Pakistan: Calligraphic Exhibition to Mark Islamic New Year

December 22, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sana Jamal, Pakistan Observer

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Title:  “Qui Sharif” by Abdul Rehman

Islamabad—To mark the arrival of the Islamic year 1433, an exuberant exhibition of Islamic calligraphy was arranged in Islamabad by Gallery Louvre.

The exhibition that opened is a group show showcasing different styles of calligraphic works by young and veteran artists of Pakistan. The calligraphy display features the masterworks of Ahmed Khan, Javaid Qamar, Rashid Ali, Bushra Zeeshan, M.A.Bukhari, Arif Khan, Shahid, Waqar, and Bashir.

Calligraphy, the art of turning plain writings into beautiful script by adding twists around words and the alphabets, has gained recognition in Pakistan lately. The splendid form of art inspired many in Pakistan during 70’s when the country produced some world renowned artists in this field namely, Sadequain and Gulgee.

“Islamic calligraphy is considered an essential part of a Muslim society where most of the houses have a wall adorned with Islamic calligraphies, that’s why we have arranged a calligraphic exhibition presenting the works of new artists as well as the masters like Ahmed Khan” stated Alina Saeed, the curator of the Gallery.

The inclusion of the artworks of Ahmed Khan, one of the eminent calligraphists of Pakistan, has added a special attraction for the art lovers. Ahmed Khan, also an educationist, is celebrated for the luminous paintings, in which a traditional interpretation of line and form are reassessed as calligraphic design. His work comprises of overlaid calligraphic designs based on silver foil pressed on canvas which with a sprinkle of chemicals turns them into vibrant colours.

Vibrant yet elegant artworks of the up-and-coming artist Bushra Zeeshan, are a beautiful addition to the art show, which show that there is an increased interest among youth for the art of calligraphy. Bushra’s work is a combination of square and angular lines as well as compact bold circular forms, presented in uniform script styled calligraphies, and the borders contain details with delicate patterns which provide a perfect balance to the strong fonts. She has explored the original type of Arabic script in her artworks called kufic.

M.A.Bukhari, using acrylic on canvas, has illustrated ninety nine names of Allah in different collages of colours in different sizes. The multi-coloured calligraphic work is a beautiful combination of modern art with cultural and religious values. The artists, known for his large canvases, broad strokes and vibrant lively colours, has applied the colours in thick layers which makes the art piece eye-catching and bewildering at the same time.

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More Art than Science

November 17, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

Dr. Adil Akhtar’s Art

ScreenShot003Born and raised under adversarial political and economic conditions in his native Pakistan, Adil Akhtar knew early on that he would have to work very hard and study long hours through many years of schooling to help provide for his family’s well-being. Against all odds, Adil did just that, eventually earning his medical degree and relocating to the United States to pursue a medical practice in the mid-west. Recognized as a highly competent, knowledgeable, sensitive and caring physician in the fields of oncology, hospice care, palliative and internal medicine. Dr. Akhtar is the Chief of Clinical Operations at the Beaumont Health Care System Cancer Center. Dr. Adil Akhtar is a favorite among his patients and their families for his knowledge, expertise, dedication and compassion. Few who know him as a physician would realize there is another side to the good doctor in which he is equally passionate and prolific.

As the artist, Adil Akhtar is able to throw aside all conventions and allow his creative spirit to have free reign. Heavily influenced by the Abstract Expressionist movement, Akhtar enjoys immersing himself in his work, and is often found dancing on his canvases while painting, thus becoming an integral part of his work.

Still haunted by many of his childhood memories, as well as deeply affected by the current political scene, Akhtar believes art should be relevant, identifiable on a personal level and it should represent the era in which it has been created. Thus, his paintings reflect the mood of the times and capture what is happening around him, as well as reflecting issues he feels strongly about. For example, recent works reflect the 9/11 tragedy as well as subjects related to child labor, Pakistan, the universe and aquatics.

Adil Akhtar competed in ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2010, where his piece, We Are Looking for a New World, was exhibited at the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum. His 2011 Exhibitions have included: ArtExpo New York; The American Airlines Admiral’s Club at LaGuardia Airport in NYC; Lake Placid Celebration of the Arts and Red Dot Miami.

Adil Akhtar’s “Artist’s Statement”

Art is an expression for which the canvas is only a medium

For Adil Akhtar, the medium is less important than the expression. Using acrylics on unprimed canvas, Akhtar spreads the raw canvas on the floor of his studio and then walks or dances on the canvas while painting, thus becoming a part of the whole painting. I become part of the whole scene.

Adil is an avid student of art history and a fan of Post Impressionist painters like Van Gogh and Picasso. Historically, art used to be important to us, but it has disengaged itself from our society. Adil would like for that to change.

Adil’s art includes paintings that reflect relevant subjects close to his heart: child labor, the universe, Pakistan, aquatics and politics. His work was exhibited at the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum in September 2010 as part of the ArtPrize Competition, as well as at ArtExpo New York in March 2011. Other recent exhibitions include: The American Airlines Admiral’s Club at LaGuardia Airport in NYC; Lake Placid Celebration of the Arts and Red Dot Miami 2011. He is represented by Jayson Samuel. ■

Revisiting A Cultural Heritage

November 17, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, TMO

sadu3The cultural heritage of Kuwait has a rich history of arts and handicrafts dating back centuries. The Bedouin Kuwaitis were famous for their brightly woven rugs, tapestries and calligraphy. However, with the discovery of oil in the late 1930’s the reliance upon handicrafts began to fade as the country morphed into an oil rich nation with newfound revenue to import products from all over the world. Today, the vast majority of Kuwaiti society is more interested in the latest fashions straight off the runways of New York and Milan than crafting.

World-renowned Kuwaits artists like Thuraya Al-Baqsami and Khazaal Al Qaffas have kept a flicker of hope for the Kuwaiti art scene burning brightly for decades. However, over the past few years a veritable art revival has been quietly taking place. A minority of Kuwaitis are increasingly becoming more interested in art and handicrafts. Over the past couple of years, hobby shops and art supply stores have started opening up at record pace. And business is booming.

The renewed interested in arts and handicrafts in Kuwait remains a mystery. In the USA and Europe, for example, a surge in interest for homemade handicrafts is often tied to a problematic economy as people try to save money by making things at home or even selling their wares to earn an income. The Kuwaiti economy has not only survived the years long economic turndown, but it has also flourished. The only discernable reason for the revival of arts and handicrafts is that many Kuwaitis are looking to get back to their creative roots.

