imaginary man

shahzia sikander. miniature in mughal style: imaginary man, 1991 (vegetable color, watercolor, tea, and gold leaf on wasli paper, 11 x 8 inches). this piece made me tear up. its exquisite detail, the subdued color palette, the delicate hands and fingers, the otherworldly beauty of this serene male figure — a bearded, muslim figure and all that it has come to mean in the western imaginary, yet here it is, portrayed as something distinguished and light, frail rather than threatening, gossamer rather than immovable. i stood there for a long time, coming close to the piece and connecting with the arduous, detail-oriented work that went into creating this dazzling art. it took sikander years to complete it.

shahzia sikander: extraordinary realities

this past weekend, my sister, daughter and i went to see ‘shahzia sikander: extraordinary realities’ at the morgan library and museum in nyc. a tremendous exhibition even though it spans the first 15 years of her work only. she moved to the US the same year i did, in 1993, and i’ve been following her work since the 90s. rooted in rigorous research, filled with symbolism and iconography, unafraid to engage with the politics of empire, race and patriarchy, bent on creating a unique and personal vocabulary, sikander’s work is bold, original, and always ahead of its time. it is also beautiful – many pieces painted painstakingly over years. the details are astonishing, the overall impact of her images almost mystical (in how they simultaneously activate the mind and enchant the eyes), and the narrative intricacies of her work (with its rich subtext and references) demand attention. that she is an artist from lahore, educated at the national college of arts (NCA), who studied miniature painting under the tutelage of professor bashir ahmad, makes her all the more special to pakistanis. my daughter read every art label and took pictures of every artwork. she told me it was the best exhibition she’d ever been to. it’s moving to encounter extraordinary art. it’s sublime to recognize bits and pieces of oneself in it. i will be sharing images in several posts. as molly crabapple has said: if u are in ny, u owe it to yourself to see this exhibition.

Pakistan One on One is now on Vimeo

Friends, I am thrilled to share that in addition to The Muslims I Know, you can also watch my second film online. Pakistan One on One (2011) was shot in Lahore. It’s a fascinating series of conversations with a wide range of Pakistanis (including students, shopkeepers, real estate agents, tailors, teachers, and the incredibly gracious Navid Shahzad). We talk about the War on Terror, the Taliban (a hot topic once again as we move closer to the US exit from Afghanistan), and what Pakistanis think of US foreign policy and Americans. Most interviews are shot outdoors, on location, and they shine with the freshness and vitality of Hassan Zaman’s funky music and Liz Phillips’s quirky visuals and transitions. It’s a film I’m very fond of. Pls watch and support activist filmmaking here.

Islamophobia is Racism

always hated the term ‘islamophobia’ although i’ve used it in presentations (in order to then unpack it). i speak about anti-muslim racism but it’s frankly exhausting. many times it feels like one is repeatedly hitting one’s head against a wall. here are some amazing resources to learn and teach more.

‘This syllabus reframes “Islamophobia” as “anti-Muslim racism” to more accurately reflect the intersection of race and religion as a reality of structural inequality and violence rooted in the longer history of US (and European) empire building. Conceptually, a focus on anti-Muslim racism is connected to an analysis of history and forms of dominance – from white supremacy, slavery and settler colonialism, to multiculturalism and the security logics of war and imperialism – that produce various forms of racial exclusion as well as incorporation into racist structures. Our primary focus is on the manifestation and impact of anti-Muslim racism in the United States. At the same time, this syllabus insists on thinking about anti-Muslim racism as a global project that overlaps and intersects with the exclusion of other marginalized groups (e.g. Black, queer, Latinx, immigrant, indigenous, etc). It also connects the histories of various racial logics that reinforce one another, including anti-Muslim racism, anti-Black racism, anti-Latinx racism, anti-Arab racism, and anti-South Asian racism.’ more here.

goodbye dear david

rochester has lost David Dornford, an anti-war activist who showed up at every community discussion, rally and protest. i remember how he would always sit in the back and catch up personally at the end. he was soft-spoken, a gentle presence, yet consistently there to validate and uplift social justice work. in a world where we are taught to compete against one another to merely survive, where steve jobs and jeff bezos represent ultimate success, where selling products and selling ourselves have become a way of life, and preemptive aggression is thought to be the only way to be ‘safe,’ david exemplified an alternative ethos. kindliness, composure, sagacity and humility. however ruthless the systems we live under, the qualities david embodied will outlast all the machismo and sales spiels. they will continue to shine. rest in power dear david. thank u Anna-Kristina Pfeifer for capturing him so beautifully.

