This Is Me—The Muslim Self-Portrait Project

The Institute for Cultural Diplomacy :

Todd Drake is a community-based artist out of North Carolina, whose latest project responds to the stereotyping of Muslims with a series of collaborative self-portraits that “share real, rather than seeming, reflections of self to a wider audience.” The project is called Esse Quam Videre (to be rather than to seem to be), and it is predicated on the idea that humans naturally fear what they do not know. Photographs, collages and self-drawn images are linked with short essays to give a brief yet sincere snapshot of identity for Muslims in North Carolina and in Manam, Bahrain.

The images are a perfect example of the arts as cultural diplomacy, thanks above all to Drake’s insistence on commonalities, on understanding and on what he calls the artistic “curation” of identity images. Perhaps more importantly, they’re spectacular. They can all be viewed on the project’s homepage here, and below, Todd Drake speaks to Alex Wells of the CD News team about the process and the vision behind his work. The interview has been edited for concision. What inspired you to do the Muslim Self-Portait Project? Was it political, cultural, artistic, or a mixture of them all? Four years ago, when I started this project, I was worried that the Muslim community in the United States would suffer the same fate as Japanese-Americans during WWII. I also suspected that what I was reading and seeing in the media did not represent the actual Muslim community in the United States. I have worked for many years with marginalized communities like refugees, the elderly, and so on. I did not, however, know a single Muslim and I did not know if they would embrace this project.

I moved forward based on the eagerness I had received from another marginalized community that I had worked extensively with in the US: the undocumented immigrant community from Mexico. I found the same enthusiasm among Muslim Americans. Both minorities have had their public perception shaped by the mainstream media and by those who would profit in some way from their negative depiction. I also think there is a tendency to fear what you do not know.

The Muslim community only makes up about 3 % of the US population so most Americans—like myself—do not have the opportunity to meet a Muslim. From an artistic stand point, I believe that art and artists serve a role in society to point out beauty and truth in places that we would otherwise overlook. This is what I am trying to do with all my art projects: helping others clearly see what is before them. The original audience for this project was US non-Muslims. It has, however, found an audience among Muslims who appreciate the deeper and more expansive view it is giving on their own community.

Now it has also found traction for bringing together Shia and Sunni sects, as it did in Bahrain. All good. How did the process work for each self-portrait you collected? Was it very collaborative—and did you take much direction? Were there any delights or difficulties that recurred with the folks you were working with? So, Muslims can participant in two ways with this project. They can create the whole image themselves and submit a self portrait for me to consider for inclusion. The other way is to work collaboratively with me to realize the content they wish to share. In both instances, I am looking for images that share something personal and specific, that are also universal and possibly anti-stereotype: images that relate a love of animals or basketball, a charitable act, an injustice—things that others (Muslim or non-Muslim) can relate to and things that build a bridge between themselves and the subject. If the person is not artistic, I offer my trained eye to shape the image’s form but again leave the content to them. I also give them full control of which particular image is selected for inclusion.

This approach has been successful most often. I have had a few participants nix what I though was a strong image. Another approach that I am finding successful is holding photographic workshops in which I teach the participants how to take better photographs, then challenge them to take their own self portrait. This was an overwhelming success in Bahrain, where I collected over 25 self portraits from 50 participants in the workshops. My ultimate goal is to have Muslims create their own images and help define who they see themselves as. So as the project develops, I am happy to have more and more of the images come directly from them. I want to, in a way, work myself out of job. Recurring delights include the enthusiasm for the project I have had from the Muslim community. Also, the repeated statements from those who have seen the work. They appreciate this broader, deeper window into the community. I have even had Muslims thank me for the renewed appreciation the project has given them for their own community as they had begun to be deeply affected by the image portrayed in the mass media. Recurring difficulties include getting that same mass media to pay attention to the project.

I have had great local coverage and some good international coverage but the US national media has stayed away from it. I have worked it from the inside even and watched as news services turn this project down but rush to Florida to cover a pastor burning a Koran, or the Ground Zero Mosque controversy. You are described as a community artist. How do you imagine yourself in this role? Do you offer your own insights to the communities you engage with, in your art, or do you act as a passive secretary (if that’s even possible)? And how does the photography medium fit into this? As a community artist I see myself a bridge for communication. I am interested in delivering a benign message of empathy and compassion—but today, in my culture, such messages are provocative. When working with any community, I try to offer a window for them to project themselves through, and I try to be as clear and unbiased a window as possible.

I believe that by projecting individual stories of self we get at the universal. I consider myself a curator or filter only to the degree that I try to get at the deeper truth of that person’s experience. My own life has also been deeply effected by this project and I have become an advocate for issues like immigration reform and stopping Islamophobia. In working with other cultures, I have stressed the importance of identifying common human needs as a beginning point: food, shelter, love, laughter, respect, trust, and so forth. When someone recognizes a shared need in another, there is a bridge built. I point out that violence is not a need. Often, this way of thinking is new and provocative. I have come to photography after working in painting. With the advent of Photoshop, photography has in fact become painting, in my opinion.

I enjoy working in the digital medium because of the access it gives me to sharing images with others. I also still value the experience of seeing the work in print and on the wall. Something about these images being life size makes them immediate and like a conversation with another person – you cannot really get that on a computer. Is it important that Muslims are collaborating in the process of producing their own image today? And does this kind of project also leave room for the airing of dirty laundry, as well as demonstrating intercultural similarities on a personal level? Collaboration is important only in the sense that we both have something to offer, that combined effort makes something greater than could have existed without our collaboration.

I feel like I give my artistic training, my curatorial ability, my interest in finding the humanity in others, my creativity, my ability as a teacher. They bring their authentic experiences, their desire to communicate, their creativity. This process does leave room for airing of dirty laundry. Many of the self portraits made in the US are protests against problems experienced from being Muslim in the US—loss of job opportunities, being pushed from college by their peers, etc. The participants from Bahrain could not speak as freely. Work after work of theirs spoke about the breaking of trust (a universal need.) I was proud that the US State Department did not censor these negative works from the exhibition in Bahrain. It was also an object lesson in free speech.

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