'There's no one way of being Muslim': Two exhibitions in Brooklyn tackle the realities of multiculturalism
We examine two shows that explore the complexity and diversity of the contemporary Muslim experience
“I think martial arts, it definitely seemed to me, growing up, like a black Muslim thing. I just figured every mosque, every black Muslim mosque, had a martial arts programme,” says Nsenga Knight, a recording of her voice triggered in response to approaching an abstract black-and-white print capturing the essence of her words. “I think as a community that maybe was vulnerable or could be vulnerable, you wanted people to think of themselves as strong … strong spiritually, strong mentally, strong physically,” it continues.
Knight’s reflection, on how self-defence helped her to feel fortified with inner strength growing up, is one of 11 oral testimonies selected by artist Kameelah Janan Rasheed, who lives in Brooklyn. Each accompanies an artwork combining abstract shapes with fragments of text in an effort to document the diversity of the contemporary Muslim experience.
An Opening, Rasheed’s exhibition at the Brooklyn Historical Society, was inspired by Muslims in Brooklyn, a multiyear art and history project launched by the society in 2017 to shed light on religious diversity and pluralism in the borough through oral testimonies, public art projects and educational programmes. Muslims have lived in the borough for more than a century, making it a major historic centre for diverse faith communities practising Islam in a wide variety of forms.
Rasheed’s exhibition is linked to a second show, Beyond Geographies: Contemporary Art and Muslim Experience, currently running as part of the Muslims in Brooklyn project at BRIC, a free cultural programming hub. It features work by eight artists who live in the borough, whose works convey the complexities of multicultural identity.
Knight, whose reflections on learning martial arts are the basis for one of Rasheed’s works, is herself an artist and her work forms part of the exhibition at BRIC. Orientation, an enormous latex and acrylic wall drawing, employs geometric abstraction in the style of American artist Sol LeWitt to explore the rituals of the Hajj, featuring a central five-sided shape in bright silver, evoking moonlight, surrounded by dark triangles at each corner, perhaps signifying crowds circumambulating the Kaaba. A series of smaller wall pieces use overlapping circular and horizontal text to celebrate the writings of Ali Shariati and Malcolm X, while evoking the Hajj rituals of tawaf and sa’y.
Like Rasheed’s work, Beyond Geographies provides insight into the rich diversity of the Muslim community in Brooklyn, demonstrating how culture, ethnicity, gender, heritage and politics all intersect with Islam. Featuring work by artists of Middle Eastern, South-East Asian and African descent, some of whom immigrated to the United States while others were born there, the exhibition shows how diverse cultural practices and religious rituals contribute to unique ways of understanding and embodying Muslim identity. “It became apparent as I was meeting with people, researching artists, that there were such divergent ways of expressing identity and thinking about their backgrounds in terms of culture,” says the show’s curator Elizabeth Ferrer, vice president of contemporary art at BRIC. “The thing that I wanted to express, which I think is also central to the [Brooklyn] Historical Society, is that there’s no one way of being Muslim. There’s no monolithic Muslim culture. There are many ways that it is practised and followed and there are many different kinds of people who are Muslim.”
Knight’s work deals with Islam most directly, abstracting symbols and practices deeply rooted in the shared global faith. Other works in the exhibition delve into personal experience, family history and community practices.
When he was 20, artist Asif Mian found out that his father had been murdered. In A Disappearing Garden, Mian attempts to piece together the identity of the person who killed him. Weaving together information gathered from the police report, which described the unidentified killer as wearing a red plaid shirt, with his own imagined details, he creates a deeply personal installation that blends his own experience of tragedy with a reflection on identity, multiculturalism and heritage.
Two nylon rugs in clashing shades of red have been spliced together, the darker one overlapping the brighter one, the colour of fresh blood. Both are embedded with fine metal chains that carve out abstract patterns in the fabric, resembling veins and arteries. Above it all, lengths of torn red plaid shirt form meandering patterns, ground deeply into the surface of the rugs until they become inseparable from the fabric.
In a second work, Threat Value, Mian literally evokes the splicing together of identities and cultures through the unification of two carpets, one a hand-woven Persian rug, covered with patterns and animal shapes, the other a mass-produced synthetic nylon carpet in garish blue. Animal forms have migrated on to the blue carpet, resulting in a rough patchwork that evokes the experience of growing up in a home where intricate prayer rugs, with stories woven into their fibres, were laid over generic wall-to-wall carpeting.
Baseera Khan’s work, meanwhile, delves into gender and politics. Black-and-white photographs of the artist’s family are punctured with round holes in a semicircular formation based on the seating configuration in the US House of Representatives’ chamber. Fragments of photographs of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, the only Muslim women in Congress, are printed on pleather, the faux leather material Khan’s mother used to make handbags. Fusing the personal and the political, Khan draws attention to the identities and perceptions of Muslim women in private and in public.
One of the most visually striking works is an installation by Mona Saeed Kamal, who created more than 1,000 origami boats using paper hand-painted with beautiful floral patterns in jewel-like colours. 1001 Migrations seeks to provide a contrast to tragic images of refugees on the road by focusing on the enriching power of movement and celebrating the journeys, both long and short, that we all take in our lives.
Two other female artists, Umber Majeed and Morehshin Allahyari, both use technology in their work to question and reclaim neocolonial narratives, while Laylah Amatullah Barrayn uses photography and video to document the practices of the Sufi Baye Fall community in Senegal and New York. Nooshin Rostami’s immersive installation Drawing on Light alludes to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Rumi’s reflections on shadow and light, questioning the boundaries between truth and reality.
“What I did want to avoid was stereotypes of art about the veil, art that deals with 9/11 and terrorism, and there’s some very beautiful work that deals with calligraphy, which is an important part of Islamic tradition, but I felt like some of that had been seen before. What I really did want to underscore were these more complicated contemporary pieces,” Ferrer says.
Beyond Geographies succeeds in avoiding stereotypical and one-dimensional narratives in part because of its focus on intersectionality. Its diverse themes span philosophy, ritual and mythology, science and technology, social and political history, tradition and modernity and personal and family stories, defying borders and classification and demonstrating that being Muslim is compatible with and enriched by embodying a thousand and one other identities.
Beyond Geographies is at BRIC in Brooklyn until Saturday, November 17; An Opening is at Brooklyn Historical Society until June 30, 2020
Updated: October 28, 2019 07:52 PM