This Artist Is Using Her Talent To Show Adversities Facing Muslims In America

This Artist Is Using Her Talent To Show

Adversities Facing Muslims In America

“Turning Tables 2” by Sobia Ahmad (2016)

Sobia Ahmad, a 25-year-old Muslim artist, is gaining some recognition in the art world for her nuanced exploration of Muslim-American life. She recently won a fellowship with the Vermont Studio Center and held a solo show at the VisArts Gallery in Rockville, Maryland in late February. Her body of work touches on a myriad of themes that mirror both personal narrative and the adversities Muslims face while living in America.

“There was a time when the headscarf was considered a symbol of oppression. Now it’s become a symbol of resistance, of empowerment almost.

“I’m not trying to communicate just one idea of Muslim identity,” says Ahmad, who moved to America from a town called Gujranwala with her family at the age of 14. “It’s about how identities are in constant flux, and how socio-political ideologies affect it.”

For a lot of her work, Ahmad draws from her past, while also channeling immigration, treatment of minority women and muslim identity in the Trump era.

In an ongoing project, “Home is just a Memory Palace” artifacts of her past life in Pakistan, including family photographic, Islamic tiles, hand-written calligraphy, and an oriental rug, are digitally copies onto a white, chiffon scarf.

“When I think of home in Pakistan, I think of the adhan – the Islamic call to prayer on the rooftops. The nostalgic feeling of being in a place where there’s this melodious echo in the air. As an immigrant, you begin carrying home within you through memory.”

When Ahmad first came to Maryland as a teenager, she found herself caught between two conflicting cultures.

“Nothing was familiar,” Ahmad recalled. “Not the language, clothing, or the food. It was interesting because I was labeled as foreign, but, actually, everything was foreign to me. I felt like I didn’t belong and people weren’t very inclusive.”

She believes it was important for her to keep to her religious and cultural values. She stayed away from things teens her age were interested in, like drinking and partying. It was easier for Ahmad to keep herself than push in an unfamiliar society. When she did try to socialize outside of school, she was often not allowed to. 

“It was very difficult to convince my parents to let me go out to the movies or hang out. “You go to school and that’s one world. And you come home and that’s another world.”

Ahmad didn’t have art classes in Pakistan. She was unaware of the power that art could give her. Once she had discovered the power behind art, she knew this was the way to call attention to her beliefs. She went on to double major in art and behavioral health in college.

“I didn’t realize art had potential to raise awareness about issues of social justice or be cathartic.”  

While much of Ahmad’s work is specific and autobiographical, it also represents something larger.

In a series of 40 by 60 black and white paintings, Ahmad cut out images of Muslim women from magazines and laid them on top of each other until past the point of recognition. She then coated the canvas with black and white paint, symbolizing the erasure of Muslim identity in America.

“I’ve seen identities reduced to symbols and soundbites,” she says referring to how Muslim women are represented in the media. “As Muslims, we’re not seen as full individuals.”

The headscarf is also prominently featured in her paintings. She believes it has many connotations in today’s political climate.

“There was a time when the headscarf was considered a symbol of oppression. Now it’s become a symbol of resistance, of empowerment almost.” 

Ahmad used to wear the headscarf herself, but decided to take it off a couple of years ago. She notes that what Muslim women wear is unfairly obsessed over by “both cultures.” It wasn’t a political statement, but rather a part of her spiritual quest. 

Since the 2016 presidential election, Ahmad’s art has taken a political bent. Trump’s travel ban spurred one of her most evocative installments – “Small Identities,” – a collection of real life ID photos of Muslim immigrants transferred onto ceramic tiles, that she plants to grow into a larger series.

“Art is inherently political and using it to raise awareness in issues that are affecting a certain community is a form of activism,” Ahmad says. “I deeply believe in the catalytic power of art for social change. It can touch people emotionally.”

Susan Main, gallery director and curator of the VisArts Gallery, was impressed with Ahmad’s commitment to creating dialogue through her art.

“She’s articulate about what she’s doing as an artist. Just starting in her career, it’s really rare to see that level of maturity. I see her moving forward and developing as an artist who has consequential impact in the field.”

While much of Ahmad’s work is specific and autobiographical, it also represents something larger.

Her art is an act of defiance in and of itself, as if to say, Muslim identity is fluid, complex and vivid, and doesn’t need to fit anyone’s expectations of it.  

Shabnaj Chowdhury

Shabnaj Chowdhury is a journalist living in New York City, pursuing Arts & Culture reporting at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in BKLYNER and Revelist.

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