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Rap it or paint it, Muslim artists tackle identity

Yasmin Alsalman aka the Narcicyst seen on Rene Levesque Boul. in Montreal, July 4th 2011__The ring on his finger spells "YAssin" in Arabic.

Roger Lemoyne for the Globe and Mail/roger lemoyne The Globe and Mail

Sabrina Jalees is a lesbian comic of Pakistani-Swiss heritage who grew up in Toronto, now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her girlfriend, and likes to joke that when she came out to her parents she was worried her Muslim father would force her to take 10 wives. Yassin Alsalman is a Montreal rapper known as The Narcicyst who uses the aggressive language of hip hop to denounce the heavy hand of U.S. Homeland Security and the war in Iraq, his parents' homeland. Boonaa Mohammed is a spoken word poet of Ethiopian extraction who celebrates Islamic history in his work - when he is not teaching at an Islamic school in Scarborough, Ont.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a generation of Muslim Canadian artists has emerged that addresses identity and religion through art - and whose members are quick to identify themselves as Muslims, no matter how tenuous their adherence to Islam.

"Maybe it would be easier if I just took photographs of Muskoka," says Alia Toor, a Toronto visual artist born in Pakistan and raised in Canada, "but that is not who I am."

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Instead, Toor has created work about security and religion: She belongs to an artistic community shaped by the terrorist attacks and the wars that followed them.

"I learned about terrorism from CNN," Mohammed says, explaining his urge to counter unrecognizable stereotypes by writing celebratory poetry about Islamic heroes and values. "After 9/11 you were either brave enough to wave the flag and declare yourself and be proud of your faith or you just shrivelled up and tried to blend in. There was this joke: Mohammed turns into Moe."

But people who want to blend in rarely become artists: Jalees, who points out she could pass for Portuguese, began making jokes about her Pakistani heritage because she wanted to confront people's new discomfort with Muslims.

For artists like her, political events and the gap between stereotypes of Islam and their own cultural experiences have provided plenty of inspiration. Immigrants themselves or, more often, the children of immigrants, these artists are steeped in Western culture and have no time for doctrinal debates about whether or not Islam prohibits imagery of the human form or limits the use of musical instruments. The vocabularies they use are usually those of Western media - stand-up comedy, contemporary visual art, documentary film and popular music.

"We learned from the African American community on how to be vocal about our experience artistically," Alsalman wrote in an e-mail explaining the development of what is known as Arab hip-hop. "... before hip hop and the Arab world met, we were silent. Now our generation is speaking out more than ever."

Others have adapted traditional art forms. Tazeen Qayyum, a visual artist who lives in Oakville, Ont., trained as a miniaturist in her native Pakistan, where that historic practice, once used to paint tiny portraits of battling heroes and frolicking monarchs, is being revived as a contemporary art form. Today, she creates work about political issues using the delicate and colourful miniaturist style, painting intricate images of cockroaches, for example, that represent the civilian body counts in Iraq.

The artists disagree about how well this work is received in Canada and how much Canadian attitudes are shifting. Alsalman, for example, argues that racism is still very prevalent and that the image of Muslims is generally a negative one; others perceive a gradual change in attitudes since the panic of 2001, precisely because people have been forced to confront the prejudices expressed against Muslims, and add that the popular rebellions of the Arab spring have helped build a more positive and diverse image.

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"The racism and the intolerance and ignorance when it comes to Muslims is no longer cool; people know it is unacceptable," Jalees says.

Meanwhile, some of the artists also believe Canada is particularly open to the kind of hybrid art they are creating because of its multiculturalism. Their work is made possible by a world of global communications and social media, where artists and audiences can follow the culture of any place they choose. If there is one theme that emerges, it is a refusal to define being Muslim in a context where East and West are themselves increasingly impossible to untangle.

"There is no one Islam," says Montreal filmmaker Omar Majeed, the creator of a 2009 documentary about Taqwacore, the North American Muslim punk movement that he believes arose precisely because young Muslims felt marginalized by narrow depictions of Islam. "That's an idea a vocal minority tries to push, the right-wing extremists in the United States and the religious fundamentalists inside Islam. It's bogus. ... There is no pure Islam that exists any place. Wherever you may be, your are living in a global world."

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About the Author

Kate Taylor is lead film critic at the Globe and Mail and a columnist in the arts section. More

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