People 29 October 2018
Sobia Ahmad, a 25-year-old Muslim artist, is gaining some recognition in the art world for her nuanced exploration of Muslim-American life. She recently won a fellowship with the Vermont Studio Center and held a solo show at the VisArts Gallery in Rockville, Maryland in late February. Her body of work touches on a myriad of themes that mirror both personal narrative and the adversities Muslims face while living in America.
“There was a time when the headscarf was considered a symbol of oppression. Now it's become a symbol of resistance, of empowerment almost.
“I'm not trying to communicate just one idea of Muslim identity," says Ahmad, who moved to America from a town called Gujranwala with her family at the age of 14. “It's about how identities are in constant flux, and how socio-political ideologies affect it."
For a lot of her work, Ahmad draws from her past, while also channeling immigration, treatment of minority women and muslim identity in the Trump era.
In an ongoing project, “Home is just a Memory Palace" artifacts of her past life in Pakistan, including family photographic, Islamic tiles, hand-written calligraphy, and an oriental rug, are digitally copies onto a white, chiffon scarf.
“When I think of home in Pakistan, I think of the adhan – the Islamic call to prayer on the rooftops. The nostalgic feeling of being in a place where there's this melodious echo in the air. As an immigrant, you begin carrying home within you through memory."
When Ahmad first came to Maryland as a teenager, she found herself caught between two conflicting cultures.
“Nothing was familiar," Ahmad recalled. “Not the language, clothing, or the food. It was interesting because I was labeled as foreign, but, actually, everything was foreign to me. I felt like I didn't belong and people weren't very inclusive."
She believes it was important for her to keep to her religious and cultural values. She stayed away from things teens her age were interested in, like drinking and partying. It was easier for Ahmad to keep herself than push in an unfamiliar society. When she did try to socialize outside of school, she was often not allowed to.
“It was very difficult to convince my parents to let me go out to the movies or hang out. “You go to school and that's one world. And you come home and that's another world."
Ahmad didn't have art classes in Pakistan. She was unaware of the power that art could give her. Once she had discovered the power behind art, she knew this was the way to call attention to her beliefs. She went on to double major in art and behavioral health in college.
“I didn't realize art had potential to raise awareness about issues of social justice or be cathartic."
While much of Ahmad's work is specific and autobiographical, it also represents something larger.
In a series of 40 by 60 black and white paintings, Ahmad cut out images of Muslim women from magazines and laid them on top of each other until past the point of recognition. She then coated the canvas with black and white paint, symbolizing the erasure of Muslim identity in America.
“I've seen identities reduced to symbols and soundbites," she says referring to how Muslim women are represented in the media. “As Muslims, we're not seen as full individuals."
The headscarf is also prominently featured in her paintings. She believes it has many connotations in today's political climate.
“There was a time when the headscarf was considered a symbol of oppression. Now it's become a symbol of resistance, of empowerment almost."
Ahmad used to wear the headscarf herself, but decided to take it off a couple of years ago. She notes that what Muslim women wear is unfairly obsessed over by “both cultures." It wasn't a political statement, but rather a part of her spiritual quest.
Since the 2016 presidential election, Ahmad's art has taken a political bent. Trump's travel ban spurred one of her most evocative installments – “Small Identities," – a collection of real life ID photos of Muslim immigrants transferred onto ceramic tiles, that she plants to grow into a larger series.
“Art is inherently political and using it to raise awareness in issues that are affecting a certain community is a form of activism," Ahmad says. “I deeply believe in the catalytic power of art for social change. It can touch people emotionally."
Susan Main, gallery director and curator of the VisArts Gallery, was impressed with Ahmad's commitment to creating dialogue through her art.
“She's articulate about what she's doing as an artist. Just starting in her career, it's really rare to see that level of maturity. I see her moving forward and developing as an artist who has consequential impact in the field."
While much of Ahmad's work is specific and autobiographical, it also represents something larger.
Her art is an act of defiance in and of itself, as if to say, Muslim identity is fluid, complex and vivid, and doesn't need to fit anyone's expectations of it.
Following are excerpts from "Unleash the Girls, The Untold Story of the Invention of the Sports Bra and How It Changed the World (And Me)" By Lisa Z. Lindahl
There is an idea that has popped up everywhere from Chaos Theory to Science Fiction and New Age memes known popularly as the "Butterfly Effect." Simply put, it is the notion that one very small thing—the movement of a butterfly's wing say, or the ripple in a lake caused by a pebble being thrown into it—can cause tremendous effect far away: the butterfly's wing a tornado, the ripple a large wave on a distant shore. Cause and effect, does it have limits? The field of physics is telling us that it takes only observation to bring a thing into being. We cannot consider these areas of investigation and not acknowledge that everything—everything—is in relationship in some way or another with everything else.
So, it is evident to me that commerce of any kind is, also, just about relationships. It all boils down, on every level to this simplicity. While we usually think of relationships as occurring between people—it is far more than that.
I used to teach a course in entrepreneurship specifically for women in The Women's Small Business Program at Trinity College in Burlington, Vermont. I made this concept of relationship and its importance central in how I taught the marketing thought process. I would stress that for a product or service to be successful, it had to meet a perceived need. There is a need, and it wants to be met; or it may be thought of as a problem to be solved. Or there may be an existing solution that is less than adequate.
For example: In my universe as a runner there already were a plethora of bras available, but they were inadequate for my purpose. The relationship between my breasts, my running body, and my bra was creating discomfort and distraction. A new solution had to be found, the relationship occurring when all these things came together had to be fixed. Utilizing this point of view, one sees a set of issues that need to be addressed—they are in relationship with each other and their environment in a way that needs to be changed, adjusted.
