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.
In 2016, I finally found my voice. I always thought I had one, especially as a business owner and mother of two vocal toddlers, but I had been wrong.
For more than 30 years, I had been struggling with the fear of being my true self and speaking my truth. Then the repressed memories of my childhood sexual abuse unraveled before me while raising my 3-year-old daughter, and my life has not been the same since.
Believe it or not, I am happy about that.
The journey for a survivor like me to feel even slightly comfortable sharing these words, without fear of being shamed or looked down upon, is a long and often lonely one. For all of the people out there in the shadows who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I dedicate this to you. You might never come out to talk about it and that's okay, but I am going to do so here and I hope that in doing so, I will open people's eyes to the long-term effects of abuse. As a survivor who is now fully conscious of her abuse, I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and, quite frankly, it may never go away.
It took me some time to accept that and I refuse to let it stop me from thriving in life; therefore, I strive to manage it (as do many others with PTSD) through various strategies I've learned and continue to learn through personal and group therapy. Over the years, various things have triggered my repressed memories and emotions of my abuse--from going to birthday parties and attending preschool tours to the Kavanaugh hearing and most recently, the"Leaving Neverland" documentary (I did not watch the latter, but read commentary about it).
These triggers often cause panic attacks. I was angry when I read Barbara Streisand's comments about the men who accused Michael Jackson of sexually abusing them, as detailed in the documentary. She was quoted as saying, "They both married and they both have children, so it didn't kill them." She later apologized for her comments. I was frustrated when one of the senators questioning Dr. Christine Blasey Ford (during the Kavanaugh hearing) responded snidely that Dr. Ford was still able to get her Ph.D. after her alleged assault--as if to imply she must be lying because she gained success in life.We survivors are screaming to the world, "You just don't get it!" So let me explain: It takes a great amount of resilience and fortitude to walk out into society every day knowing that at any moment an image, a sound, a color, a smell, or a child crying could ignite fear in us that brings us back to that moment of abuse, causing a chemical reaction that results in a panic attack.
So yes, despite enduring and repressing those awful moments in my early life during which I didn't understand what was happening to me or why, decades later I did get married; I did become a parent; I did start a business that I continue to run today; and I am still learning to navigate this "new normal." These milestones do not erase the trauma that I experienced. Society needs to open their eyes and realize that any triumph after something as ghastly as childhood abuse should be celebrated, not looked upon as evidence that perhaps the trauma "never happened" or "wasn't that bad. "When a survivor is speaking out about what happened to them, they are asking the world to join them on their journey to heal. We need love, we need to feel safe and we need society to learn the signs of abuse and how to prevent it so that we can protect the 1 out of 10 children who are being abused by the age of 18. When I state this statistic at events or in large groups, I often have at least one person come up to me after and confide that they too are a survivor and have kept it a secret. My vehicle for speaking out was through the novella The Survivors Club, which is the inspiration behind a TV pilot that my co-creator and I are pitching as a supernatural, mind-bending TV series. Acknowledging my abuse has empowered me to speak up on behalf of innocent children who do not have a voice and the adult survivors who are silent.
Remembering has helped me further understand my young adult challenges,past risky relationships, anger issues, buried fears, and my anxieties. I am determined to thrive and not hide behind these negative things as they have molded me into the strong person I am today.Here is my advice to those who wonder how to best support survivors of sexual abuse:Ask how we need support: Many survivors have a tough exterior, which means the people around them assume they never need help--we tend to be the caregivers for our friends and families. Learning to be vulnerable was new for me, so I realized I needed a check-off list of what loved ones should ask me afterI had a panic attack.
The list had questions like: "Do you need a hug," "How are you feeling," "Do you need time alone."Be patient with our PTSD". Family and close ones tend to ask when will the PTSD go away. It isn't a cold or a disease that requires a finite amount of drugs or treatment. There's no pill to make it miraculously disappear, but therapy helps manage it and some therapies have been known to help it go away. Mental Health America has a wealth of information on PTSD that can help you and survivors understand it better. Have compassion: When I was with friends at a preschool tour to learn more about its summer camp, I almost fainted because I couldn't stop worrying about my kids being around new teenagers and staff that might watch them go the bathroom or put on their bathing suit. After the tour, my friends said,"Nubia, you don't have to put your kids in this camp. They will be happy doing other things this summer."
In that moment, I realized how lucky I was to have friends who understood what I was going through and supported me. They showed me love and compassion, which made me feel safe and not judged.