MSA Art Gala Confronts Fear Through Art

Emory students explored the meaning of confrontation of social prejudice and other obstacles through an array of student and local art Sunday, April 3, at Emory Muslim Students Association’s (MSA) “Art Gala 2016: Fearless Not Feared.” The sold-out event was hosted at Piedmont Park’s Greystone, an elegant location offering beautiful views of the park and the lake that complemented the artistic talent presented.

Proceeds from the tickets will be donated to Baitul Salaam, an international domestic violence awareness organization founded by four Muslim women.

At the gala, artworks of various mediums ranging from watercolor and acrylic paintings to photography were displayed. Some pieces were centered around Islamic themes, but there were also numerous works illustrating landscapes and nature, as well as calligraphy.

MSA President and College junior Abdullah Sufi prefaced the student performances by describing the overall theme and title of the event, Fearless Not Feared.

“With the presidential candidates … inciting a lot of Islamophobic acts, there’s a proposal to ban Muslims. It’s kind of become an unsafe environment for [Muslims],” Sufi said. “[However], we still follow our faith, because our faith preaches love and standing up for what’s right. These performances express what Muslims feel in this time, and that’s what Art Gala’s about: Muslim American expression.”

Sufi was also the first act of the night, performing a spoken word that asked several rhetorical questions confronting the negative stereotypes that Muslims face: “When you look at me, what do you see? Do you see al-Qaeda? Do you see bin Laden? Do you see memories of the TV screen when Saddam was hiding?”

Many members of the audience who were Muslim nodded in agreement, empathizing with the feelings that these stereotypes caused. Sufi then went on to name some figures of Islam to contrast the list of infamous people he previously mentioned  — Muhammad Ali, Shaquille O’Neal, Malcolm X — earning cheers and snaps from the crowd.

College freshman Emir Brown (whose stage name is Emiricus The-Poet) also performed spoken word. Although his poem, “Black in My Country,” was originally written for Black History Month, it was still relevant to the Art Gala’s theme. It sought to empower the black community and encourage black people to overcome obstacles caused by prejudice.

His poem employed the repetition of the word “black” to deliver several significant meanings. One especially powerful moment occurred when Brown paused after saying the word “black” 11 times, which represented the “11 times Eric Garner repeated, ‘I can’t breathe’ as his life was sucked out of him.” Ultimately, Brown sought to illustrate that “[black] doesn’t have a meaning” through constant repetition of the word, almost as if he was trying to tire out the word and the negative perceptions that some associate with it.

The event also incorporated performances from local artists such as singer Mohammad Faraz Ahmad and guitarist Khizer Khan, who presented the audience with a mash-up of an Indian song and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” It was unclear as to how this performance related to the overall theme, but it was a nice breather in between the tough discussions of racism, religious intolerance and other serious topics.

In addition, Atlanta resident Aminata Jeng delivered a powerful spoken word performance that reflected her complex and conflicted emotions after she moved to the United States from Gambia, Africa. Her voice was full of pain as she read from her poem “Mama,” and the audience seemed to acknowledge the palpability of her emotions. Some crowd members began to shed tears as Jeng’s agonizing tone and disturbing but real content echoed throughout the room: “My heart bleeds … for my sister who suffers from genital mutilation … I ask, ‘Mama, why do you not protect your daughters?’ ”

Bringing an inspiring and warm energy to the room, Muslimah hip-hop artist Alia Sharrief was the featured performer of the night. She prefaced her songs with an informative PowerPoint presentation on the history of the abuse of blacks, starting with the Atlantic slave trade. At one point, she had the audience members join her in reading the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. Sharrief emphasized that this law was not fully implemented until long  after it was passed by Congress.

“There’s a rich history of Islam in hip-hop that really gets ignored,” Sharrief said before her performance. Hip-hop is supposed “to uplift, to motivate, to demonstrate great character and even to incorporate Islam,” she added. Sharrief sang a few of her original songs, including “Conquest” and “Guide.” While she was singing, she tried to engage with the audience by gliding among the tables of audience members, making eye contact with and high-fiving some people.

Sharrief also covered Iggy Azalea’s “Black Widow,” changing the song title to “Black Heros.” Her cover acknowledged that it is often “easier to say yes” to social norms and called for people to stand up for freedom and social justice.

Non-Muslims and Muslims alike came together at this event to celebrate people’s ability to stay strong despite hardships and prejudices that they must overcome. The powerful performance art that was showcased at the event, though at times solemn and dark, illustrated the beauty of human resilience.

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