Instagram-famous Egyptian photographer Owise Abuzaid challenges UCSB students to consider the everyday lives of Muslim Americans with his art exhibit “Diversity of Arab and Muslim Diasporas in the U.S.” Having opened Monday, April 8, the exhibit — consisting of a written statement and 10 framed photographs — will be on display in the MultiCultural Center Room throughout spring quarter.
Inspired by photographs taken from 11 mosques across New York City during Ramadan, the exhibit includes scenes from the typical lives of American Muslims. At a glance, each image appears strikingly normal. A woman rests on a bench tapping away at her phone; a man, backlit by a street lamp, cups the flame of his lighter to a cigarette; another man sits immaculately dressed in a navy blue suit and fedora, which is contrasted by a bright red pocket square and tie with a gold clip.
However, a unifying theme binds all of the photos: The woman wears a glittery yellow chador and full-body dress; the man smoking wears a plain head cap; and the suited man, although sporting no visible markers of his religion, is a member of the controversial Nation of Islam. Each photo contrasts traditional Islamic imagery with elements of American culture.
Writing for the statement associated with the photographs, Abuzaid cites his personal struggle “sustaining the balance between the ideas [he] grew up with in Egypt versus the different ideas or social norms [he] was being exposed to all the time in the U.S.”
In a phone interview with The Bottom Line, Abuzaid discussed the kinds of conflicts he experienced coming to the U.S. from Egypt and how photography helped him understand those issues more deeply. He struggled to navigate between conservative Egyptian Islam and the liberalism of many American mosques, where imams often preach a more flexible interpretation of the religion than their Middle Eastern counterparts.
More importantly, Abuzaid said he wants to lead the Muslim community in reclaiming the representation of Islam in America from American media; he passionately described how American media often inaccurately portrays the religion. He presents a different vision: “I have no implication of what is wrong and what is right, but … everyone has their own Islam within them.”
Although the photographs don’t convey an explicitly religious message, some include progressive Islamic ideas. One photo shows a man shielded from the street by newspaper boxes as he prostrates on a prayer mat, his head brushing a plastic grocery bag. For Abuzaid, that image represents “a sign that god sent me that’s like, ‘hey, you can actually connect with me at any form, at anywhere, wherever you go.’”
By showing Islamic people engaging in aspects of the typical American lifestyle, the exhibit demands viewers consider that the photos are actually quite ordinary — the inclusion of diverse Islamic imagery need not be considered separate from the average American experience. During the next Ramadan, Abuzaid intends to visit a new mosque every day, further highlighting the breadth of the diversity and inclusivity of the Muslim experience in America.
See Owise Abuzaid’s exhibit in the MCC Room throughout spring quarter. Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.