David from Visions and Voices on Vimeo.

Free Khalida Jarrar

The sudden loss of one’s 31-year old beautiful, vibrant, activist daughter is pain that’s hard to even imagine. And then not be able to see her, hold her one last time, bid her farewell. To be imprisoned by the settler colony, once again, and be at the mercy of its occupying military. Cruelty, inhumanity, violence. Words are not enough.

Najwan Berekdar: At this horrendous moment of the tragic loss of her daughter, Khalida Jarrar, Palestinian revolutionary, parliamentarian & organizer, remains imprisoned in Israeli jails denied the last chance to kiss her daughter goodbye & the comfort of her loved ones. #FreeKhalidaJarrar

Watch The Muslims I Know Online Vimeo On Demand

Friends, since people don’t buy DVDs as much anymore, The Muslims I Know (2008) is now available to watch online. Give it a try and let me know what you think of the film. There’s also bonus footage you can watch from interviews I conducted back then with Thomas Gibson and Ruhi Maker, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, and Edward Kannyo.

Peterson Kamwathi

Born in 1980 in Nairobi, Peterson Kamwathi is part of a generation of young East African artists whose break with the colonial tutelage that for decades defined the region’s art has afforded the exploration of topics both deeply rooted in Africa’s cultural background and engaged with global contemporary issues.

Peterson’s highly codified, symbolic, conceptual works, whose content and concepts go far beyond local relevance, distance themselves from the usual patterns of reception of figurative art from Kenya. Rendered in thick layers of charcoal, pastel, watercolor, stencils and more recently collage, Peterson’s figures are anonymous, static, almost abstract, a physical presence powerfully pushed to the forefront of the picture plane and the viewer’s attention by dense backgrounds devoid of vanishing points.

His practice, fostering the idea of art as a process-based and time-based project, often creates encapsulated visual archives by exploring contemporary themes in series and in layers, each group of works exploring social, political, personal and institutional structures symbolized through the depiction of the human figure.

Frederick Douglass’ 4th of July Speech is Today’s Must-Read

From Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Every 4th of July, my liberal and left friends and family on Facebook, who as I do dislike the patriotic gore, and especially that it celebrates the Declaration of Independence with its vicious slur of the “savages,” meaning Indigenous nations, the Anglo elite and settlers alike barrier to acquiring land and more land with their horizon being the Pacific, invoke Frederick Douglass’s 1852 scalding attack on the celebration.

But, Douglass wasn’t criticizing the concepts written in the Declaration, rather calling out the hypocrisy of the call for freedom while hundreds of thousands of people of African descent lived under chattel slavery, their very bodies viewed as commodities to be traded on the market. He spoke differently, as a patriot, after emancipation, although still fighting for Black inclusion and voting rights.

From Teen Vogue, July 4, 2018:

“Douglass professed striking racism toward indigenous peoples in America. Despite being a staunch abolitionist, Douglass used a kind of racialized othering against indigenous peoples similar to what white supremacists had used against him. In an 1866 speech titled “We Are Here and Want The Ballot-Box,” Douglass spoke to a Philadelphia audience regarding the differences between black Americans and what he called “the Indian.” In an 1866 speech titled “We Are Here and Want The Ballot-Box,” Douglass spoke to a Philadelphia audience regarding the differences between black Americans and what he called “the Indian.”In one particularly brutal section, the abolitionist said, “There is no resemblance in the elements that go to make up the character of a civilized man between the Indian and the negro…[the Indian] sees the ploughshare of your civilization tossing up the bones of his venerated fathers, and he retreats before the onward progress of your civilization…he abhors your fashions, he refuses to adopt them. But not so with the negro.”

This is not to “cancel” Douglass or degrade his contribution to abolition, rather to remind that, as one important book title puts it, “Why You Can’t Teach United States HIstory without American Indians.” Race, racialism explains a great deal about US history and the present crisis of looming white nationalism, but it does not explain US militarism and imperialism. The US hundred years of war against Indigenous Nations to take the continent created the US imperialist armed forces.
Race, then, does not explain why we do not and have never really had an antiwar movement in the US, yes opposition to some specific wars, but anti-war, anti-imperialist mass movements do not last past the specific war. Race and racialism/slavery explain half of the origins of US capitalism, but is incomplete without land, land theft, land sales, real estate, settler-colonialism.

