“I’m not so interested in negative stories,” says Hamida Novakovich, curator behind Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery’s HERE&NOW16 / GenYM, an exhibition featuring the works of nine young contemporary Muslim artists which ran from April-July this year. “There’s always going to be things like Pauline Hanson’s Islamophobia. People work based on fear, and it gets the better of us – particularly in such reactionary, spiritually-devoid and fast-moving times as these. But I believe people are eternally searching for something better than themselves too; and once that fear goes away, people will want to connect more with each other.”
We are seated in a quiet little backroom of Broadway’s very arty café, The Tenth State. The resounding success of the exhibition has busied Hamida’s schedule and seen her career take a leap forwards and a one-way flight eastwards – it was only luck and generosity that secured us an interview. In a week following our rendezvous, she would be relocating to the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney.
Unfortunately, our meeting was brought about by ugly circumstances. Earlier in June, posters advertising GenYM were found defaced and torn down by an unknown individual on campus. On some was found a note denouncing the artworks as ‘haram’, or proscribed under Islamic Law. The basis of the accusation was in reference to the fact that in the Islamic Art tradition, abstract shapes and geometrical designs are used over figural representation to express the concepts of the Unseen God. As the creation of human forms is the sole and unique right of God, to claim this right is taken as a version of idolatry. Yet, not all of the participating GenYM Muslim artists were practicing Islamic art; they were practicing contemporary art. The conflation, in other words, was false.
“It was just silly,” says Hamida. “Someone was quoting a hadith, saying that we were producing art which is against our religion. They were trying to use our own religion against ourselves. That person is not an Islamic juror, so they can’t possibly know so called grey areas like these that have studied in depth by ancient scholars. My reaction to that message was that someone wasn’t happy with the assertiveness and the authentic voice of Muslims – in whatever form – and found that to be a threat.”
Hamida and other artists we talked to professed their belief that the assailant was not in fact Muslim. The hadith was not only misspelt, but misquoted. “I think it was probably someone from the extreme right rather than an extremist Muslim,” says Hamida. “But you can’t be sure.”
It isn’t typical for the UWA gallery to advertise its shows through print media around campus. For GenYM however, given the exhibition’s relevance, its different take on Muslim art, and the prominence of the early to mid-career artists involved (including brothers Abdul Abdullah and Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, also interviewed by Pelican following the incident), it was decided to funnel greater effort into the marketing campaign. This succeeded in generating “a lot more media attention”. And whilst Hamida and the marketing team recognised some works might be seen as controversial, the exhibition did not set out with the agenda to provoke.
Still, regarding the vandalism, Hamida confesses she “wasn’t surprised. After all, I’m Muslim,” she says, lifting a weary eyebrow. “You can’t help but anticipate negative reactions to whatever you put out, looking at what’s going on in the world. You can’t be naïve”. She disputes the idea of universities as sanctuaries for progressive ideas. “In a way, [UWA] is a smaller version of what happens in other places in Australia,” she says. She recalls her undergraduate years, working with the UWA Muslim Association and as a member of the Student Guild, when conversations around Muslims and Islam would sometimes turn “nasty”.
Beyond the vandalism incident, the show – which was extremely well-received overall – incurred other, less overtly negative reactions.
“The shows invigilators would hear visitors saying ‘this isn’t art’, or ‘that isn’t Islamic art’,” relates Hamida. “Even people who were educated would say ‘I don’t understand this show’. People sometimes want to put their foot down and tell us what Islamic art is, and what it isn’t; what is accepted.”
As a rule, targeted violence and ignorance towards that same targeted group go hand in hamfisted hand. Hamida delves extensively into the widespread misconceptions surrounding Islamic Art and art done by Muslims. The former, she explains, is an aesthetic category – “well-established in terms of art historical,” dating from the 7th century and describing visual arts and architecture produced in territories ruled over by Islamic leaders. “Non-Muslims, for instance, can do Islamic art – there is nothing stopping a westerner loving Moroccan tiles, arabesques or Arabic calligraphy.” Unlike in other cosmopolitan world cities, there is a dearth of Islamic art appreciation institutionally in Australia, which tends to prioritise Eurocentric galleries, and Eurocentric interpretations. In New York, where Hamida studied curating at Sotheby’s, collectives and collections around Islamic art abound, and in London, students can enrol in the Prince of Wale’s School of Traditional Arts, which offers programs “to continue the living traditions of the world’s sacred and traditional art forms”.
