Written by Janet Kozak
In January 2015, Artist Ameena Khan put a call out to some Muslim women. She asked for art contributions to her newest series of paintings entitled “Just a Peek, Please?” Those who replied to her inquiry were asked to give a personal statement they wanted to share with a stranger.
Khan did not give any guidance other than asking them to be honest. What the women sent back were stories, memories, poems, and confessions.
Khan also asked those who wore hijab to donate a scarf that she could use in the work. It was bold choice that makes the art all the more powerful. Knowing that the included scarves belonged to (and were worn by) real women, helps us connect more to both the art and story. The series of 26 mixed media paintings on 12″x12″ canvases was started and completed in 2015 – though Khan began brainstorming the concept about two years prior.
One of the 26 paintings and poems in the series, Stages of Live, depicts the poignant narrative life story of a woman who is proud to both wear hijab in life and be buried in it as well.
“When I donned the hijab in 1980, covering was like a carefully placed bandage over a deep wound. Since then I have covered at work, at school, while nursing my babies, through chemotherapy and radiation, and past hostile stares. In the end, when I return to Allah (SWT) my sisters in Islam will cover me in finality and with love. I live, and die, under this cover of honor.”
In the vibrant painting Sweet Babies, another mother laments the moment she will have to try to make sense of the actions of others who might hate her children without cause.
“I dread the day when I have to have “that talk” with my children. When I have to explain to my sweet babies why some people may despise them and say hurtful things, or even try to hurt them, without even knowing their names.”
“The very best art challenges our most deeply held convictions, and asks us to reconsider our beliefs and opinions.
Creating “Just a Peek, Please?” forced me to invest myself in the experiences of other women so that I could effectively paint their ideas. It encourages viewers to cross cultural, religious, age, and gender barriers so that they can connect with the experiences of a complete stranger.
In fact, because the artwork cannot be viewed without lifting the veils that cover them, it requires the viewer to become part of the artwork. They cannot just walk by and passively or casually look it over; the viewer must participate in the conversation. I love that aspect of the work, and am very proud of the positive reaction it has received.”
In Target, another anonymous woman reflects on how she’s now more fearful of becoming a target of others’ hate. She writes, “There was a time when all I had to fear from wearing hijab were stares and raised eyebrows. Times have changed.”
Khan has artfully expressed the feeling of growing unease through use of newspaper headlines and a set of crosshairs – as if from a sniper’s rifle scope.
Inspired and art-filled living
Ameena Khan realizes that it may sound trite – but she actually has her dream job.
Surrounded by a community of wonderfully supportive family and friends, she teaches art, creativity, and problem solving to children. She’s also working on an interfaith public art mosaic. However, she didn’t always have so much time to focus on her love of making and creating fine art.
Khan graduated with her PhD in 2006 and worked until 2008 at Jones Edmunds and Assoc. She took an extended leave of absence to be with her daughter and in 2010 began working again part time at Clear Carbon Innovations as an associate director of research and development.
After the death of her mother-in-law in 2011 she reconsidered her career choice and the impact it was having on her life. She was always stressed out and unhappy. After a lot of thought, she quit engineering entirely in the fall of 2012 and changed her focus to art.
Khan’s family moved to Tampa in 2013 so that her children could attend a well-established Islamic school. In 2014, she was offered an art teaching position at another Islamic school, so in the fall of 2014 she switched her kids over to the new school where she currently teaches art to elementary and middle school students.
Making an impact
Ameena Khan’s artworks and instruction are already benefiting the local community in profound ways. They’re sparking interest, connecting hearts, and causing a bit of a stir.
Khan’s experiences as both a parent and Muslim, have motivated nearly every piece that she’s recently created. Khan explains that the tremendous challenge of overcoming stereotypes was highlighted for her after the birth of her son in 2010.
“[…] At that time, one of the ultra-conservative pastors in my city ramped up his anti-Islam efforts. His congregation, the Dove World Outreach Center, began harassing the local Muslim community in shopping centers, at bus stops, and public parks (as was the case for me and my children). They sent their children into schools – elementary through high school – wearing “Islam is of the Devil” shirts, resulting in stress, confusion, and trauma to their Muslim peers.
The church’s actions finally culminated in Qur’an burning events that had international consequences. This traumatic experience caused a deep sadness and fear for my children’s future, and prompted me to begin creating the socio-political artwork that I continue to make today.”
Khan’s first reactionary art piece was titled “He Is Not Me. We Are Not He.” Her black and white portrait of Osama bin Laden is framed by derogatory words normally used in reference to Muslims.
Underneath the portrait of bin Laden, on a second layer of canvas, is an abstract painting representing the diversity of the international Muslim community.
It’s an artwork that prompted her to strive to use her art as a tool to promote dialogue and understanding locally and internationally as well.
Building community bridges
Ameena Khan plans to wade deeper into the public art sphere. She firmly believes that public art enhances and improves communities by beautifying shared spaces and encouraging neighbors to enjoy public spaces together. She’s creating murals that will inspire and unify communities rather than divide. The Tree Of Life Public Art Mosaic, one of her collaborative projects, is part of a grass roots movement in Gainesville, FL to bring art to the city’s public spaces.
When Khan learned that accomplished mosaic artist and friend, Limor Ben-Naim Herb, was interested in creating a piece of public art, she volunteered to lend a hand. At the time she knew nothing about creating mosaics, but she saw it as an opportunity to learn a new skill while giving back to her city.
Herb and Khan decided to exemplify interfaith unity by creating a contemporary “Tree of Life” design. They also teamed up with another group of mosaic artists called Cracked Glass who are pushing the project forward. Khan relates that it’s been amazing learning about this ancient art form from such a wonderfully talented group of people.
Aside from her gallery focused works and the “Just a Peek, Please?” series, Khan is excited to become a part of the street art scene by completing her first public mural. She’s co-creating another amazing artwork that will be available for everyone to see.
She’s enthusiastic about her upcoming exhibitions later this year and the fact that she’s been blessed with the opportunity to uplift her local community and address complex social issues on a larger scale. She hopes her raw and powerful art is as transformative to others as it is for her.
Khan’s next exhibit of the “Loud Print” collection will be in July-August of 2016 at the Carrollwood Cultural Center in Tampa, Florida. She also has two other solo exhibits of her watercolor and pen drawings planned at locations within Florida: one exhibit at Bamboozle Cafe in Tampa from June 28 to July 28, and another at Unity of Gainesville from Aug. 4 to Sept. 25.
Janet Kozak is an award-winning artist, designer, author, domestic abuse victim advocate, activist, and educator. Her artwork and interviews have been featured in Muslim Matters, The Huffington Post, Azizah Magazine, Aquila Style, SISTERS Magazine, Islamic Art & Architecture and more.
She is currently working on a series of collaborative artworks with leading Muslimah artists around the globe addressing domestic violence in Muslim communities and a in-depth seven month series on domestic abuse for UK-based SISTERS Magazine. When not writing and art-making she can be found lending her talents to a variety of non-profit organizations. To contact please visit her website: http://jkgallery.wordpress.com or connect on Twitter: @abstracthijabi.
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