Not only are there an abundance of arts and crafts suppliers in Kuwait, but there is also a wealth of handicraft classes complete with instructors now available to teach everything from jewelry making to painting. One of the most recent handicraft supply shops, LB o J’zazz – Beads and Things, also offers between 40-60 handicraft classes per year. Owners Lubna Seif Abbas and Bettina Al-Bakhit offer workshops complete with all the materials necessary to complete the crafting project from start to finish. In a recent interview, Abbas shared, “Each class is project-based. I think that everybody has creativity, it is just they need somebody to show them the basics, they need good tools, and time, and we have lots of time here in Kuwait. If anybody is bored, just let them come here. We will fill time with something useful and joyful to do at the same time. There is so much that we can do. People now seek to perform arts and crafts, and they look for some
thing deeper while enjoy doing it.”

The future looks bright for the handmade revolution in Kuwait as even members of the expatriate community are even getting in on the crafting. Abbas revealed that an increasing number of non-Kuwaitis are expressing interest in her courses and several are taking part.

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From Gaza to Oakland

September 22, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Geoffrey Cook, TMO

2011-09-21T163234Z_783637630_GM1E79M01OR01_RTRMADP_3_BELGIUM

Zena, a 6-year-old Belgian-Palestinian girl, waves a Palestinian flag during a protest in central Brussels September 21, 2011. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas plans on Friday to submit an application for full U.N. membership for the state of Palestine based in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the coastal Gaza Strip — lands occupied by Israel since 1967.  

REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Camp Meeker, CA–September 20th–The vote in the U.N. (United Nations) is happening over Palestinian statehood as my readers are consuming this article, but one of most egregious examples of Islamophobia has just happened in the city of Oakland in the East Bay within the San Francisco Bay Area of Northern California.

Of your author’s thirty years on this side of the Bay, all but three of them that city was my domicile.  I can only mourn at my own.

On September tenth I received an electronic mailing from the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) that the show that MECA (Middle Eastern Children’s Alliance) of Berkeley (a smaller twin city to Oakland) had put together with the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland (MOCHA) on child’s art created in the mini-nation of Gaza during the IDF (Israel Defense Force’s) incursion into the Strip at the end of 2008 through the beginning of 2009 had been canceled shortly before its scheduled opening on the 24th of this month.

Your commentator must point out at that the JVP is a Jewish Organization and MECA’s Director and founder, Barbara Lubin, is a Jewish-American who in her youth went to Israel fully adhering to the Zionist myth only to discover the truth of repression there.  When she came back to the States, she founded MECA whose “mission statement” would include the support of children in Gaza, the West Bank, and Iraq.  Probably, her best known project is the funding for the Children’s Hospital in Gaza.  The latest major project of MECA, a multi-sectarian group which actively recruits Muslims, is to improve the drinking water quality within Gaza.  Although the Middle Eastern Children’s Alliance has a strong political vision, its major focus is humanitarian.

The forgoing paragraph is only to emphasize that both the heroes and villains of this story are Jewish-Americans and possibly the “State” of Israel itself.  American Muslims should keep in mind that not all Jews are their enemies, and many are “righteous” and moral towards you and the American body-politick.  It is people like these Jewish-American heroes that have driven the “sin” of anti-Semitism from your columnist’s soul, and I thank them, and commend them for their courage!

MOCHA informed MECA that the show of art work by Gazan children on their reaction to the overly violent Israeli incursion, Operation Cast Lead, wherein approximately 300 0f the over 1400 Palestinian casualties were children, was inappropriate for its depiction of “violence.”   Yet the rescinded exhibition, “A Child’s View from Gaza,” gives agency and a voice to those very young victims.

The reason the board of the Children’s Museum gave to cancel the show so close to its opening, was that the (Zionist) community voiced concern over the violence of the imagery, but the museum has sponsored exhibits in the past of art created in war zones – showing imagery of Iraqi children drawings of the violence of the American aggression and, also, another exposition of Second World War images by child observers.

The Executive Director of MECA, Barbara Lubin, accuses the Board of MOCHA that “…its decision was political…”   Curiously, in the immediate days after the cancelation the Jewish Community Relations Council and Jewish Federation of the East Bay bragged to the regional media of forcing their agenda of an anti-Arab (and, thus, Islamophobic) agenda upon the Museum; and, thus, the museum’s horrendously inhumane decision against the child victims of Gaza.  It was an attack on the children’s right to express their psychological angst upon their loss of their childhood.  A child, Asil, who painted a picture of himself in jail (Sic!) stated “I have a right to live in peace…I have a right to live this life,” and, further, “I have a right to play!”

It was a denial, since the exhibition was in America, of U.S. citizens (including Muslim-American’s) First Amendment Rights being denied by a foreign power.  As an American citizen your writer has the right to view the material to make his own decision about its content, and he resents agents of a foreign government denying  him his natal right as a citizen of this country!

Ziad Abbas, the Associate Director of MECHA, stated that “…By silencing these Palestinian children, the pro-Israeli groups succeeded to stretch the siege from Gaza to Oakland!”

This incident was foreshadowed by a past incident in 2005.  MECA had allied themselves then with the Berkeley Art Center (a city of Berkeley and County of Alameda as well as the private sector supported instituted) and the Graphics Alliance to produce a show in Live Oak Park entitled “Justice Matters:  [14 Palestinian and American] Artists Consider Palestine.”

Viciously, that show was attacked by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League (who were successfully sued during the same period under California law for spying on Muslims and non-Muslims who supported Palestine) and individuals who claimed to represent the “mainstream” (in reality they were speaking for the Zionist faction, a perversion of) Judaism. 

There was even a call by this belligerent fringe element to close the presentation down.   Fortunately, the Mayor of Berkeley, Tom Bates, stood up to this radical pro-Israel faction.  As Ramallah goes to the United Nations, it is easy to perceive the pressure Obama is under with these financially well-endowed vengeful sectarian bigots at his back.

Your researcher is going to suggest something he would not normally do.  That is that you, my target audience, write to Masako Kalbach, the Interim Executive Director of the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland at masako@mocha.org with a cc to Barbara Lubin at the Middle Eastern Children’s Alliance at mecamail@mecaforpeace.org to demonstrate your support for MECA and the victimized children of Gaza and to the Oakland Tribune’s Letters to the Editor where you can cut and paste your comment at http://www.insidebayarea. com /feedback /tribune.  Further, although the Children’s Museum of Oakland is private, it is intimately involved with its host cities, and I would hope residents contact their representative either in the County of Alameda or the city itself or even the Sacramento to ask them to investigate if any there was any infringement of any law or policy.

The current plan is to have the opening display of “A Child’s View of Gaza” in the courtyard of the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland.  (This is termed “plop” art.)   This may be controversial and confrontational, though.

In the long run, this display will need a more stable venue in the (S.F.) Bay Area, and, hopefully the noise of this event will garner enough interest to tour further in North America and Europe.  An Islamic Center in this region taking on this project would be a strong statement!

