Muslim Woman’s Art Creates Dialogue in the U.S.

"Home Sweet Home." Hijabs donated by Muslim women across the United States, hand stitched into a flag. 2016

“Home Sweet Home,” a hand-stitched American flag made of hijabs donated by Muslim women across the United States, was created by the Malaysian artist, Azzah Sultan. Azzah is truly an inspiration to aspiring artists, Muslims, and women everywhere.

Even though Ms. Sultan just moved and started a new job, we were fortunate enough to get a glimpse into her creative, insightful world; thanks to the insight she shared with us about her work, experience as a Muslim woman in the U.S., and her hopes for the future.

How long have you been an artist and what do you see yourself doing professionally in the next few years? 

I’ve always been interested in creativity and art ever since I was a little kid. It was only when I started working on my artistic practice in the United States when I saw myself as an artist, in the sense of using art as a tool of education and discussion.

I see myself getting my graduate degree and possibly going into teaching at the same time, while working as an independent artist.

azzah-1

You are originally from Malaysia; what kind of questions do Americans ask you about your home there (i.e. possibly about the culture, Islam, fashion, food, etc.)?

I feel like people ask me more about my faith rather than my nationality. Since I am visibly Muslim looking, it does open up questions about my beliefs. The type of questions I do get about Malaysia mostly concerns the food.

I’ve always been interested in creativity and art ever since I was a little kid. It was only when I started working on my artistic practice in the United States when I saw myself as an artist.

Other than that, I mostly receive questions about my hijab, my rights as a Muslim woman, and what life is like in Islam. Although these questions may grow repetitive, I try my best to answer; as that’s me getting one step closer to getting rid of their ignorance about Islam and Muslims.

What was it like moving from Malaysia to America? 

I moved here when I was 16 to start college, it definitely was a challenging experience, especially being away from my family for the first time. The moving part was easy for me, since I have been traveling a lot as a kid and I would often move to a different country in the span of two to four years.

It was difficult for me to find halal food, other than the halal food carts. I mostly went on a vegetarian diet. What was the hardest for me was also finding places to pray. During my first year here I struggled so much to find a community in the U.S that would make me feel less homesick.

Art 2017
2014. New York.
2014. New York.
2014. New York.

Alhamdulillah (Praise God). After four years of being here, the connections and relations I have developed with others has made this city less hard to navigate; New York is my home of right now.

It was difficult for me to find halal food, other than the halal food carts. I mostly went on a vegetarian diet. What was the hardest for me was also finding places to pray.

How does your art bring Christian and Muslim people together, so they may form understanding and tolerance of one another?

My art focuses more on highlighting issues that Muslims struggle with, which in a way is a source of education for Christians who are unaware of these issues.

Have you received backlash from either the Muslim or Christian communities concerning the focus of your art? If so, how did you go about countering it?

I haven’t received backlash from the Muslims community, but I’ve definitely received backlash from non-Muslims. I’ve had people tell me how my work is too “radical” and how it would offend people. I’ve had people say that I am not respecting the country I am living in, by highlighting issues surrounding Islamophobia in the U.S.

Abstract art
“Urbanized Culture.” 2013. 2D Photomontage final piece; half digital and half done by hand. New York.

The thing is these people are only feeling guilty due to the privilege they have in the country.  They are totally oblivious to the struggles of minorities; people who think like this are the biggest motivators for me to continue the work that I do.

The hijab is often a source of debate for both Muslims and non-Muslims.What does the hijab mean to you and why do you focus on it as a a major element of your artistic work?

The hijab has a different interpretation to each individual that wears it. I feel like at times people are too focused on arguing on the subject of the hijab, that they don’t even listen to those that do wear it.

My art focuses more on highlighting issues that Muslims struggle with, which in a way is a source of education for Christians who are unaware of these issues.

For me it is a way to strengthen my relationship with God and a way from me to visibly show myself as Muslim with pride.

American art
“Am I Modern Now?” 2014. Acrylic on wooden panels. New York.

Andy Warhol art

Have you ever experienced Islamophobia in America? If so, what did you or your peers do it stop it?

I have received certain negative comments and reactions when walking down the street and when I do talk about these experiences with others I often hear, “I’m so sorry that happened to you, I can’t believe that would happen.” Well, it did.

I feel like at times people are too focused on arguing on the subject of the hijab, that they don’t even listen to those that do wear it.

So now my question is how do you as an ally, or a person that believes Islamophobia is wrong, stop something like this from happening to other Muslims? I didn’t have anyone stand up for me when these things happened.

People need to start actually practicing these acts of allyship instead of just talking about how sorry they feel for others that are being harassed in public.

What do you love the most about being a Muslim woman in America? 

I love outwardly practicing my faith in an environment that has been ingrained to have negative perceptions for me. I love being proud of what I believe in and being vocal about it, because in some way that is how ignorance can be defeated.

Muslim art
“Kulit.” Photos of various parts of myself printed on fabric and hand stitched. 2016.

What art project are you currently working on?

Right now I’m focusing on a spoken word performance that will be happening at the end of January; I’m working on performance as a source of activism.

People need to start actually practicing these acts of allyship instead of just talking about how sorry they feel for others that are being harassed in public.

At the same time I’m in the works of collaborating with a designer in creating patterns and designs, which illustrate the Muslim Woman experiences in America. I’m also working on my own personal art projects and thinking about creating safe spaces for faith dialogues in New York.

Editors Note:
If you love Azzah Sultan’s work, please sure to visit her website and follow her most recent projects on Instagram @sitisultan. 
Middle East Collective

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