The below piece first appeared in Dawn Newspaper’s Art & Culture section. It was my second piece in a series on “Muslims in America,” where I attempt to show how Muslim-Americans are working to change perceptions and challenge stereotypes in the United States. You can read the Dawn piece here.
In Can’t Take it With You, an exhibition that opened Thursday, October 8 at the Gallery FCB in New York City, award-winning photographer Omar Mullick makes a bold statement by stitching together “an intimate, visual tapestry of the American Muslim experience from within…” [According to the FCB Gallery statement]
The exhibit is the culmination of a seven year journey– in which Mullick photographed Muslim communities throughout the United States – from a Chicago funeral in the African-American Muslim community to Sufi gatherings to a halfway house in Virginia. According to Mullick, who was born and raised in London, England but now resides in New York, the project was an attempt to expand and challenge the master narrative that exists in this post-9/11 world that Muslims are the “other.”
He told me, “Whenever I go to the back pages [of the newspaper] there’s a little story about cuddly and friendly Muslims here, and cuddly and friendly Muslims over there; but the front pages still show the war on terror and this clash of civilizations. So I wanted to do something overwhelming,” something that would be more than a blip on the radar and actually say something about the overarching narrative of Muslims in America. After years of chipping away at this project to capture the diversity of Islam in the United States, Mullick felt his work finally began to say something about the community as a whole. This statement forms the backdrop of Can’t Take it With You, what Mullick calls “his love letter” to the community and to the United States.
Mullick’s hope is that his photographs will convey this optimistic perspective of the Muslim-American community and add another dimension to the debate. While some may feel the idea of a Muslim “community” is a forced and imagined categorization, he hopes others will be moved by the immortalized threads of this narrative. The medium of photography, he noted, can be instrumental because it “turns the volume down” on the perceived clash between Islam and the West, so that an observer can simply appreciate the beauty of someone’s humanity.
In artistic terms, Mullick shot the images of Can’t Take it With You with a panoramic lens from a low perspective, giving his subjects the illusion of being larger-than-life. According to the artist, he pushed a wide-angle lens into tight spaces so that the people appeared heroic, almost like “icebergs,” he added. Mullick noted, “I wanted to elevate the common, the daily life…we have had too much of what’s shocking, what’s stark. I wanted to keep pulling it back, highlighting the ordinary.” Given that Muslims are often stereotyped as radical extremists, Mullick’s depiction of them living normal lives was the most shocking art statement he could have made. He asserted, “What I’m saying is that these people are radically normal, and that’s the most radical thing about them.”
While some photographers are detached from their subjects, Mullick was deeply invested in this project. He asserted, “I need to feel moved or a sense of calling, or else I would not have been able to see it through.” And, while the overarching goal was constant, the process – the people, the communities, and the subject matter – was organic. His sincerity was apparent to all he photographed, leading Mullick to gain unprecedented access into an array of Muslim communities throughout the country.
As a result of Mullick’s commitment to the project, many of the photographs seem to contain pieces of himself, evoking anecdotes, memories, and slivers of his own journey throughout America. For Omar Mullick, a photographer who moved to the United States as a teenager, Can’t Take it With You is more than just a selection of photographs. It is a profound statement about a community he deeply respects in a country he strongly believes has fostered this narrative.
Can’t Take it With You, photographs of Muslims in America from 2002 – 2009, will be on display at Gallery FCB at 16 West 23rd Street in New York City from October 8, 2009 to November 5, 2009. Click here to visit the photographer’s personal website.