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'Group Chat': Experiences as a Muslim artist in Milwaukee

Artists Liala Amin and Amal Azzam
Jimmy Gutierrez
Liala Amin and Amal Azzam

Today we're starting a new series that aims to get Milwaukeeans in conversation with each other, letting them ask their own questions to one another while we provide the mics and get out of the way. It's called Group Chat. Our first sit down is between local artists, Liala Amin and Amal Azzam.

Artists have long used their voices and platforms to advocate for causes most important to them. For Amin and Azzam, this has meant being even more outspoken post-October for the people in Palestine.

Together, and a long with other Muslim artists, they've held gallery nights and fundraisers for Palestinian causes and to raise awareness of the ongoing destruction in Gaza. And while they hadn't considered their work as activism before, they've both leaned into the need to draw attention to this conflict now.

They talked with each other about what that process has been like for them, their fears and hopes, and what their experiences were like when they first started making art in Milwaukee.

Liala Amin: I've very curious what your experience was like in art school, especially at [UW-Milwaukee] Peck.

Amal Azzam: Mine wasn't very great. It was really hard for me to make friends. I only had like two professors that really made me feel like I was no different than anyone else in the room. All through the first year until I graduated, I just felt that a looming sense of not fitting in, and trying to fit in and just never really worked. So after my first or second year, I kind of just gave up. I was like, this is just not going to happen.

At the time I chalked it up to, I'm not rooming with anybody, I'm going to campus and I'm going home to my parents house. Maybe that's what it is. But in the classrooms themselves, it was so difficult to the point where I didn't realize it at the time, but I feel like now when I really think about it, I was the only Muslim woman in every single classroom.

And then the minorities in the classroom just kept decreasing the further I got into the program. Honestly, they were like the most talented people in the class, but they just kept dropping out and changing majors.

It wasn't great. There were times where I feel like I should have gotten some praise from professors because I was working so damn hard and it was just completely ignored. And group projects were hell because nobody wanted to meet with me. It was just so, so weird because I'm like, what am I like? I'm just a person.

But then I also would go to school, like wearing the keffiyeh, because at the time it was like, post 9/11.

Amin: It would have been like early 2010s because I graduated from [Peck] in December 2014. And I remember there were pretty active Muslim groups on that campus, and a very active SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine]. So there were always places that you could go to to feel like, oh, I'm around people who like get me.

But a lot of the other Muslim and Arab students they did not go to art school. They were all in the engineering program, or architecture, or business, or something in the biology. So they're on the opposite side of campus. You are quite literally physically isolated from everyone else.

I don't know if you can relate to this but we both went to Salam School, it's a very tight knit community. We both went to St. Joan Antida, that's a very diverse high school. And everyone was just so accepting, it never became an issue... But then you get college where it's supposed to be, quote unquote, the adult world, your introduction to that, and people suddenly treat you like an other. And it's very jarring.

What made me almost give up entirely on art making was the final critique that I had. They brought in a local artist, like professional artist, and they would give you feedback. This would happen throughout the semester, but this last one was the big one where you're presenting your entire thesis, your portfolio, your artist statement.

At the time, I was making these garments, like wearable garments, and I didn't have a model because I'm a broke 20-something year old. So I used my younger sister as a model wearing these outfits. And she was like 15 or 16 [at the time] so I cropped her head out because I'm like, she's a minor, she's a child, and if I were to post these on a website for a portfolio that's for her own safety.

As I'm presenting my portfolio to this class, to the teacher, to this artist, in no way did I mention politics. I mentioned how the symbols I was using related back to Islamic faith, but there was nothing political about that.

The first question I got was from this artist and she was like, why is her face cropped out? Like, why is her head cropped out? And I [said], well, it's my younger sister and she's like a minor, so it's for her own privacy. Just for context, this is 2014, [this woman] said, well, given the political climate, I just don't think it's wise of you to have a woman that's beheaded in your photos.

Azzam: Beheaded?

Amin: Yes. Without her head. And I didn't say anything. I just kind of looked at her. No one said anything. No one corrected her. No one said, where are you getting that from? That was the only feedback she gave me. She said nothing about my artist statement, she said nothing about the quality of my work.

I graduated shortly after that and I almost gave up on art. I didn't make art for almost four years because I was so disheartened. I was like, that's it, that's how people are going to view me. I'm just this object for them to throw their own bias on.

Azzam: I'm sorry you had to go through that because I'm sure it's like such an intimate setting too. You carry so much understanding that you're perceived through so many misconceptions, and then you have to take that home, and then you have to decide what to do with it. And sometimes it's like, I don't want to deal with it.