This incident is only one incident of Zionist and Christian Zionist attempts to silence Palestinian aspirations both politically and culturally.  Caught between these fringe groups, the best course of action at the U.N. is for the U.S. to abstain–which would allow the decision for Palestinian Statehood up to the General Assembly.  As a nation, Ramallah could stand up for their interests in Oakland!

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Community News (V13-I27)

June 30, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Hamid Khan named Soros Justice Fellow

picNEW YORK,NY–The Open Society Foundations this week announced an award of $1.6 million to an outstanding group of advocates, journalists, lawyers, grassroots organizers, and filmmakers working on a range of vital criminal justice reform issues at the local, state, and national levels.

The 2011 Soros Justice Fellows, who hail from 14 different states and Washington, D.C., will explore a wide array of issues, including prosecutorial misconduct, federal immigration enforcement, and the harsh treatment of youth. Among the fellows is Hamid Khan who in  collaboration with a diverse cross-section of individuals and groups, Khan will challenge Los Angeles Police Department surveillance and profiling practices that criminalize benign and legal activity, normalize racial profiling, and render people in certain communities as criminal suspects.

Khan has a long-standing and deep commitment to social justice for marginalized communities in Southern California. As founder and executive director of the South Asian Network, Khan helped to create the first community-based organization dedicated to informing and empowering South Asians in Southern California. He sits on the boards of various organizations, including the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and Generation FIVE, and is a founding member of the Los Angeles Taxi Workers Alliance and the Allies Collective. In 2010, he was selected by the Liberty Hill Foundation as one of six Grassroots Leaders to Watch.

Arif Khan named curator of Clay Centre

CHARLESTON, W.Va–Arif Khan has been named the Clay Center.

Clay Center President and CEO Judy Wellington said there were about 25 applicants, 10 of whom were interviewed initially online through Skype. Three were chosen for face-to-face meetings before the final selection was made.

Wellington said, “Arif comes from a good background. He’s very smart and enthusiastic about the challenge of integrating arts and science, which he has some experience doing in his current position.”
Khan is serving as gallery director of the Tamarind Institute at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque. He curates all exhibits in Tamarind’s gallery. His duties have also included fundraising and organizing, attending and installing exhibitions at art fairs through the country.

“He’s familiar with a number of galleries around the country,” Wellington said. “We think that’s a real asset.”

Khan has a master’s in art business from Sotheby’s Institute of London and a master’s in American studies from the University of New Mexico, where he also minored in art history. He also has a foundation certificate in art law from London’s Institute of Art and Law.

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Interview with Graffiti Artist Mohammed Ali

June 9, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Siddiq Ather, TMO

Mohammed Ali also known as Aerosol Arabic is a Muslim Graffiti artist who has gained attention worldwide, painting murals and conducting shows for peace, justice, and humanity. He was born and raised in Birmingham, England. He was involved with graffiti art during the eighties when it was spreading like wildfire across the U.K. His work has been displayed in a variety of exhibitions, and he has spoken at various artistic and academic venues. 

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Do you think the attitude towards graffiti has changed since the eighties?

They have and haven’t. You still hear the questions of whether graffiti is just vandalism or art. People like Banksy have targeted a whole different audience and shown the power of street art. The attitudes toward the art form have not evolved enough, but the art form hasn’t either.  Many of the artists from this movement are not like Banksy. They are not trying to communicate to the mainstream.

Do you think art needs a purpose?

For me, it has to communicate something. Initially, I was just expressing myself: one’s identity, your name, or your tag. What’s the point of that? If I am painting a public space why should it just be a selfish expression? Why should I be expressing my name? Communication is paramount for me.

What is the value of graffiti art in society?

Who owns the public space? I suppose it’s the people.  So, when I’m painting, I’m painting for the people. I need to be communicating something of value. In big cities we are bombarded by visuals and imagery by different useless commercial products.

For me, it is about taking ownership of the public space and offering, to the public domain, ideas that are beneficial for a progressive and positive society. In our lifetime we have seen the breakdown of certain values. I want to bring something back that will be of benefit to the people, me, as a Muslim, me, as an artist, and me, as human being.

How much of your art is for you and how much is for the audience?

For me, it’s for the audience. I paint for the people, really me getting any personal fulfillment from painting is like a bonus for me. I’m an artist, but I don’t do art for art’s sake, so art for the sake of mankind, I suppose. Art I hope will bring some good to society. It’s a channel for me to release my thoughts and ideas so people may benefit personally, spiritually, or otherwise.

Is art only meant for adding positivity to the world, and for the betterment of society?

Each to their own really. It’s fine that people want to express their color, art, and composition for their own personal benefit; I’m not going to criticize that. Certainly art has some therapeutic properties for personal benefit. There’s a space and need for that.

But I feel, as a Muslim, I also have a strong social responsibility. What did I do in this world if I leave, not if, when I leave I feel I am accountable. What did I do for my community and society at large? What would be the point if I left this world and didn’t do anything to benefit it?

How does being Muslim affect your art?

As a visual artist, graffiti and the Islamic art of written word were interesting. In graffiti art it was man. In the Alhambra Mosque in Spain, it was the word of God. When I rediscovered my identity as a Muslim, as a graffiti artist, I was blown away by the marriage and melding of the two art forms. I felt I could take the best of both worlds without conflict.

There are issues of drawing figurative forms. I do a lot of shadowesque silhouette forms of people. So I have found different ways of expressing things. It has made me think outside the box.
How has your outlook on art changed since you started?

I wasn’t one of those people mindlessly vandalizing property: painting an eyesore, with something of color. I have a social responsibility now. What kind of example would I be if I was painting walls illegally? So I’ll see a wall that’s ugly screaming to be painted, that’s someone else’s wall, anyone can tell you about painting someone’s wall without permission.
Before there wasn’t really a message, just a name, now the focus is on the message rather than selfish expression.

What keeps you going?

Feedback from people, whether it’s to know kids in Palestine were joyously talking about some wall painted in an English city, or seeing an old woman emotionally passing her hand over a load of painted bricks. Art has the power to change the world. I’ve seen how it can.

What is one of the most difficult moments as an artist?

Well the event with the Chicago mural was a challenge, being unable to complete it. Difficulties I face are a blessing. They give me encouragement to come back and do something bigger and better.  I’m planning an event similar to”Writing on the Wall” with IMAN in Chicago, insha’Allah.

Where do you draw your inspiration?

Engaging with the people and traveling my travels. Historical figures: Malcolm X and Salahuddin, leaders who fought for justice. The prophets would be the best examples of course. What we are doing as artists and activists is a continuation  of these people who fought and struggled, fought for justice, fought for bringing back values.