“Islamic art is not the same as Christian art,” Hamida emphasises. “It’s not religious art by nature, but covers geography – spanning from the Middle East to Africa, and over a massive timeline.”
Most art historians date the end of the Islamic Art period with the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. The politically turbulent decades that followed – marked by decolonisation, nationalism, uprisings and invasions in the Middle East and North Africa – saw immense, tectonic activity amongst Muslim artists. It was a time of collision, divergence and innovation; in their materials, techniques, and ideas, these artists staged diverse innovative revolutions in what art meant, what it could do, and how it could interact with past and present. In their projects, they challenged misconceptions over image-making held by both Muslims and non-Muslims. They staged their independence to Islamic conservatives, who in regions like Saudi Arabia and under strict Wahhabism doctrine, were conducting zealous campaigns to suppress ‘inappropriate’ creative expression – even to the extent of forbidding children from art classes in schools. At the same time, these emerging artists held fast to their autonomy against non-Muslim institutions and groups, which sought to evaluate and catalogue their work under an encyclopaedic, Orientalist criteria.
“There’s this big cultural fusion that was happening,” says Hamida. A former Anthropology student and expert in the field of contemporary Muslim art, her face glows as she talks about the cultural chemistries of the 1940s and 60s, and the cutting-edge Iranian artists who exploded onto the scene in the 90s following the 1979 Islamic Revolution – all struggling and succeeding in “claiming back authenticity, identity”.
Today, in a post 9/11 landscape which has seen intercultural fissures widen the world over and Islamophobia spread, unapologetic artistic expression remains vital. GenYM was important in its capturing of the extant and ever-shifting diversity and the intersectionality of the Muslim community – and within younger generations in particular.
“I think Gen Y is interesting whether you’re looking at Muslims or interesting if you look at the Arab Spring or the rise of Islamic fashion in the Middle East and West, or Muslims speaking about the hijab ban in France,” she says. “So you have a generation which is Muslim and Western. It’s inherent. We’re not migrants – we were born here. For instance, my parents were migrants, but I was born here. A claim to say that I could go back to my country isn’t one that I can do anything about, because I didn’t come with a foreign passport.”
Interlinking the personal and the political, and engaging themes of Islamic and traditional art, gender, sexuality, family, and storytelling, GenYM captured a broad spectrum of ideas. Brought into the same space, the artworks interacted with each other, producing lines of dialogue and exchange between them.
Marziya Mohammedali – active within refugee organisations like RRAN – used mixed media to produce the ‘Call Them Home’ installation; a suspended rickety boat inscribed with the names of those who died seeking asylum in Australia, whether at sea, or during processing under an offshore detention regime described by the UN as ‘torture’. In contact with asylum seekers as a volunteer activist, her artwork is both grounded in community work and family history – “fuelled by her dad’s experiences of fleeing his hometown in Bangladesh – first by land, then by boat”.
The ceramic artwork ‘Loss’, produced by Somalian-born Idil Abdullahi, also held a profound personal and political statement, telling of her journey at ten years of age to Kenya by sea.
“It’s also about discovering the boat they were supposed to be on before had hit a rock. 700 people were on the boat and 200 survived – meaning about 500 had died. She remembers meeting the survivors after they were resettled in Sydney in ‘92 or ‘94, and I asked her about how some of the ladies who’d lost their families were coping now. She told me they haven’t really come to terms with it, they have money and stuff like that now, but they can’t really contend with the mental illnesses and trauma.”
Alongside these refugee stories were stories of mixed heritage (as in Zahrah Habibullah’s grappling with the signification and paradox of heirlooms); of family and parable (as with Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s ‘Practical Magic’ sculpture); and of alienation and dislocation (as in Abdul Abdullah’s photographic ‘Seige’).
