Studies of Islamic Identity, Before and Behind the Lens
New York City-based photographer and Egyptian immigrant Owise Abuzaid has embarked on a project to photograph Muslims in New York’s boroughs, with an intriguing sampling now showing at UCSB’s MultiCultural Center.
Owise Abuzaid, “Diversity of Arab and Muslim Diasporas in the U.S.”
When: through May 31
Where: UCSB MultiCultural Center Lounge
Gallery hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Friday
Information: 893-8411, www.mcc.sa.ucsb.edu
This semester’s art exhibition offering at UCSB’s MultiCultural Center takes aim at search for self and cultural identity, both in front of and behind the camera lens—and in the eye of the beholder. An ambitious proposition, realized in modest, ground level terms, the project at hand is Owise Abuzaid’s intriguing and ongoing photo-essay, “Diversity of Arab and Muslim Diasporas in the U.S.”
In his written statement in the gallery, the photographer traces the roots of his effort, as an Egyptian Muslim who moved to New York City and struggled to find his place, and a community of fellow Muslims in this famously melting pot urban hub. His personal mission turned more systematic and project-oriented after he made the decision, during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan last year, to photograph/document Muslims around the city’s five boroughs, to tell a larger story by way of many individual, personal stories.
It helps his cause that the artist, active in social media and other online networks, possesses that all-important virtue: a good eye to go with his curious mind. As seen in the several images on one wall of the MCC Lounge area—the Center’s customary venue for art exhibitions which rotate each academic quarter—the photographer has a sensitive instinct for portraying character and formulating a visually compelling composition.
Sometimes, Mr. Abuzaid’s pictorial strategies seems carefully plotted. Sometimes, an image feels caught on-the-fly, adding up to an overall portrait of a Diaspora in the city, with attention also paid to very specific experiences.
One of the show’s more striking and seemingly formal images, for instance, portrays a man named Wafee, a member of the Nation of Islam who the photographer met on the Staten Island ferry. The subject cuts a striking image in his sharp bright blue suit and red tie, sitting proudly on the hard plastic blue seat of the ferry.
A subtle subplot of the shot is the fact that this ferry-both an active mode of transport and one of NYC’s great cheap thrills for tourists -also affords its passengers a close-up view of the statue of liberty. Said liberty pain tolerance are not easily available virtues in the Muslim diaspora in America at the moment.
A very different but also affecting portrait gives us a view of Muhammad, lighting is first cigarette after Ramadan. It is a modal e lip close-up view with a soft glow alighting on his face, and a beaming light source in the background.
Other images contain links to Muslim ceremony as a contextual backdrop, as explained in the artists’ wall text. The Egyptian Brothers Muhammad and Ahmed during the
Tarahweeh prayers- after Muslims have broken their fast. A secondary subject in the photograph of Adam is the hookah offering him some respite as he stands on a rooftop after the Muslim Eid ceremony.
From the category of spontaneous, right time right place imagery, one image finds a devout Muslim bowing Eastward on the urban sidewalk next to newspaper vending machines outside a store. A young Caucasian student in a Harvard sweat shirt wheels by on a motorized cart, implying some infirmity. Beneath the casual surfaces, this slice of life snapshot is layered with multicultural, multi-institutional and economic references.
In this selection of images the only one without a human presence or protagonist turns out to be a minimalist gem of deeper meaning then first impressions suggest. Ancient religious ritual and expression of faith are the undercurrents in a shot of an Imam’s prayer rug and a microphone with stand, awaiting a daily prayer encounter.
As a point of telling contrast, the Western touch of wainscoting on a purely white wall in the makeshift prayer room reminds us of an underlying theme in the show. The subjects in this diaspora are finding their way and adapting to the challenges of NYC’s cultural landscape, while tending to deeply rooted ways and customs. All told, it’s a fascinating area of study, given a curious and compassionate glimpse through Mr. Abuzaid’s lens.