One of my favorite quotes is from the author George Orwell, he once said, “In a time of universal deceit, speaking the truth will become a revolutionary act.”

How do you see yourself advancing in the future professionally, personally?

I established an organization called Soul City Arts, and have been programming and directing theatrical events with other artists. My arts organization in my city is called the Hubb Arts Centre. I want to continue collaborating with groups like IMAN. The scene of arts for social change is very small and people who work in this arena need to connect so they can effectively bring about social change.  We have to think strategically and think where we want to be in ten years.

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Urban Art Flourishes in Dubai’s Dusty Industrial Zone

May 19, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Martina Fuchs and Shaheen Pasha

DUBAI, May 5 (Reuters) – A dusty industrial zone in flashy Dubai has become an unlikely home for a flourishing underground art scene that has grown even as the emirate’s fortunes declined, curbing appetites for extravagant pieces.

Al Quoz, home to stark warehouses and a huge cement factory in the shadow of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, is a far cry from the glitz and glamour that has come to be associated with Dubai.

“It’s raw. It’s a clean plate that we can work on. This is a growing cultural hub, a warehouse district where the ceilings are high and rents are low,” said Rami Farook, founder of the Traffic gallery, where Emirati, Iranian and Saudi artists show works ranging from graffiti art to blaring video installations.

That’s a far cry from the art scene just a couple of years ago, when upscale galleries hosted champagne-fuelled purchases that reflected big money and status, like the Maseratis and Bentleys cruising along the emirate’s palm-lined streets.

Now, affordability and artistic message seem to carry more weight, and the seemingly underground vibe is drawing in a different crowd.

At Etemad Gallery, a former furniture warehouse in Al Quoz, a beige wax sculpture of a human torso riddled with bullets and shells stands in the shadows. Nearby is a series comparing the iris of the human eye to constellations of dying stars.

“There is a growing confidence in local contemporary artists and also an increase in interest in women artists from the region,” said Rory Miller, director of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at Kings College in London.

“Following the economic downturn which hit Dubai hard, there is a move, especially among the younger age group, to look to art that is grittier, more relevant and reflective of their own lives and recent experiences.”

Art houses have taken note of shifting local tastes, even as the higher end of the art market sees signs of a rebound on the back of Dubai’s economic recovery.

“We included a lot more younger artists who are more affordable because we want to increase the depth of participation,” said Michael Jeha, managing director of auction house Christie’s Middle East, which recently held a sale focusing on contemporary artists from Saudi Arabia and Iran.

A number of the pieces sold for less than $10,000, Jeha said, with others available for between $2,000 and $3,000.

All of the works in the Traffic gallery priced between $1,000 and $3,000 sold out. “This made me realize that people in Dubai had this passion for the alternative,” said Traffic’s Farook. “This is the niche I am trying to tap into.”

Raj Sehgal, managing director at Credit Suisse Private Banking in the Middle East and Indian Subcontinent, said some of his clients were looking for investments that could deliver future returns.

“A trend that is quite evident among many of our clients in Dubai is that they have started buying street art due to its appreciation value over time,” Sehgal said.

The political and social upheaval sweeping across the Arab role also appears to be playing a role in the renewed interest in more affordable and urban art.

At Art Dubai, the emirate’s annual contemporary art fair, a number of politically-themed pieces were on display, including one painting that portrayed ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s using icons from Facebook, the social networking site that played a role in uniting street protesters against him.

“Possessing a piece of art because of a certain name or status is holding little relevance,” said Omer Alvie, creative director at Villa No. 6, which showcases emerging artists from Pakistan and arranges exhibitions of alternative art in Dubai.

“Now collectors are interested in the theme of the piece and what the artist is saying. It’s a record of history.”

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Iranian Student With $750 Turns Billionaire — Made by Islamic Art

April 1, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

By William Green, Bloomberg

stoneHead_plate March 30 (Bloomberg) — Nasser David Khalili stands in an exhibition hall in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace, gazing at an 18th-century painted enamel of flowers that’s one of 25,000 works of art he owns. “I’d have paid anything for it,” he says, appraising this miniature by Frenchman Philippe Parpette. “There’s no way I’d have let anybody else buy it.”

Khalili, 64, an Iranian-born billionaire who lives in London, has come to Russia to unveil his fifth art collection: On this overcast December afternoon, 320 of his 1,200 enamel treasures will go on display at the State Hermitage Museum, home to the collection of Catherine the Great, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its May issue.

Having flown in on a chartered plane, Khalili is relishing a private preview, peering through tinted eyeglasses at such possessions as a gilded clock with matching candelabras that once adorned the home of U.S. railroad tycoon William Vanderbilt. Khalili, who says he has a photographic memory, recalls paying $16,500 for these three pieces 34 years ago. He estimates that they’d now cost $600,000.

In all, Khalili says the enamels he has lent the museum are insured for more than 100 million pounds ($150 million). Even so, they are a trifle compared with the obsession that’s consumed him for four decades: his 20,000 pieces of Islamic art. “His collection is certainly the best in private hands,” says Edward Gibbs, Sotheby’s London-based head of Middle Eastern art. “He is the man who has everything. He’s come to define the market.”

Khalili is revealing his latest collection just as the $43 billion global art market is showing signs of reviving — with an Alberto Giacometti sculpture selling for a record 65 million pounds in February to a buyer later identified by dealers as London-based billionaire Lily Safra. In the Islamic art world, prices for the best pieces have been buoyed by a new generation of Middle Eastern buyers, including museums in Qatar and Abu Dhabi.

“There’s fierce competition for anything unique, rare, beautiful or important,” Gibbs says, noting that an Islamic textile Sotheby’s estimated would fetch $250,000 to $350,000 in a March 2009 auction went to Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art for $3.4 million.

The limited supply in this niche within the art market has made Khalili’s collection all the more precious, says Claire Penhallurick, an Islamic art consultant for Bonhams auction house. She says it’s impossible to guess what his entire collection is worth.

“How could you value something that’s unique and irreplaceable?” Penhallurick says. “If you had all the money in the world, you couldn’t assemble his collection now.”

When an exhibition of 471 of Khalili’s Islamic pieces opened at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris in October, they alone were insured for almost 600 million pounds.

The story behind how Khalili built his fortune has long been shrouded in secrets. As a property developer, he shunned publicity and didn’t slap his name on buildings or the company that is his main investment vehicle. He has also operated under the radar when buying art.

“During the collecting, I don’t say anything,” Khalili says. “When it’s done, then I speak.”

His elusiveness has fueled much speculation, often revolving around how he financed his collecting. Khalili, who left Iran in 1967 with $750, says he’s since spent $650 million on art. London’s Sunday Times, which estimated his fortune at 5.8 billion pounds in 2007, gave up guessing his worth the following year and removed him from its annual rich list.

