Muslim Culture Comes to the Fore at the Museum of the City of New York
The museum is celebrating Muslims in defiance of Trump's ban.
The Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) is the latest cultural institution to respond to President Donald Trump’s immigration ban, which targets citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. In rejection of the climate of fear being promoted by the new administration, “Muslim in New York: Highlights from the Photography Collection” celebrates the important place of Muslims in the melting pot that is New York.
With 34 images by four artists, the show begins in the 1940s, with images taken by Alexander Alland of a diverse group of New York Muslims including Arabs, Turks, Afghans, East Indians, Albanians, Malayans, and African Americans. Ed Grazda’s 1990s series “New York Masjid: The Mosques of New York City” features both immigrant and New York-born Muslims, while Mel Rosenthal focused on Arab Muslims in New York in the early 2000s. Robert Gerhardt’s photographs of New York Muslims in the early 2010s complete the exhibition.
“This special installation comes at a time when the place of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries is being scrutinized, and even challenged, on a national level,” said MCNY director Whitney Donhauser in a statement that touched on the history of Muslims in New York, which dates back to the 17th century and once saw a thriving “Little Syria” neighborhood in Lower Manhattan. Today, 270,000 Muslims call New York home, about three percent of the city’s total population.
Although Trump promoted the idea of preventing all Muslims from entering the US during his campaign, the order as written only applies to citizens of Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. The executive order was later challenged by the legal system, with the Ninth Circuit court of appeals upholding a temporary restraining order against the travel ban issued by a federal judge in Washington.
The so-called Muslim ban has been widely decried by art institutions, including many art schools, and will negatively impact of number of artists. The new MCNY exhibition grew out of staff conversations about how the institution should respond to current events in today’s political climate.
On February 2, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) rehung its Modern galleries, replacing paintings by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Francis Picabia with works from its collection by artists from the nations targeted by Trump’s order, including Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid and Sudanese painter Ibrahim el-Salahi. Each artwork is accompanied by wall text vowing that the museum “affirm[s] the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this museum as they are to the United States.”
MCNY is similarly drawing on its existing photography collection, begun in the 1930s, to craft an exhibition that “speaks eloquently to the enormous diversity of our city and the many ways in which immigration and religious diversity has enriched and benefited New York, the quintessential city of immigrants,” said Donhauser. “We are proud to display these beautiful images of Muslims in New York as part of that story.”
“Muslim in New York: Highlights from the Photography Collection” is on view at the Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue at East 103rd Street, beginning February 18, 2017.
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