The Museum of the City of New York opens 'City of Faith: Religion, Activism, and UrbanSpace'

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The Museum of the City of New York opens 'City of Faith: Religion, Activism, and UrbanSpace'
DJ Rekha / Chiraag Bhakta,*Pardon My Hindi, Bhangra Against Bush (poster for Basement Bhangra, club night) [FRONT] Courtesy of DJ Rekha / Chiraag Bhakta, *Pardon My Hindi.

NEW YORK, NY.- City of Faith: Religion, Activism, and UrbanSpace, a new exhibition on view at the Museum of the City of New York, looks under the surface of New York’s image as a secular city and maps the complex and often surprising relationships that connect religion to public space. Using art as a mode of imagination and critical inquiry, City of Faith explores how New York’s secularism renders specific communities “foreign” and therefore hyper-visible. Focusing primarily on South Asian American communities, the exhibition shows how activists and artists use art and collective action to claim space in the city and to build solidarity with others. 

“As a topic, religion is often seen as the ‘third rail’– but the truth is that it is omnipresent in our lives and inextricably linked with the story of New York City,” says Whitney Donhauser, Ronay Menschel Director and President of Museum of the City of New York. “Religion extends beyond iconic places of worship and annual rituals and celebrations; it is part of the city’s political landscape as well as its soundscapes and scent-scapes. Using art and the work of activists, City of Faith explores the political, racial, and labor systems that underpin those manifestations.”

“We tend to think of religion as something segregated from the daily life of the city, neatly contained in designated and clearly recognizable spaces or relegated to certain days of the week,” says Dr. Azra Dawood, the exhibition’s curator and a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Museum. “With City of Faith, I want to show how religion is often a subtext in the very places that we imagine it to be absent. I am interested in thinking about the normalization of Protestantism – and to an extent, Catholicism and Judaism–in the city’s spaces, and how other communities must make space for themselves in this context, both for religious practice, but also, more crucially, against religious profiling.” 

New York City has always been demographically diverse, but until the 19th century Protestantism was the main religion accommodated by the “city fathers.” The religion’s relative power normalized it in the city, rendering its sites and practices ordinary and therefore “invisible.” Against this backdrop, Catholic and Jewish communities worked to claim space for themselves. More recently, this task of making space has fallen to other communities, whose perceived difference from the mainstream results in their hyper-visibility and surveillance. 

City of Faith spotlights South Asian American communities, which include people with ties to as many as eight countries, numerous border-spanning cultural groups, diaspora communities, and several religious groups (Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, for e.g.). Particularly since 9/11, these diverse communities—along with Muslim Americans with ties to other parts of the world, and Arab Americans—have been racialized and religiously profiled by state actors, the media, and often the public, for whom anyone who is Muslim, or who they perceive to be Muslim, is an “enemy.” (Meanwhile, in further acts of erasure and flattening, the actual category of “Muslim” often leaves out Black American Muslims.) 

City of Faith is divided into two main sections: 

• Ambient Faith features objects and installations that show that the relationship between religion and public space goes beyond the built environment and includes the sounds and scents of the city. It also shows how ambience is not just a sensory phenomenon but is also racialized and, therefore, political. 

• Art and Activism shows how art, collective action, and creative spatial practices go hand in hand towards documenting injustices, protecting against religious profiling, and organizing for social and political change.

And, some of the artwork and imagery featured includes:

• A Love Supreme (2022) - A scent-installation commissioned from Tanaïs, perfumer and author of the award-winning book, In Sensorium. The piece is composed of hand-braided Nepali lokta paper, filled with powdered incense and dipped in fragrant oils. Drawing on the speculation that the title of John Coltrane’s legendary album A Love Supreme is a nod to the phrase “Allah Supreme,” this installation is a remembrance of lineages: from the first Muslims on this land, enslaved Africans, to Black American Muslims and the newer waves of immigrants from 1965, the year A Love Supreme was released.  

• ALHAMDU | MUSLIM FUTURISM (2021) - Portraits by MIPSTERZ, a Muslim arts and culture collective. The featured images were shot in, and reclaim, the public spaces of New York City, and are part of a larger series of over 200 portraits telling the story of a Muslim future world.  

• CURB (2019), Quilts(2021), and 40°44'57"N, 73°53'27"W (2022) – An artist’s book by bookmaker Aaron Cohick and poet Divya Victor, and related short films by Amarnath Ravva, Vivek Vellanki, and Tayla Blewitt-Gray, explore the religious profiling and subsequent assaults and murders of South Asians in public spaces in the U.S. 

• Index of the Disappeared (2004–ongoing) – An updated version of an interactive piece by Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani that uses official documents, secondary literature, and personal narratives to foreground the difficult histories of immigrant, "other," and dissenting communities in the US since 9/11, as well as the effects of US military and intelligence interventions globally.

• Jasmine Blooms at Night (2017-ongoing) – These portraits by artist Jaishri Abichandani are taken from a larger series depicting South Asian American feminist activists, whose wide-ranging work covers issues related to race, religion, and caste alongside gender, disability, housing, and labor justice. The artist is herself an activist: in 1997, Abichandani founded the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective (SAWCC) to provide a platform to artists normally overlooked by mainstream institutions. 

• Pilgrims/This is Not That Dawn (2022) – A multimedia installation commissioned from Utsa Hazarika explores intersecting legacies that connect Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to South Asian politics and migration.

• Religious Diversity in the Borough of Queens (2014–2022) – An animation of images taken from Joseph Heathcott’s photographic series documenting the urban-spatial practices of the borough’s religious communities. 

• Sikh Project (2016) - Five portraits from the series by photographers Amit Amin and Naroop Jhooti, celebrating NYC’s Sikh community members. 

• Somewhere in America (2015) - This meticulously designed work by Saks Afridi resembles an illuminated Quran but is an English-to-Arabic transliteration of Jay-Z's “Somewhere in America” and offers an examination of the miseducation of blind faith.

• Survival Mosque (2005) – A photomontage by artist and historian Azra Akšamija depicting a wearable mosque kitted out with elements for self-protection. The piece is a critique of the surveillance and targeting of Muslim communities in the aftermath of 9/11.

• Unlocking the Eruv (2010–ongoing) – Photographer Margaret Olin’s ongoing series examines the rabbinic institution of the eruv, which symbolically extends the private domain of Jewish households into public areas, and permits activities that are normally forbidden in public on the Sabbath. 

• Unto Dust (1997-ongoing) – Portraits by Greg Miller from his ongoing photography series documenting Catholic community members on Ash Wednesdays. 

• Vishnu? (2016) - a photograph from a larger series documenting murthis, by artist, curator, and scholar Andil Gosine. 

The exhibition also features art by and photographs documenting the work of activist and community organizations such as Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM); Sikh Coalition; and Chhaya CDC.

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