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Moraine Valley Muslim Art Project Aims to Build Bridges

Moraine Valley Community College will highlight the artistic and cultural diversity of Muslim artists living and working in the United States.

The project, “Mosaics: Muslim Voices in America,” comes from a $207,000 grant that will not only pay for the artists, advertising and related staging expenses, but also to hire a research analyst to track students’ perceptions as they experience these different shows.

In addition to four special performances to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the college’s founding, this year’s line-up of artists and performers includes four Muslim-Americans.

Tommy Hensel, managing director for the school’s Fine and Performing Arts Center, applied for and was awarded a very competitive grant in August 2016 from the Association of Performing Arts Professionals, a component of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

The goal of the grant is to use the power of art to build an understanding of the Muslim community and to see if art can change people’s attitudes toward Muslims, he said.

“The arts are a powerful tool for transformation,” he said.

When people have a shared cultural experience, it underscores their similarities, rather than their differences, he said.

By introducing students and the community to Muslim artists and performers, he said he hopes to change their attitudes and perceptions about this culture.

Even though Hensel was awarded the grant last August, this program became “much more relevant” after the presidential election, he said.

Moraine Valley’s student body reflects the diversity of the surrounding community, which has a large Muslim population, and also is politically conservative, Hensel said, citing voting records in that election.

Moraine Valley was one of five entities chosen for the grant, the others being University of Iowa, Georgetown and Virginia Tech, and a consortium of three Minnesota colleges, and each will present the Muslim culture with their own unique focus, he said.

In Moraine Valley’s project, two groups of 20 students each will be selected and tracked through the first year of the two-year project.

The Doris Duke Foundation specifically wanted the grant to be used to target millennials, who are still developing their attitudes about the world, more open to diversity, and will have to succeed in a global economy, he said.

The project includes performing and visual artists so Hensel can test different methods of arts and education to see what works best in shifting perceptions, he said.

The artists also will spend time with students, conducting workshops, discussing their work, and talking to them over lunch.

“Our goal is to educate students and make them more aware of the cultures of the world,” Hensel said.

Muslim-American performers will be included in the college’s performing arts center schedule over the next two years.

This year, featured artists are:

• Marium Rana with her painting series, “A Place to Call Home,” on exhibit from Sept. 25 to Oct. 28, that depicts imaginary landscapes that show the complexity of belonging to two different cultures. An artist’s talk and reception will be on Sept. 25.

•The Fourth Light Project, Oct. 21, an electroacoustic group Niyaz presents a multimedia show that combines live musical and sacred dance performance with interactive technologies and body-mapping techniques that respond to sound and movement in real time.

•Soheila Azadi, “Inside Out,” Jan. 10 to Feb. 7, with an artist talk/reception Jan. 22. Azadi is an interdisciplinary visual artist and lecturer based in Chicago and Iran, whose inspirations come from her experiences of being a woman while living under theocracy.

•Street Science: A Celebration of Hip-Hop Culture, featuring Omar Offendum, a Syrian-American rapper/poet living in Los Angeles, with The Reminders, Amirah Sackett, and DJ Man-O-Wax, on March 24.

“This is totally different from what I usually do. I am totally thinking outside the box. This is more exciting because it is shifting away from pure entertainment and adding education,” Hensel said.

He usually seeks out and books performers on his own, but the grant stipulated that he get input from focus groups of students and the community in selecting Muslim artists. He had to demonstrate that he had not only the support of the college’s administration, but also students and the community.

Hensel, who has successfully applied for multiple grants, said this one presented new challenges, with detailed criteria and lot of oversight.

It almost became a second job, he said.

But when a “well-educated, liberal” friend asked him, ‘Why are you working so hard on this? You’re not Muslim,’ Hensel said his response was, “The fact that you just asked me that question tells me we have a lot more work to do.”

“I will not stop presenting this type of work,” he said, even though the grant program ends in February 2019.


About Ali Teymoori

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