Last week, in the drab, fluorescent-lit tunnels connecting City Hall to the Annex across Bagby Street, an art exhibit was born. The Islamic Arts Society of Houston had teamed up with the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, and the show, a love letter to the city’s multi-ethnic population titled The Arts of the Islamic World, was launched by Mayor Sylvester Turner.
Houston's Muslim population is the largest in Texas, and the city is home to organizations such as the Islamic Society of Greater Houston and unique places of worship such as Centro Islámico, the country’s only Latino Mosque that caters to Spanish-speaking members. Turner is optimistic that the lesson of embracing one another in Islamic art can translate to Houston, a city still riding the wave of its “most diverse place in America” moniker.
“We keep talking about how diverse the city is, but let me tell you,” Turner said to the crowd, “unless that diversity is put into action and people feel a part [of it], you can be diverse and yet be separate, segregated or apart. Or you can be diverse and be inclusive. In this city, each and every day we strive to be more inclusive.”
Founded in 2014, the Islamic Arts Society of Houston was formed with the ambition of bringing awareness to the rich heritage of arts in Islam while dismantling a growing number of damaging stereotypes. The society organizes events such as the Islamic Art Fair every fall, which brings in over 5,000 visitors annually and introduces forms such as calligraphy, henna and the Turkish art of Ebru, or marbling, created by sprinkling patterns of colorful paint onto oily water and then transferring it onto a piece of paper or fabric.
The City Hall exhibition was curated by Harambee Art Gallery co-founder Gail Mebane alongside fellow IAS member and Ebru artist Shaheen Rahman, both of whom worked to bring together a collection of contemporary Islamic works and introduce 24 artists from countries including Pakistan, Libya and Syria.
“There are millions of Muslims in the world,” Mebane said. “I felt that Islamic artists were underrepresented, and I just wanted to bring that to the forefront of Houston and showcase their talent.”
Lining the walls of the lengthy tunnel were various paintings and glazed ceramic works containing intricate Arabic calligraphy and floral geometric Arabesque designs. Whirling dervishes, worshippers who perform a religious dance in order to achieve a closer connection with the divine, was a popular subject choice among the artists with Shaheen Rahman’s Ebru painting, The Dance of Ebru and Nizar Macnojia’s Darvesh. Mixed media work incorporating crushed, colored glass and paint is displayed in Hina Chaudry’s Come to Success, a vibrant blue and gold representation of a prayer mat used for daily prayers. The gold design in the center is angular on the bottom but expands to a symmetrically curved arrangement.
Turner proclaimed July 25 Islamic Art Society Day and expects the audience to expand in an effort to recognize Houstonians' similarities and diminish ignorance. “It’s important for us to show that we really are proud of our heritage and our art and our culture,” said Rahman, one of the curators. “We achieved this by showcasing exhibits like this. It was an amazing feeling to be recognized and acknowledged, not just for all of us here but for the 200,000 Muslims in the city.”
Thru Aug. 31. City Hall, 901 Bagby. More info at islamicartssociety.com.