Artists rally to defend Islamic centre
Studios and exhibition spaces are part of the so-called “Ground Zero mosque”
By Marisa Mazria Katz. News, Issue 217, October 2010
Published online: 06 October 2010
NEW YORK. While politicians and some clergymen continue to rail against the so-called “Ground Zero mosque”, there has been little acknowledgment of the fact that artists’ studios and exhibition spaces are an integral part of the proposed 13-floor, 120,000 sq. ft Islamic community centre. Now artists are rallying to defend the project in the lower Manhattan neighbourhood.
The centre, originally called the “Cordoba House” project and now renamed Park51, is the creation of Sufi cleric and chief executive of the Cordoba Initiative, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, and the Manhattan real estate developer Sharif el-Gamal. Abdul Rauf first conceived the space, which is located two blocks from the World Trade Center (WTC), soon after inaugurating his multi-cultural and interfaith Cordoba Initiative foundation in 2002.
The multimedia Glass Bead Collective is one of the groups that have launched art projects to support the centre. Days before 11 September, the New York-based group projected the words “equality” and “unity” on to the façade of the site in several languages, including English, Arabic and Hebrew. “This is an attempt to recontextualise the ‘Ground Zero mosque’ in such a way that the far right can no longer use it as a rallying point for Islamophobia and hate,” explained collective member, Vlad Teichberg. Another ongoing arts initiative called “Concerned New Yorkers” asks people to write on pieces of paper, which are dotting utility poles across the city, their response to one of the following phrases: “The Islamic Community Center should be built because” and “The Ground Zero mosque should not be built because”. The handwritten responses are recorded and posted on the group’s eponymous website.
Russell Simmons, hip hop mogul and a patron of contemporary arts via his Rush Philanthropic Arts foundation, has papered his downtown apartment’s windows with different religious symbols. He also wrote an editorial in the Huffington Post saying: “It is not insensitive to put a cultural center of any sort, that has a place of worship, anywhere in our city. This is what makes our country and our city great.” For artist Sandow Birk, whose recent “American Qur’an” show debuted at Chelsea’s PPOW Gallery, the proposed arts space is a welcome addition to the downtown landscape. “I think it’s great,” said Birk.
Neither of the project’s organisers were available to talk to The Art Newspaper, but Abdul Rauf told a community meeting in May that he hoped to close “the divide that exists between our great nation and the international Muslim world”. He said that the project was a step towards that goal, but added: “It will serve the needs [of the community] for recreational space, for meeting rooms and educational facilities, and for arts and cultural activities.”
Abdul Rauf is not a newcomer to the arts: in 2002, he participated in the “Garden of Remembrance” exhibition, “an artistic response” to 9/11, at New Jersey’s Newark Museum. It transformed a gallery into a garden, and featured work exploring religious coexistence between the Christians, Muslims and Jews of medieval Spain.
According to artist Mariam Ghani: “Artist workspaces in lower Manhattan have in the past created openings for different kinds of participation in the life of that neighbourhood.” She added: “If these studios invite public participation into a space that is often seen as private or closed, then it could have a beneficial effect.” Photographer Edward Grazda, added: “People are forgetting that a lot of culture, art, science and math has come out of Islam.” What’s more, he added: “New York City always needs more artist spaces.”
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