Khalili, whose works are held in a family trust, says he used subterfuge to amass his Islamic collection, pretending for several years to be an art dealer so he could acquire pieces at wholesale prices. While his stealth has often obscured the scale of his buying, the magazine ARTnews says Khalili is one of Britain’s top collectors, along with Safra and private museum owner Charles Saatchi.

The Iranian says he’s aware of whispers within the art trade that he grew rich buying Islamic works for Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. Sitting in his office in London’s Mayfair neighborhood, where the treasures on display include an 8th- century bronze camel and a 7,000-year-old stone sculpture, Khalili beats his chest with his hand when asked about the rumors.

“I didn’t buy anything for anybody. Nobody, right?” he says. “I bought for myself. This is all bulls—, all right?”

The questions surrounding Khalili stem in part from his emergence in the 1980s as a trailblazer in Islamic collecting.

“There was this sudden transformation,” says William Robinson, director of Islamic art at Christie’s International. “In the late 1980s he was the No. 1 buyer.” Robinson and others thought he was buying as the exclusive agent for a powerful client. “It was assumed that the Sultan of Brunei was behind it,” Robinson says. “I really don’t know.”

Brunei’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Britain’s press also fueled speculation about the source of Khalili’s riches. “He spends on a scale no art collector has done before,” London’s Independent wrote in 1994. “Yet no one knows where his money comes from. … (Khalili) vehemently denies the suggestion that he has been secretly investing the sultan’s money rather than his own.”

Khalili says he met the Sultan of Brunei around 1984, after the U.K.’s Foreign Office asked him to advise the monarch on creating an Islamic gallery at the Brunei Museum.

“He had about 10,000 pieces,” Khalili says. “I chose about 1,000 pieces and said, ‘Throw the rest away. They’re junk.’”

As a favor, he says, he selected several items for the Sultan to buy at auction and the Khalili family trust sold him a dozen pieces from its Islamic collection, including Qurans, metalwork and textiles, for about 4 million pounds.

Khalili dismisses rumors that he sold art to the Sultan at inflated prices, pointing out that he later convinced him to donate 10 million pounds to the University of London for an Islamic gallery.

“If you rip somebody off, would they turn around and give you 10 million pounds to build a gallery?” he asks.

It’s now obvious he was buying for himself, Khalili says, since his Islamic collection is cataloged in 19 books written by an army of scholars he has hired to document its provenance and authenticity.

Khalili, who has also built collections of Japanese Meiji art, Spanish metalwork and Swedish textiles since 1975, says the value of his artworks is irrelevant, because he will never sell them.

“All five collections are priceless: 2 billion pounds, 3 billion pounds, 4 billion pounds, it doesn’t make any difference,” he says. “These collections cannot be replaced.”

His Islamic treasures include a 14th-century Iranian world history by Rashid al-Din Fadlallah, which he says cost him 12 million pounds in 1990. “It’s one of the greatest illustrated manuscripts in the world,” says Tim Stanley, senior curator for the Middle East at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

Khalili, who holds both U.S. and U.K. passports, offered to lend his Islamic collection to the British nation in 1992 if the government provided a museum to house it. Khalili says he stipulated that the loan would become a gift after 15 years if the collection was exhibited to his satisfaction; if not, he could take it back.

Outsider in London

“The offer to the British government was a really terrible one,” says Anna Somers Cocks, editor-in-chief of the London- based monthly Art Newspaper, because of this risk. After months with no response, Khalili abandoned the plan. Still lacking a permanent home, most of his artworks are stored in warehouses in London and Geneva.

Michael Franses, a U.K.-based retired dealer in rare carpets who’s known Khalili since the 1970s, says this rebuff reflected Khalili’s outsider status in his adopted country.

“The British establishment was very closed,” Franses says. “I don’t think people trusted him because he was Iranian and strange and different.”

That setback is a distant memory as Khalili strides through the Hermitage, musing on how far he’s come since leaving Iran. His artworks have been showcased by 40 museums, including the Victoria & Albert and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Khalili also prides himself on the honors he has won for his philanthropy. An observant Jew who says he avoids discussions of politics, Khalili co-founded the Maimonides Foundation in 1995 to foster dialogue between Jews and Muslims through sports, cultural events and education. He also endowed a research center for Middle Eastern culture at the University of Oxford.

In recognition of Khalili’s interfaith work, Pope Benedict XVI anointed him last year as a Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Sylvester.
“I’m self-made. I’ve done it all on my own,” says Khalili, whose 14-page resume is headlined: “Scholar, Benefactor and Collector.”

Khalili sees no contradiction in being Jewish and owning an Islamic collection.

“I fell in love with it because it was the most beautiful and diverse art,” he says.

In 2005, at the launch party for Khalili’s book The Timeline History of Islamic Art and Architecture, Iran’s then- ambassador to London, Seyed Mohammad Hossein Adeli, hailed him as “an ambassador for the culture of Islam.”

First Treasure

Khalili’s journey to the top of the art world began in Iran on Dec. 18, 1945. The fourth of five children, he grew up in Tehran. His mother counseled divorced women. His father — like his father before him — visited homes to acquire artworks he could sell for a few dollars profit.

As a child, Khalili tagged along when his father traded art, once joining him at the home of a former education minister with a collection of pen boxes. The 12-year-old yeshiva student was enraptured by a lacquer pen box painted with 800 men and horses, each one different. Khalili recalls that when he rhapsodized about the box, the owner’s eyes filled with tears.

“He turned round to my dad and said, ‘I’m not selling this to you. I’m giving this to your son,’” Khalili says. He still has the pen box in his Islamic collection. “So the first piece I didn’t buy; I was given,” he says.

Art Mentor

After high school, Khalili did national service, training as an army medic. At 22, he left Iran for New York, where he worked at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant while studying at Queens College, part of New York’s public education system. One evening, as Khalili sipped cream to soothe an ulcer, the restaurant manager scolded him for taking it without permission. Khalili threw his waiter’s jacket at his boss and decided he’d trade art to pay his school fees.

At an auction of Russian enamels months later, Khalili noticed the main bidder was Alan Hartman, whose family ran a Manhattan antiques store. Khalili borrowed several enamels from Hartman on consignment. He says he sold them that evening for a $26,000 profit to Iranian collectors he knew on Long Island, where many wealthy Iranians were settling. (Khalili’s four siblings have since moved there.)

Hartman, now 80, says he wanted to help because Khalili was a Jewish immigrant struggling to build a new life. “We felt sorry for him,” he says.

“Alan and I did a hell of a lot after that,” Khalili says. “In two years, I was a millionaire.”

Friends say it was typical of Khalili that he’d launched himself by charming a stranger into lending him art.