Amin: That's the question that I want to ask you for sure, because, I mean, I'm not Palestinian and I'm only like half Lebanese, so, knowing that you are, have you ever felt that ... while you were in art school, the level of self censorship that maybe you've had to encounter and what that's been like and ... how that's changed? Or if that's changed?

Artist Amal Azzam in her All Eyes On Me piece
Provided by Amal Azzam
Amal Azzam in her All Eyes on Me piece

Azzam: It's funny because I remember I did a presentation in college. And it was [in] the big lecture halls that you take art history in and everything. I don't know why I was doing presentation, but, it was about the Palestinian struggle. I had like images up, it's completely raw and everything.

And after doing like a whole presentation, where at the end of it I was so choked up and ready to cry, and seeing how no one really knew what I was talking about. I went home and I was like, I can't do this anymore. That's when the self-censorship started to come in. And I didn't realize how bad it was.

I was worried of people that were perceived to be on the right side of history, viewing my work and seeing me as the villain, the terrorist, the troublemaker. I was worried almost all the time.

Yeah, the self-censorship is still there, especially after October as well because before I post anything, I'll send it to friends and [ask], do you think I should share this? Do you think it's OK? Do you think people would understand it?

Amin: It's interesting because I totally understand when I'm only making work for the aesthetic quality. I think I was so burned by that final like critique, quotations critique, that I got that I was like if I put anything related to culture about me being Arab, about me being a Muslim woman, my work is going to just going to get dismissed.

[So] when I started to get back into making art, painting had very little to do with my identity. It was very surface level because I was playing it very safe. I was like, I am not going to ruffle anyone's feathers. I'm going to just keep my head down and not say anything. And if people like how my artwork looks, that's great. But when everyone was asked well, what's the meaning of this? I'd be like, I don't really know. I don't even know who I am at this point.

That didn't like really start changing for me until this past year. And it was because of a lot of personal things that had happened to where I was like, okay, now is the time for me to really discover who I am.

I want to be proud of me being Muslim, you know, how do I show that in my work? And who cares if people don't get it? Because I am not an encyclopedia and it's also your responsibility as the viewer when you see something to do that research on your own.

Liala Amin working in her studio
Jimmy Gutierrez
Liala Amin working in her studio

Post-October, [is] when I really stop caring. If this [post] makes someone mad they're not worth being in my life because why would I want to be associated or connected to anyone who supports this genocide?

And I guess this is also a question you could answer, too, like sometimes I do wonder if one day I will get canceled, or if I will have opportunities taken from me, or prevented from even considered because of how outspoken outspoken I've become. And that's like a difficult thing for me to reconcile.

Azzam: I haven't really thought about it but it is emotionally there for me. I just haven't unpacked it yet. I have had people advise me of like, well, you know, artists have always kind of been in that situation. The stronger your work is, the more you have to say, you're going to get some pushback and it existed in the 70s, and the 80s, and the 90s.

And I'm just like, I guess that's true. But I also feel like in this day and age, if you do get canceled, and you're in Milwaukee, is there a support system for that? I don't know.

Amin: I really don't know what a support system looks like anymore. Kind of going back to that isolation that I think both of us felt when we were at UW-Milwaukee, I'm starting to feel that again.

And I find myself pretty uncomfortable now in some art spaces, like in gallery spaces. Especially because so many of them have been indifferent [to current events]. This is something that I've said to other people where I'm just like, I don't know what's worse, I don't know if hatred or indifference is worse because both of them, in my opinion, only benefit oppression.

Azzam: Which is kind of sad because I feel like unfortunately, once everything is said and done, that's when they're going to be like, come on in. We want to know, can we display your work? We'll have a show all about it today. But you can't display it in a year, or two, or five or six [years].

What do you hope your art conveys?

Amin: I just want people to care. I just want you to care. I want you to actually show humanity and have a reaction that would go beyond like, oh this is terrible. It's like OK, so what are you going to do about it. You can't just look at artwork and be like, that's terrible. Do something! Make movement. That's what I would hope is that it just it makes people move.

Azzam: I think, I hope my art conveys the message that the West, and America, are not the good guys. Like this facade needs to be broken. We need to start to understand our history and learn more. And there's a lot of things that like, I'm still learning about. The fact that we're still living on stolen land, like, that's never really talked about other than, like the bottom of people's emails and it's just like, no, those communities are still struggling.

And I hope it creates a domino effect, to be honest, of breaking all of those bubbles that we've been in, because I know I've been in it — being born and raised here. And now I feel like it's time to swallow that hard pill of, we're not the good guys and we need to kind of start to own up to that if we want a better world in the future for everybody.


Jimmy is a WUWM producer for Lake Effect.
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