realised that many others "were thinking the same thing; that we have to do something positive. Saira (his wife) suggested I talk to her friend Irum who is a pastel artist. I’m a photographer. Sabera Malik (a reputed artist in Providence) already wanted to something to highlight all this," he told me. "A lot of people came together on the same spot, the same page, to put this exhibition together."

For Irum Haque too, the Dec 16 school attack was a turning point. "These atrocities happen," she says, "but that one hit a nerve because it targeted kids."

She too, wanted to reclaim the narrative -- why should all Muslims bear the burden of the actions of a few? "In a moment of crisis, it’s hard to have a dialogue. I felt we needed something more positive, something we do in a time of calm. And art has always been close to my heart."

Like Mirza, she feels a responsibility to her adopted country, as well as to her homeland. "We have to put ourselves out of our comfort zone. You can’t just wait for the other person to take you in and welcome you. You have to reach out too," she says. "Art crosses boundaries; people from different areas connect over it."

She points out that often it is "not hatred but unfamiliarity" that leads a person to say or behave in ways that another person may see as racist or hostile. But "boundaries can’t be brought down overnight. We have to draw people together, talk about sensitive issues".

Through First Works, an organisation that showcases international artists and has brought Pakistani singers like Arif Lohar, Arooj Aftab as well as qawwali groups to Providence, Mirza contacted the Providence City’s Art, Culture and Tourism Department. Both Lynne McCormack, just stepping down after 17 years in service, and incoming Interim Director Stephanie P. Fortunato, loved the idea.

"They agreed within five minutes and said do it with us," says Mirza. "What was great about this was that we didn’t have to pay any money, security was no issue, and they gave us a public space."

The initiative included an Artist Salon discussion at the Providence Atheneum library on Oct 16, and a Mayor’s Reception at City Hall on Oct 27.

The huge support for More Than My Religion "has blown us away", says Mirza.

Community organisers in New York, the greater Boston area, Idaho, Dallas and Los Angeles have expressed an interest in hosting similar shows.

"We are telling the mainstream that there are more dimensions to who we are. Our common ground is humanity," asserts Haque. "This is a tiny effort but it might make a dent. And it’s better than doing nothing."

Reclaiming the narrative