“He has a way of winning people over,” says Sotheby’s Gibbs.

Tactile Billionaire

In person, Khalili exudes warmth: Meeting someone for the first time, he’s liable to introduce himself with a hug. He stands close to people, resting his hand on their arm, shoulder or back.

Before graduating from Queens in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in computer sciences, Khalili was already amassing his own collection.

“I used to buy a group of objects — let’s say, 10 objects for $100,000 — keep 3 or 4 of the best aside and sell the rest for $250,000,” he says. “I used my knowledge to create money to finance my dream.”

In 1978, Khalili married Marion Easton, an Englishwoman he’d met while buying jewelry from her in a London antique store, and they settled in the U.K. capital. They have three sons: Daniel, 28, a jewelry designer, and twins Benjamin and Raphael, 25, who invest family money in startups such as PlayPit Games Ltd., an online entertainment company.

Decoy Shop

In addition to dealing art, Khalili says he began in the late 1970s to buy commercial properties in the U.K., France, Portugal and Spain.

“As he made money with property, he put it into art,” says Franses, the retired carpet dealer. “He was only ever interested in the art.”

Khalili approached him whenever he had cash to spare, buying such rarities as two 16th-century rugs that Franses says would now cost 2 million pounds each.

Khalili deployed misdirection to his advantage when he opened an Islamic art store in London in 1978. For three years, Khalili says he used the shop as a ruse to obtain dealers’ prices.

“I never sold anything there; I used that place as a decoy and bought unbelievable stuff,” he says.

“His timing was impeccable,” says Penhallurick. Islamic art was such a backwater that dedicated Islamic auctions didn’t begin until the 1970s. Khalili — whose main rivals at the time included the Kuwaiti royal family and the David Collection, owned by a Danish foundation — says many pieces he acquired then would now cost 10 to 50 times more.

Beautiful and Overlooked

“Anything that is beautiful and was overlooked, I bought,” says Khalili, who received a Ph.D. in Islamic lacquer at the University of London in 1988.

By the mid-1980s, Khalili says, his purchases were partly funded by venture capital investments that he declines to name. He says he made 30 times his money off shares he had bought in the late 1970s in a company developing technology to treat tumors. In 1987, he says he pocketed $15 million from the sale of a private company that made indigestion pills.

Khalili says he stopped trading art around 1980 and bankrolled his collecting primarily with profits from property. In a typical deal, he says, he paid 32.5 million pounds in 1992 for Cameron Toll, an Edinburgh shopping mall, selling it two years later for 55 million pounds as the market revived. Public records show Khalili has owned various private property companies.

Property Development

His main vehicle, Favermead Ltd., was incorporated in the U.K. in 1992 and sold 97 million pounds of property in 1995 alone, according to the company’s financial statements.

“Business is the least of my pride,” Khalili says. “Compared to collecting, it’s a piece of cake.”

Still, he currently owns a 60,000-square-foot (5,574- square-meter) business park in Exeter, England; a 32,000-square- foot building in Mayfair; and a site in central London where he plans to build a 320,000-square-foot, 13-story office tower when the real estate market recovers.

“If he starts building in the next 12 months, it’ll be very good timing as there’s very little available in the market,” says Gerald Ronson, CEO of London-based developer Heron International, which also bid for the central London site.

Mayfair Mansion

One personal property venture proved more problematic.

In 1993, Khalili began combining two buildings in Kensington that once housed the Russian and Egyptian embassies into a 55,000-square-foot home. Khalili says he spent 90 million pounds on the house, including 45 million pounds on the refurbishment. He employed 400 craftsmen for 4 years, installing 3,200 square meters of marble, a Turkish bath and underground parking for 20 cars. Marion Khalili says she refused to move in, deeming the house too palatial.

In 2001, Khalili unloaded the property for 50 million pounds to Formula One tycoon Bernie Ecclestone, who sold it to steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal for 57 million pounds in 2004, according to public records. Khalili now lives instead in a seven-story Edwardian mansion in Mayfair.

These days, Khalili says, his buying of Islamic art has slowed. With competition intensifying, he’s turned his attention elsewhere. One afternoon in late February, he reveals that he’s already begun his sixth collection. This time, Khalili says, he’s acquired an existing trove of nearly 200 pieces, to which he’ll add more treasures.

And the collection’s theme?

“I’m not telling you,” Khalili says with a smile. With that, he draws a veil on the next chapter in the improbable story of the Iranian yeshiva student who became the world’s leading private collector of Islamic art.

–Editors: David Ellis, Jonathan Neumann

DIA Opens Islamic Art Section

February 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Adil James, MMNS

As Muslims we always have great appreciation when our religion and the various expressions of our religion garner positive recognition and interest from respected non-Muslim institutions—sometimes in fact we take more pleasure from their taking notice than we do from recognition from our own Muslim institutions.  And so we Muslims take great pleasure in the recent exhibition at the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA), called the “Gallery of Islamic Art,” which was opened in a very exclusive event this past Saturday at the DIA at 5200 Woodward Ave. in Detroit.  This event was by invitation, with valet parking and a $250 fee for dinner, a black tie event attended by ambassadors and museum officials, and important and well-connected people from Detroit’s Muslim community.

The Islamic gallery itself is very interesting, and important as an expression of respect for Islam, however it is somewhat small, with about 1,000 square feet devoted to Islamic art—another slight detraction is that it seems to be a smorgasbord of Islamic art rather than an exhaustive or even organized look at Islamic art.  There is one large Persian rug, many examples of pottery and ceramics, several copies of Qur`an, and some collections of ahadith, but surprisingly without translations, and a video demonstrating the art of Islamic calligraphy.  There is perhaps as much space given to Christian and Jewish scripture (included as examples of Muslim tolerance, since they were made by Arabic speaking Jews and Christians living under Muslim rule) as there is to Muslim scripture in the exhibit.

There was some modern art which focused on Muslim themes, for example one painting by a modern Iranian painter on Sayyidinal Khadr (as)—who is mentioned in Qur`an.  Modern art on Muslim themes, however, is not strictly Islamic art.

There is nothing in the exhibit on Qur`anic recitation, which is a vital Islamic art.  There was to my noticing nothing from east Asia, or from central Asia, or from Africa.  There were no modern devotional musical forms represented.  There was to my noticing no poetry—one page of Rumi’s poetry in the original text would have been beautiful.  There was not clothing either—the entire exhibit could have been on Muslim turbans of various kinds and their meaning.  Or on kufis from around the world.  Or on any of many rich and different clothing  traditions from around the Muslim world.

