Opening This Weekend: St. Louis' First-Ever Muslim Art Show

click to enlarge Aalia Rahman is one of the many Muslim artists whose work will be featured in a new show this weekend.
Aalia Rahman is one of the many Muslim artists whose work will be featured in a new show this weekend.

Yusra Ali decided to organize an art exhibition after making the rounds at local galleries. Her ceramics teacher at St. Louis Community College-Meramec required students to regularly attend other artists' exhibitions, which the aspiring art therapist found inspiring — in more ways than one.

The 22-year-old St. Louis native noticed the paucity of Muslim artists who were actively showing their work. It surprised her. It also got her thinking about the possibility of creating a group show to fill that gap. "I thought, other minorities have art shows, why don't we? We have our own ambitions, our own inspirations."

Her research turned up one show — an exhibition in Texas. It was fine (she’s careful not to denigrate anyone’s work), but it wasn't quite what she had in mind. The Texas show was, she says, "Islamic artists doing Islamic art. I wanted to show other types of artists doing other types of work. More than drawings of mosques, more than calligraphy of Koran verses.”

What Ali hoped to find were artists making personal work separate from their religious identity. Not out of embarrassment, but because being a Muslim in America already means having your religion used as a short hand for your entire identity. Ali believes an art show could help change the way people see their Muslim neighbors.

"In addition to us being Muslims, we each have our own identities that make us unique,” she says. “I thought an art show would reflect that very well. We have our own lives and out own goals, and we have our own ways of enriching America."

click to enlarge Yusra Ali, "In Search of Bliss"
Yusra Ali, "In Search of Bliss"

Working with Faizan Syed of the Council of American-Islamic Relations in Missouri (CAIR-MO), Ali reached out through the usual channels — social networking — and found some like-minded artists.

And once she found them, she realized she had enough artists for a group show. That show – titled Creativity and Identity, an American Muslim Art Exhibition – opens at Third Degree Glass Factory (5200 Delmar Boulevard, 314-367-4537) on Friday. Ali and Syed believe it’s the first Muslim art show in St. Louis.

Despite being sleep deprived as she balances school and final preparations for the show, Ali displays an undeniable enthusiasm for her project. She answers questions with the confidence of an old hand, smiling as she discusses her hopes for Creativity and Identity. "Having this exhibition, not only will it spread awareness of Muslim artists' businesses, but St. Louis will see that there we're here," says Ali. "We're not the stereotypes. We're not what you've seen on TV. This is a non-political event; many of us are shy about talking about our religion."

Creativity and Identity will feature a wide range of work. In addition to Ali's ceramics and printmaking, there will be hand-made soaps (by Shabby Hijabi), designer menswear (by Abbas Labbas), jewelry and spoken word. Ali classes them together under the simple rubric of "American art."

Shabby Hijabi, "Splish Splash."
Shabby Hijabi, "Splish Splash."

"In Islam itself there is no categorization of what art is. It's open-ended, and undefined, because how can you define creativity? American art is more broad. Art often reflects society, and we're a part of that society. Muslims are often thought of not being interwoven into American society, we're seen as something different. But our art will show that we're American." Ali pauses for a moment, then adds, "We're not all studying to be doctors."

Creativity and Identity takes place from 6 to 9 p.m. this Friday (see for more details). Admission is $15, which includes food by STL Gyros. Ali stresses that everyone is invited, regardless of race, religion or orientation. It’s a chance to get in on the start of something big; if the public demand is there, CAIR-MO hopes to make the show an annual event.

Speaking as a future art therapist, Ali thinks the show has the potential to change the conversation about Muslims in St. Louis. "When you see someone's art, it's not as easy to be afraid of them. You can see something of them in their art, and you can see a little bit of your own reflection in it, because you're American, and the art is American." Another pause, another of those enthusiastic smiles. "We're all just trying to make the best America."