The exhibition also featured a queer Muslim woman – Fatima Mawas whose creative work explored this intersection of her identity. Mawas was joined by Mustafa Al Mahdi, who directed a play about queer Muslim youth called ‘Once We Were Kings’ at the Blue Room theatre in 2015. Both spoke on the panel discussion which ran adjacent to the show, which happened to fall the week following the Orlando shooting. “When else would a discussion like that be supported in a forum like that at this university?” Hamida wonders. “It was a first.”
By individuating a community routinely cast and referred to as a monolithic block (and typically as a derogatory ‘Other’), the show sought to subvert stereotype, and resist categorisation. “Using functional language and ideas”, it renegotiated the space of being Muslim.
Hamida was not alone in this effort. Over the past decades, feminist creative projects and productions have emerged, some to international acclaim. Of particular note are those which empower Muslim women, and prove that there is no inherent incongruity between being a feminist and being Muslim.
“A girl who wears a hijab is not seen as having an identity – she is dehumanised into just a set of identity mores and norms that come with that image. There have been movies and hip hop groups, especially in the U.S. that have come out trying to challenge that – for example, a group that come out and dance in funky pants while still wearing the headscarf. In the U.K. there was also a group that put on a play for the 2016 Perth International Arts Festival [No Guts, No Heart, No Glory], about young Muslim women in a boxing ring” – a far cry from the typical image of woven by media narratives of Muslim women as subservient and subdued.
“Once we stop talking about people as all one and the same we can start granting them the individuality you should subscribe to anybody – but which is unfortunately only given to Anglo-Saxon people on Home and Away. If Muslims appear in mainstream culture, it’s like ‘Oh now you’re going to talk about certain political things, like Palestine, because you are Muslim’. But what if I just want to talk about a breakup? Only white people in mainstream culture are allowed to have individual problems. When brown people are let into that culture, they’re portrayed as needing to fit in while trying to get rid of their brown baggage – as if it’s the source of discontent. It’s so subtle but once you see it, it’s very true. It’s things you do in art that really open up that discussion – it exciting and highly relevant, and I think we’re going to be seeing a lot of interesting art coming out about people’s identities. It’s up to people like me who cross between academia and curation to be able to dissect and discuss that art; to put it out there.”
Echoing artist Abdul-Rahman’s response to a similar question, Hamida cites one of the greatest challenges faced by Muslim artists is one shared by many other artists on the margins – that of cracking open the art world cliques and overcoming procedural barriers. Beyond structural nepotisms, Hamida also highlights the ways in which even liberal institutions are careful to give a platform for only certain kinds of Muslim voice, which cleave to a very specific criteria of western principles.
“Another thing that people have spoken to me about – something that definitely affects the GenYM artists as well – is that people expect them to talk about certain things and not others. At the forum, Fatima Mawas wanted to speak at an International Women’s Day event about her love of Islam, but the organisers said: “But you’re queer! Why talk about Islam so much?” But for her, there was no conflict. She is Muslim, believes in God and loves the Prophet, and is inspired by also the strong women who surround the Prophet – politicians and intellectuals who were strong carriers of the traditional sayings of the Prophet, who many men could learn from. But the event’s organisers kept saying, “But I thought you were rebelling against Islam by being queer, since it’s so misogynistic?” In the end, she chose not to give her talk. These people get to tell us what the acceptable deviations from the norm are, and which aren’t.”
The bevy of associations which have accrued around being Muslim in the western mind and media work ultimately to impoverish society as a whole. Hamida reiterates what she has said before in other interviews: “being Muslim is a politicised identity”. She talks about how this politicisation makes identifying as Muslim fraught; an invitation to be seen as a certain kind of artist, in a certain kind of light. It demands complex negotiations between the will to avoid tokenism, pigeon-holding and discrimination; and the will to assert the authenticity of one’s origins – and proudly.
“So, I’m a Muslim curator, I’m proud of my Muslim heritage,” says Hamida. “But am I going to write that on my CV? No – take me as a curator. It’s for me to determine what I want to call myself – and it is the same for Muslim artists, for Aboriginal artists – for any individual. This is what the show tried to make clear.”
Words by Kate Prendergast
Interview by Kate Prendergast and Hayden Dalziel