There is very minimal calligraphy, which by itself could fill the entire museum with many different and beautiful forms of expression, from Chinese to Arabic to Turkish and even Japanese forms. In fact, likely 1,000 square feet would not be enough space to do a thorough exhibit of any one of several Islamic art forms, such as calligraphy, carpets, architecture, or pottery. 

But on the positive side, as a general approach the exhibit does show a long range of historical works up to the present, covering the past 600 years (including a Qur`an from the 1400s).  And the exhibit does show materials from several countries, although perhaps it centers on Iran a little bit more heavily than elsewhere.
The striking thing about this exhibit is first that Islamic art is in reality something that is in use in daily life, not something that Muslims hide from daily view, from the prayer carpets Muslims use, to the recitation they perform at specified intervals, to the buildings they live in and gardens they nurture, and the clothing they create.  And the natural and intrinsic beauty of this is different at a fundamental level from the concept of art as an icon that is produced and then ensconced in a museum for occasional admiration.

And, perhaps, another lesson from the exhibit is that Islamic art is something best demonstrated by Muslims themselves.  Still, the DIA has done something very gracious and important by devoting a substantial and expensive portion of its real estate to opening the world of Islamic art to museum visitors.

The DIA also opened itself to Muslims from around Detroit, including TMO, which is a very important gesture–when we as Muslims still face tremendous pressure from prejudice and ignorance–it is an enlightened act to show an Islamic art exhibit in this time.

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Syrian Singer Abu Ratib Pleads “Not Guilty”

February 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Michigan Islamic Examiner/Heather Laird

Abu Ratib January 26, 2010. In a Federal court hearing in Detroit on Monday January 25, 2010, singer Abu Raitb pleaded not guilty to the charges of making false statements to the FBI, false oath in a matter relating to naturalization and attempted unlawful procurement of naturalization.

Abu Ratib also known as Mohammed Masfaka is a beloved singer of Islamic songs. He has millions of fans throughout the Arab and Muslim world, and is respected by not only the common person but by government diplomats as well. He is considered by some Michigan residents to be one of the leading Islamic singers of all times, and is believed to have written more songs than the also popular Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) and Sami Yusuf.  He is the Chair of the International Union for Islamic Art.

After reading the nine-page indictment put forth by the FBI, one wonders what this case is really concerned with achieving. The document states questions asked and answered and some discrepancies in the answers. More specifically, the case mentions that Abu Ratib left off of his immigration papers a low-level job that he held for a short period of time. How many people in the United States everyday leave off previous employment on job applications. His other offense was not mentioning or mentioning incorrectly compensation. I am quite confident this happens everyday in the US as well. In fact, can everyone say Treasury Secretary?

All sarcasm aside, this is serious when it comes to immigration, and I would be on the first line of defense for my Country if you told me an immigrant left off their application that they were affiliated with some group that would harm United States citizens. But, this is not the case here. The government is saying that they knew he worked for an entity that was approved a 501(c)3 status – meaning an organization that already had some governmental scrutiny.  And, he did so here in the United States, so it was not covert or anything. How would or could he know that the government, because of its policies with Israel would change their opinion about their foreign policy? Holy Land Foundation was prosecuted and the first trial was declared a mistrial, the second received a conviction and now it is currently on appeal. So, we are prosecuting an individual because of guilt by association with a group that may or may not be considered affiliated with terrorism, but that the US Courts have not yet decided on, and not because we think “he” was a terrorist, but because he left off information from an application.

Why would we do this? The immigrant story is one that most of us are familiar with in folklore. People come to America to build a better life. They believe the will have certain unalienable rights that they do not have elsewhere. I am positive that the Masfaka family believed they would have in America what they could not find elsewhere. But, the reality for some immigrants is of another nature. Some immigrants are targeted as assets for the government. And because they are immigrants or of immigrant status can be intimidated or coerced into becoming informants or spies for the United States or have their citizenship revoked. They trust their new government. Aren’t we all raised to trust the authority in our midst – our police officers, our government. If you are a minority in the United States, a different reality exists. However, the majority is taught to trust government.

So, if you are an immigrant likely your first language is not English. You come to America wanting to be an American, and fill out your paperwork and then you are a citizen. The process is only not that simple. If the government at any time deems it necessary to use you, then they can very meticulously scrutinize every piece of paper and every conversation you have had to find a small detail left out here, a mistranslation there, etc., until an error is found or omission which to the government translates as a lie and you have now become a defendant.

What Masfaka seems to really be guilty of is not having legal representation with him at critical junctures in his immigration process. But, how many immigrants do not, and are not being prosecuted? We can presume many. This man was targeted, because of an Islamaphobic attitude that has been allowed to prevail in the United States. It is forbidden for Muslims to spy. For a man to take the stance of refusing to commit a sin in his faith is to stand for his freedom of religion. This is one of the positive rights that Americans are supposed to enjoy. It seems in this case, Masfaka may have taken that stand and is now being punished for it.

The result of this case has two very negative implications for the United States. First, it seems to tear at and shred our Constitution a little more. Not providing that blanket of freedoms that we promote as being unique to us. Second, this particular Defendant is Internationally known and beloved. And here we are again, post the Obama Cairo speech being seen as double-speak on the International scene. You say you want peace, but your actions appear to be targeting  and punishing people who do not fit the bill of terrorist.

Muslims will help their Country. No one wants corruption in the Muslim community. Why can’t we ask American Muslims to help in cleansing this Country of corruption instead of thinking the only way to do so is through seeming coercion and intimidation.

The Muslim community is praying for the Masfaka family that these charges are dropped. The American Muslim community prays for its Country in hopes that America can find a new approach and fight for all its citizens.

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Muslim Americans Inspire at the Apollo

February 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sarah Jawaid, Common Ground News

apollo_facade Washington, DC – As I peered down from the lower mezzanine level of Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater, I knew I was witnessing history. The village of Harlem has been a beacon of inspiration for artists throughout the 20th century; novelists, poets, musicians and actors found it a safe-haven for expression through various art forms such as music and theatre. On 23 January, a burgeoning Muslim American culture also found voice on the Apollo’s historic stage.

The Inner City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) organised a special edition of Community Café, usually held in IMAN’s hometown of Chicago. This Muslim-led event was meant to provide a space for the socially conscious to celebrate and engage in various artistic forms of expression. Muslims from across the spectrum showcased their incredible talents while shattering self-propagated boundaries of race, gender, sect and vision. A sold-out audience cheered on the dynamic range of creativity from artists, like singer/actor Mos Def, comedian Aasif Mandvi, Progress Theater, musician Amir Sulaiman and The ReMINDers.

The most striking and memorable aspect of the event was not any one performance, but the performances’ effect on those attending. The social cohesion resulting from the event extended beyond the Apollo, sending reverberations throughout the American landscape as attendees returned home. With the recent catastrophic events in Haiti heavy on the hearts of the performers, it was a night of social responsibility, artistic sharing and advocacy.