My relatives went to a Catholic school for Native children. It was a place of horrors

Nick Estes: “After the discovery of 751 unmarked graves at the site of a former school for Native children in Canada, it is time to investigate similar abuses in the US. There is so much mourning Native people have yet to do. The full magnitude of Native suffering has yet to be entirely understood, especially when it comes to the nightmarish legacies of American Indian boarding schools. The purpose of the schools was “civilization”, but, as I have written elsewhere, boarding schools served to provide access to Native land, by breaking up Native families and holding children hostage so their nations would cede more territory. And one of the primary benefactors of the boarding school system is the Catholic church, which is today the world’s largest non-governmental landowner, with roughly 177 million acres of property throughout the globe. Part of the evidence of how exactly the church acquired its wealth in North America is literally being unearthed, and it exists in stories of the Native children whose lives it stole, which includes my own family.”

a monster is dead

a monster is dead, but the death and devastation donald rumsfeld unleashed cannot be reversed. wish it could be. one vile monster for thousands, millions of lives. for the water and air that were poisoned, the soil that was contaminated, the children who were born with congenital anomalies and cancers. and let’s not forget the others: dick cheney, george w. bush, tony blair, irving kristol, richard perle, paul wolfowitz, james woolsey, elliot abrams, robert zoellick, richard armitage, john bolton, condoleeza rice, colin powell, judith miller and countless more – neocons and liars, warmongers and imperial intriguers, islamophobes and racists. may their crimes follow them wherever they go. even in hell.

couldn’t post a picture of the genocidal man so here is an artwork by iraqi photographer and artist halim al karim. it’s called ‘lost memory 4.’

the great cat ashworth retires

my friend Cat Ashworth retired yesterday, after teaching film at RIT for 32 years. that RIT didn’t have the grace to thank her for her stellar work over three long decades is appallingly egregious. it speaks to the larger issue of how work performed by women is systematically diminished and erased. how women themselves are routinely invisibilized, ignored, or minimized.

i took a class with cat many years ago. it was a hands-on documentary workshop during the course of which i edited my first doc, ‘the muslims i know’ – the film that made me a filmmaker. how lucky to have landed in cat’s class at such a crucial juncture in my life.

filmmaking was a second career for me so i was much older than the other students. i came to the class with a decisive goal in mind – to edit a feature length film in just a few weeks. there was an urgency to my task which cat understood instinctively. she supported me every way she could, even asking her assistant to teach me how to use keyframes and create motion paths in final cut pro.

not having formally studied filmmaking, i came at it from a different angle. sometimes i wouldn’t know the technical jargon or my ideas would be too unconventional or politically heavy and uncool. cat always sided with me. she never made me feel like i didn’t belong. she wasn’t annoyed by my drive. that set the tone for the way the other students responded to me. although they could be ruthless in their critique, cat made them believe i was doing something worthwhile and meaningful.

initially, i was thinking of hiring someone to do the film’s voiceover, but cat urged me to do it myself – not to hide but rather to embrace the personal nature of the project. the muslims i had interviewed were my people. islamophobia touched them just as it impacted me and my family. it was ok to own that and speak from that vulnerable position. and she was right. one of the most common reactions to the doc is the feedback i get about the voiceover – its warmth and ability to pull audiences in. only because of cat.

at the end of the class, when i screened the rough cut for RIT’s film faculty, the responses i got from some of the most prominent male professors in positions of power were disappointing. one particularly important one told me i shouldn’t use western classical music in the film because it didn’t fit all this talk about islam and muslims. i guess he was expecting some sitar and tabla. talk about orientalism. once again, cat pushed back publicly and also in private, encouraging me to stay with my ideas and in fact commit to them even more. it’s like she could predict the effect the film would have.

i’ve made two other films after it, but 15 years later, ‘the muslims i know’ continues to generate abundant viewership. it’s been integrated into college curriculums and i hear from professors who tell me how they use it in their class.

how many stories like this there must be from cat’s students and colleagues who have benefited from her generosity, attention and brilliance for 32 years. i am not even listing the outstanding work she has produced as an astute filmmaker and artist or her behind-the-scenes efforts to diversify RIT faculty.

thank u cat. we love u. enjoy ur retirement and know that u helped shape many lives and careers.