Nowhere is this viewpoint truer than in business, as we enter into more and more relationships with people to address all the needs of the organization. Whether designing a product or a service or communicating with others about it—we are in relationship. And meanwhile, how about maintaining a healthy relationship with ourselves? All the issues we know about stress in the workplace can boil down to an internal balancing act around our relationships: to the work itself, to those we work with, to home life, friends and lovers. So quickly those ripples can become waves.
Because Jogbra was growing so quickly, relationships were being discovered, created, ending, expanding and changing at a pace that makes my head spin to recall. And truly challenged my spirit. Not to mention how I handled dealing with my seizure disorder.
"My Lifelong Partner"
Let me tell you a bit about my old friend, Epilepsy. Having Epilepsy does not make any sort of money-making endeavor easy or reliable, yet it is my other "partner" in life. Husbands and business partners have come and gone, but Epilepsy has always been with me. It was my first experience of having a "shadow teacher."
While a child who isn't feeling she has power over her world may have a tantrum, as we grow older, most of us find other more subtle ways to express our powerfulness or powerlessness. We adapt, learn coping mechanisms, how to persuade, manipulate, or capitulate when necessary. These tools, these learned adaptations, give a sense of control. They make us feel more in charge of our destiny. As a result, our maturing self generally feels indestructible, immortal. Life is a long, golden road of futures for the young.
This was not the case for me. I learned very early on when I started having seizures that I was not fully in charge of the world, my world, specifically of my body. There are many different types of epileptic seizures. Often a person with the illness may have more than one type. That has been the case for me. I was diagnosed with Epilepsy—with a seizure type now referred to as "Absence seizures"—when I was four years old. I have seen neurologists and taken medications ever since. As often happens, the condition worsened when I entered puberty and I started having convulsions as well—what most people think of when they think of epileptic seizures. The clinical name is generalized "Tonic-clonic" seizures.
In such a seizure the entire brain is involved, rather like an electrical circuit that has gone out as a result of a power surge. I lose consciousness, my whole body becomes rigid, the muscles start jerking uncontrollably, and I fall. Tonic-clonic seizures, also known as "grand mal" seizures, may or may not be preceded by an aura, a type of perceptual disturbance, which for me can act as a warning of what is coming. The seizure usually only lasts for a few minutes, but I feel its draining effects for a day or two afterwards. Although I would prefer to sleep all day after such a physically and emotionally taxing event, I have often just gotten up off the floor and, within hours, gone back to work. It was necessary sometimes, though definitely not medically advised. I'm fond of saying that having a grand mal seizure is rather like being struck by a Mack truck and living to tell the tale.
Having Epilepsy has forced me to be dependent on others throughout my life. While we are all dependent upon others to some degree—independent, interdependent, dependent—in my case a deep level of dependency was decreed and ingrained very early on. This enforced dependency did not sit well with my native self. I bucked and rebelled. At the same time, a part of me also feared the next fall, the next post-convulsive fugue. And so I recognized, I acquiesced to the need to depend on others.
The silver lining of having Epilepsy is that it has introduced me to and taught me a bit about the nature of being powerless—and experiencing betrayal. I could not trust that my body would always operate as it should. Routinely, it suddenly quits. I experience this as betrayal by my brain and body. It results in my complete powerlessness throughout the convulsion. Not to mention an inconvenient interruption of any activities or plans I might have made.
Hence, I am the recipient of two important life lessons—and I was blessed to have this very specific and graphic experience at a young age. It made me observant and reflective, giving me the opportunity to consider what/where/who "I" was. I knew I was not "just" my body, or even my brain.
So, who or what did that leave? Who, what am I? Much has been written about trauma, and about near-death experiences, both of which seizures have been classified or described as. I won't delve into that here except to say that experiencing recurrent seizures and the attendant altered states of consciousness that sometimes accompany an episode (the euphemism for a seizure) changes one. It deeply affects you. It is both illuminating and frightening. It opens you up in some ways and can close you way down in others. For me it made it easy to consider the possibility of other ways to perceive, of other realms. And as an adult I became interested in quantum physics, where Science is pushing and challenging our long-held perceptual assumptions. Me, who was poor in math and disinterested in Science while in school! So if not merely body and brain, who am I? Spirit. And with Epilepsy's tutelage, I was encouraged to question, seek, try to understand what lies beyond.
Living with Epilepsy has also given me great strength. In realizing the futile nature of trying to have "power over" Epilepsy, I developed a deep well of "power within"—that inner strength that comes in the acceptance of that which one cannot change—and looking beyond it.
Through my experience building the business of Jogbra with the unique lens afforded me by my Epilepsy partner, I came to understand more fully the nature of power and what it means to be truly powerful.
Specifically, that having power and exercising it is not simply a manifestation of the ego. It need not be "power-tripping." It is how I wield my power that matters, making the all-important distinction between creating a situation of power over, power with, or empowering and having and creating strength in oneself and others.
Being powerful is a big responsibility.
To put all this another way: do I choose to create situations in which I am able to wield power over others? Or do I choose to empower others, sharing my strengths with them, while nurturing their strengths as well? The first is not true power. It is control. The second I believe to be the essence of true and positive power: strength. And integral to creating a more harmonious world, oh by the way.
While this may be apparent, even basic to others, it was an "aha!" moment for me. Too often in the years ahead I would give away my power and question my own strengths,. Time and again, however, my inner strength, my shadow teacher's gift, helped me survive and thrive until I could take responsibility for and embrace more fully my own power.
© Lisa Z. Lindahl 2019