This event couldn’t have come at a more perfect juncture in the Muslim American experience. Our identity continues to be shaped by our diversity, reaction to world events and sometimes the stereotyping within and outside of our communities. Nevertheless, Muslim Americans are proactively constructing their own unique identities by contributing meaningfully to society through engagement in causes they truly care about.

For example, there’s the woman getting her Ph.D. in psychology to bring attention to mental disorders often seen as illegitimate in many of our communities. There’s the man shattering misconceptions about masculinity by taking on issues of domestic violence. There’s the painter donating proceeds from what she creates to the victims of Haiti.

These are everyday people. They aren’t in the limelight. They don’t have book or movie deals. They are living their lives, doing genuine good work because they believe in it. Yes, they are Muslim, and so much more.

Oftentimes, the media highlights folks on the fringes as the only ones confronting singular expressions of Islam. Those in the middle go unnoticed because they aren’t as sexy, loud or attention seeking. While the former expressions are one patch in the quilt that makes up the dynamic nature of the Muslim American community, they shouldn’t receive a disproportionate amount of attention. Our collective hope for society should be a higher level of consciousness, and that won’t happen by focusing only on those at the edges of society, who are most visible.

Focusing on the everyday folks instead can lead us to a stronger sense of social cohesion. These individuals provide us with something intangible but extremely valuable. They are the steady calm, the heart that keeps beating even when gone unnoticed. These individuals are helping create a Muslim American narrative that is based on God-consciousness by confirming faith with good works, community engagement and a purpose that goes beyond their existence.

As I sat there at the Apollo, listening in awe to the beautiful operatic voice of Sumayya, an African American woman with a pink hijab (headscarf), and Zeeshan, a Bangladeshi American Andrea Bocelli, I knew I was home. They were sharing a part of their soul with me while shattering barrier upon barrier.

Art comes from deep within us, a place that often thrives with mental quietude and presence. And when art is shared with one another, it has the power to inspire, build bridges to uncharted places and heal wounds. As we continue to shape our stories, let’s remember our essence and how we are all connected to friends of other faiths, the earth and our communities–from a place of wholeness.

* Sarah Jawaid is a writer, artist and faith-based activist working on urban planning issues in Washington, DC. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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Joe Sacco’s New Book

January 4, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Graphic novel on IDF ‘massacres’ in Gaza set to hit bookstores

By The Associated Press

selfportrait_sacco Fans say graphic novelist Joe Sacco has set new standards for the use of the comic book as a documentary medium. Detractors say his portrayals of the Palestinian conflict are filled with distortion, bias and hyperbole.

One thing is certain – the award-winning author of “Palestine” leaves few readers indifferent.

Sacco’s work has more in common with gonzo journalism than your Sunday comic strip: He travels to the world’s hot spots from Iraq to Gaza to Sarajevo, immerses himself in the lives of ordinary people, and sets out to depict their harsh realities – in unflinching ink and paper.

One of his biggest supporters is award-winning Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman, who directed the 2008 Golden Globe winning cartoon ocumentary “Waltz for Bashir.”

“Whenever I’m asked about animation that influences me, I would say it’s more graphic novels. A tremendous influence on me has been Sacco’s ‘Palestine,’ his work on Bosnia and then Art peigelman’s ‘Maus,’” he said in a telephone interview.

“His work quite simply reflects reality.”

The American-Maltese artist’s latest book, “Footnotes in Gaza,” chronicles two episodes in 1956 in which a U.N. report filed Dec. 15, 1956 says a total of 386 civilians were shot dead by Israeli soldiers – events Sacco said have been “virtually airbrushed from history because they have been ignored by the mainstream media.”

Israeli historians dispute these figures.

“It’s a big exaggeration,” said Meir Pail, a leading Israeli military historian and leftist politician. “There was never a killing of such a degree. Nobody was murdered. I was there. I don’t know of any massacre.”

Sacco’s passion for the Palestinian cause has opened him up to accusations of bias.

Jose Alaniz, from the University of Washington’s Department of Comparative Literature, said Sacco uses “all sorts of subtle ways” to manipulate the reader.

“Very often he will pick angles in his art work that favor the perspective of the victim: He’ll draw Israeli soldiers or settlers from a low perspective to make them more menacing and towering.”

Alaniz also said Sacco draws children “in such a way to make them seem more victimized.”

Sacco himself admits he takes sides.

“I don’t believe in objectivity as it’s practiced in American journalism. I’m not anti-Israeli … It’s just I very much believe in getting across the Palestinian point of view,” he said.

In “Palestine,” which won the 1996 National Book Award, Sacco reported on the lives of West Bank and Gaza inhabitants in the early 1990s. “Safe Area Gorazde,” which won the 2001 Eisner Award for Best Original Graphic Novel, describes his experiences in Bosnia in 1995-96.

Sacco has been lauded by Edward Said, the renowned literary scholar and Palestinian rights spokesman, who said in his foreword to “Palestine”: “With the exception of one or two novelists and poets, no one has ever rendered this terrible state of affairs better than Joe Sacco.”

“Footnotes” – to be released in the United States on Tuesday – sees Sacco’s cartoon self, with the now trademark nondescript owlishly bespectacled eyes, plunge into the squalid trash-strewn, raw concrete alleys of Rafah, and its neighboring town of Khan Younis.

Sacco draws crowded narrow streets, full of prying schoolchildren and unemployed men. His desperate characters – fugitives, widows and sheiks – mix long past fact with fiction.

“What I show in the book is that this massacre is just one element of Palestinian history … and that people are confused about which event, what year they are talking about,” he said.

“Palestinians never seem to have had the luxury of digesting one tragedy before the next is upon them.”

Sacco said in doing so he is trying to create a balance to what he calls the United States’ pro-Israeli bias.

A scene in “Palestine” shows an Israeli woman asking: “Shouldn’t you be seeing our side of the story?” Sacco’s cartoon self replies: “I’ve heard nothing but the Israeli side most of my life.”

Sacco says he puts himself into his comics because he wants his readers to see and feel what he does.

“I’m not pretending to be the all powerful, all knowing journalist god … I’m an individual who reacts to people who are sometimes afraid … On a human level, of course that colors the stories I’m telling.”

Folman, who both wrote and directed the 2008 animated documentary film about a 19-year-old Israeli soldier still troubled by nightmares about the Lebanon War, says Sacco has brought something rare to the cartoon genre.

“The way he illustrates says everything about the writing – it’s so unique, there is nothing quite like him,” he explained.

“I really admire the guy … And I feel from his work that we share exactly the same opinions about what’s happening in the Middle East … The day will come when I will meet him and hopefully work with him.”

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