June 20, 2017

Preserving Muslim Identity: On Allyship and the Unsteady Practice of Getting Out of the Way

This Saturday will mark the closing of a month-long exhibition at Public Pool art space in Hamtramck, which I helped to organize. It represents my first work as a curator, although I’m still grappling with what curating actually means for me. Something more like facilitation, I think.

This show was a good opportunity to practice facilitation, because it is all about the lived experience of Muslim youth from the surrounding community—a subject which I know very little about. I had a solo show of my own work at Public Pool, back in Nov-Dec of 2016, and during the requisite sitting-in-the-gallery Saturdays, I made the obvious observation that there was a great divide between the pedestrian traffic of Hamtramck and the denizens of its art spaces (at least the ones I know about). Hamtramck has a large Bangladeshi and Yemeni population, all along a continuum of immigrant to American-born, and a great deal of the city’s residents are of Muslim faith. There is a certain degree of opacity to Near-Middle-Far Eastern religions within the United States, and that creates a climate for racial and religious terrorism and conflict.

One of the only Muslim-Americans to visit during my gallery hours was a young woman named Nushrat Rahman, along with a friend. Aside from a general enthusiasm for life, Nushrat indicated a specific interest in Hamtramck art spaces—who was welcome, how they worked, how to be involved? Good question!

Fast-forward to early 2017, and have the opportunity to curate a show for the Pool, in my limited run as an organizer for the space. Nushrat sprang immediately to mind—I still had her email address on my desk, saved with the vague intention of further connecting, but no real idea about how. Now there was a good opportunity.

Over the next several months, I got to stand aside and watch Nushrat activate her community in a beautiful way. Our main collaborative effort was to decide on the central installation of the show—a black shelf-cube that would house collage-jars of objects from Muslim-American youth in the surrounding community. After that, I more or less did the work of coordinating logistics with the gallery, and Nushrat and her friends did the rest (shout out to the inexhaustible Alexander Buzzalini for his mad carpentry skills and general goodwill).

Nushrat impressed me from the start, with her positivity and presence, not to mention her clear but deferential ability to set boundaries around the content and practices of the show. Because, see, there are a lot of rules to Muslim faith, practiced to varying degrees of strictness, and it felt to me to be a situation that could very easily offend the same population I’d hoped to engage, if the show was organized thoughtlessly.

The best hedge against that, of course, is to leave those decisions in the hands of the people with the best information, and get out of the way. Ask often to be helpful. Paint the shelf, once Nushrat has decided it is okay for it to be black. Explain to the beer-loving core of Public Pool why this art opening cannot serve alcohol (breaking the cardinal rule of art openings, but real art is radical). Ask Nushrat to make a playlist, lest angry girl rock of the 1990s not connect well with the gallery crowd.

It is extremely hard to be a real part of a process, and also marginal to it—especially for me, a person who is full of opinions and decisions. This work of facilitation was all about identifying a space being held by me, and handing it to someone else, out of love and genuine curiosity to see what would develop there.

Hey, I learned some things, as Nushrat and her terrifically kind, giggling, hardworking friends (especially Sabira and Bushrah) were generous in answering a lot of dumb questions I had, trying to clarify the sort of terrible half-information I had about the Islam faith. I also learned some fun things, like that families will often give cousins rhyming names, and developed a minor obsession with henna hand art, during the henna art fundraiser we threw to benefit victims of violence in Yemen.

But I think my biggest feeling was a sense of wonder, on the night of the opening. Here appeared a huge group of people, who largely had never set foot in Public Pool before. There was so much love and support and celebration in that space. As a person who also does not drink, for non-religious reasons, it was terrifically fun to be at a sober party filled with so much joy.

Of course, there was a point where the music switched off, and I was like, “What happened to the music?” And Nushrat explained to me that it was call to prayer, so we needed no music for the next 15 minutes. That’s exactly the kind of thing I’d have no idea about. But I will say, it was every bit as interesting and fun to work on a show with her as I’d expected.

I haven’t said too much about the show, aside from promoting it, because it’s not the kind of thing I can do arts writing about–but from a curatorial standpoint, I can see a set of values emerging. I have bad days, but mostly I strive to believe that people will choose to love each other, if they can understand each other. Art can do this, and allyship within art can do this.

Make a space for yourself. Then hand it to someone else and see what happens.

Thanks to everyone who made this show possible. June 24th will be the closing day, from 1:00-6:00 at Public Pool. Eid Mubarak!

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