Museums in New York join protest against prejudice

A piece by Iranian-born photographer Shirana Shahbazi at the Museum of Modern Art, one of seven works by Iranian, Iraqi and Sudanese artists that replaced those by Picasso, Matisse and other Westerners.
A piece by Iranian-born photographer Shirana Shahbazi at the Museum of Modern Art, one of seven works by Iranian, Iraqi and Sudanese artists that replaced those by Picasso, Matisse and other Westerners. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Museums across New York are waging a cultural war on prejudice in Mr Donald Trump's America, flexing the soft power of art and photography to compound the city-wide climate of protest.

From talks about Islamic art to a Muslim exhibition, swopping Picasso and Matisse for Iranian, Sudanese and Iraqi artists and extending a children's exhibition, museums have dreamt up multiple ways to promote art and education in the wake of Mr Trump's short-lived travel ban.

Building on the city's culinary diversity, foodies are offering tours of Syrian, Yemeni and Iranian cuisines, and have introduced curious New Yorkers to the perhaps lesserknown culinary delights of Somalia.

"We wanted to be out here," explains Ms Sheila Canby, head of Islamic art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "showing our public what a deep resonant important contribution these cultures make to who we are."

The Met, one of the largest museums in the world, is running its first month-long programme of two 10-minute talks each Friday to explore Islamic and Near Eastern art specifically.

"It's a brilliant idea," said retiree Barbara Sullivan, who attended Ms Canby's recent talk on paintings from Syria and Iran. "I would hope that more parents will bring their children, so if they don't learn it in school, it will still pique their interest."

The thrust of Ms Canby's remarks? To underscore the debt Western civilisation owes the Islamic world and how an Arabic manuscript, translated from Greek and then into Latin, passed on knowledge.

"Without Baghdad in the ninth and 10th centuries, we wouldn't know any of these things and so it's all a chain, and we shouldn't forget that."

A 10-minute bus ride up the road, the Museum of the City of New York mounted in under three weeks an exhibition of photographs chronicling Muslim life in the city, which dates back at least to the 1620s, the diversity of the communities and their contribution to daily life.

"Educating and informing, that is one major role that our institutions play," chief curator Sarah Henry said.

"Knowledge and understanding is always a good antidote to prejudice and irrational fears."

While she is not attributing it to a single installation, museum attendance for the exhibition's inaugural weekend was up 80 per cent compared to the same time last year.

In Midtown, the Museum of Modern Art replaced seven Western works on display, including art by Picasso and Matisse, with pieces by Iranian, Iraqi and Sudanese artists a week after the travel ban went into effect.

On the Upper West Side, the Children's Museum of Manhattan extended by another year the run of its America To Zanzibar Muslim culture exhibition already seen by more than 350,000 visitors.

Next year, it will tour to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the Federal Bureau of Investigation said a 2015 shooting was inspired by radical Islamist propaganda, and then to Philadelphia.

"Any exhibit you're hoping you've hit the mark and for us, seeing this and seeing the families in it, and the children playing, it has been incredibly rewarding," said the exhibit's curator, Ms Lizzy Martin.

Ms Amy Bandolik is one of those introducing people to MiddleEastern cuisine. Her first Iranianthemed night sold out in days and tickets for the second one early this month are flying off the shelves.

Food, she explained, was a "wonderful hook" to capture people's attention, appetite and their emotion. A portion of the ticket price goes to an organisation that helps refugees.

"This is quite revolutionary at least for anything I've seen," said the director of operations for Foods of New York Tours.

"The speed at which people are organising and demonstrating and coming together, and genuinely not just protesting but actually taking action."

A parallel initiative - Breaking Bread NYC - has already garnered more than 1,000 likes on Facebook, done three sold-out food tours in three weeks and organised restaurant nights.

Said Mr Scott Wiener, one of the organisers: "For anyone who doesn't agree with the way politics are moving in America, all we can think about is how can we be effective, what can we do?"

But if the initiatives are preaching to the converted in one of America's most liberal cities, painter Sayan Ben Bady, 34, said any gesture, however small, is worthwhile.

A Canadian visiting from Paris, he attended two Met talks, drawn in as a "half-Muslim" who knows "almost nothing" about Islamic art.

"I wonder how this affects anything," he said.

"I think even if there was only one person, it does... things don't really need to have a large number to make a difference."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2017, with the headline 'Museums in New York join protest against prejudice'. Print Edition | Subscribe