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Local artists explore American Muslim experience

Exhibit, panel encourage Providence citizens to engage meaningfully with Muslim stories

Local patrons of the arts gathered Friday night at the Athenaeum for a panel discussion on “More Than My Religion,” an exhibit of work by local American Muslim artists at the Providence City Hall.

Photographs, charcoal portraits, abstract collages and henna paintings line the walls of the second floor of City Hall as part of the exhibition, which runs from Oct. 8 to Nov. 18. Keeping with the name of the show, the works feature a diversity of subjects, often distinct from Islam but all infused with the experiences of their American Muslim artists.

Displaying work by local artists in civic spaces is one way Providence tries to realize its claim to the nickname “The Creative Capital,” said Stephanie Fortunato, deputy director of the Providence Department of Art, Culture and Tourism.

Fortunato said she sees this particular exhibit as a public service. “Art is a lens through which we can learn about the people and communities who also call (Providence) home.”

Ralph Mero, an attendee at the exhibit, said, “The city is using this public space in an effort to create a broad appreciation for (Muslim) people.”

During the panel, part of the Athenaeum’s “Salon Series,” the exhibit’s artists and organizers discussed the experiences of American Muslims in Rhode Island.

The topic of American Muslims is “often brought up in the public square at an enormous decibel level without a lot of thought,” said Christina Bevilacqua, the Athenaeum’s director of public engagement. The panel on “More Than My Religion” was a way to engage critically with the issue, she added.

Ijlal Muzaffar, assistant professor of modern architectural history at the Rhode Island School of Design, moderated the panel. He began the night with a theoretical interpretation of “More Than My Religion,” arguing that the exhibition “challenges secular beliefs as a neutral field.”

Noting that the Athenaeum itself is a “temple of secularism,” Muzaffar said that equality exists “when we take secularism as its own belief system” in order to not make distinctions between the religious and the secular.

The night took a personal turn when the artists and organizers of the exhibit were given an opportunity to speak.

Saberah Malik, one of the featured artists, spoke of the significance of Rhode Island — a state founded on the principle of freedom from religious persecution — as the home of the exhibition.

Malik also reflected on her position as a naturalized U.S. citizen. “I made the choice to be a citizen. We choose to be American. There is a certain power in that,” she said.

Ehsun Mirza, an intensivist at Kent Hospital and amateur photographer, also spoke about conceiving of and curating the exhibit. Born and raised in Pakistan, Mirza was sent to the United States as a child by his father when the political situation in Pakistan became unstable. Since then, he has lived in the United States, completed a medical fellowship at Brown and become a naturalized citizen.

Mirza said he recalls how everything changed immediately after 9/11, when a federal officer and four police officers came into his home and rifled through his belongings to “check him out.” For the first time, he felt “intimidation on a systematic level,” he said. 

Since that day, Mirza has been afraid to get a traffic ticket, speak out in public or attract attention. “My narrative was presented on my behalf without me being a part of it,” he said.

Mirza decided to create “More Than My Religion” to expose his story, challenge stereotypes of American Muslims and make sure his children know they are substantive members of the Providence community.

“People of my background are progressive and humanitarian,” Mirza said. “They are your drivers, and flip your burgers, and are your engineers and your doctors.”

“We are part of the fabric of this community,” he added. “My children are Americans — they’re not even from Pakistan. They were born at Women and Children’s (Hospital). Where do they go if you tell them this is not their community?”


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