BY SARA GILBERT FREDERICK
An exhibition about Muslim women artists allows St. Catherine to start an important conversation — on campus and in the community.
When the ArtReach Foundation asked Anne Rosenberg to find a Twin Cities venue for a major international exhibition, "Breaking the Veils: Women Artists from the Islamic World," a small gallery at a Catholic university was the first place that came to mind.
Rosenberg, a partner with the Minneapolis law firm of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, had been to exhibits at the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery at St. Catherine University before and knew that it was a beautiful space. But she had more than aesthetics in mind when she approached gallery director Kathy Daniels ’73 about the possibility of hosting the renowned art show.
"The connection is obvious," says Rosenberg. "St. Catherine University contains the largest private women’s college [in the country]; this is an exhibit of women artists. And it was important that the exhibit be associated with an academic institution, to help spark a dialogue about cross-cultural issues. I knew right away that St. Kate’s was the right place."
Daniels agreed that "Breaking the Veils" perfectly fit the gallery’s mission to engage and educate both students and the wider community. "The exhibit speaks volumes about the social justice foundation of this University," she explains. "And it is an example of how visual arts can be used as another way to educate, to explore new ideas and to broaden our horizons."
"Breaking the Veils" features the work of more than 50 artists from Islamic cultures around the world. The goal is to open eyes and minds to the diverse perspectives of Islamic women. By the time the 17 crates containing all 72 pieces of artwork — including oil paintings, acrylics, watercolors, silk screens, photographs, etchings and collages — arrived at St. Catherine’s St. Paul campus just before Christmas, Daniels already had learned much about both the Muslim tradition and her own beliefs.
"I have already learned how naïve I am, even as someone working in an academic environment," she says. "I had all these misconceptions without even realizing it. It’s been a very eye-opening experience for me."
A broader understanding
The exhibit, which is presented by the Atlanta-based ArtReach Foundation, was shown in 16 cities in Europe and Australia before arriving in the United States in 2008. Since then, it has been hosted by the Clinton Presidential Center, the University of Southern Mississippi, the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts and Yale University. Its two-month run at the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery (the show will hang until April 1) marks the only Midwestern stop currently scheduled on its tour.
From the moment that Rosenberg first floated the idea of bringing it to St. Kate’s, "Breaking the Veils" has been a collaborative effort between campus and community. Committed to diversity and interested in reaching out to Minnesota’s growing Muslim population, Rosenberg’s law firm committed substantial dollars to the initiative.
"‘Breaking the Veils’ goes to the core of what we do," says Martin R. Lueck, chair of the executive board at Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi. "This art exhibition is an exceptional vehicle for advancing cross-cultural understanding, and we wanted to be a part of bringing it to the Twin Cities."
Early in the process, St. Kate’s organized a meeting among key players from the University and representatives from the Twin Cities–area Muslim community. Kelly Povo ’09, who now serves as project coordinator for "Breaking the Veils," did a lot of listening at that first meeting, and at subsequent gatherings as well. "My goal was to ask them what they wanted to see happen," Povo says.
Latifah Kiribedda ’12 was among the women who advocated for a panel discussion to showcase the diversity within the Muslim faith. Kiribedda, a sophomore at St. Kate’s, grew up in Uganda and has been involved in the Muslim Student Association since coming to the University. She felt that having an exchange of ideas among women from different Islamic backgrounds could help promote greater understanding and eliminate some of the common misconceptions about the Muslim faith.
Povo invited Kiribedda to serve on the panel with four other women from the community — a Lebanese-American attorney, a German convert to Islam who works with the Islamic Resource Group, an artist from Saudi Arabia, and the executive director of Crossing Barriers, an organization for Somali immigrants. They all share a desire to help others understand their often misunderstood religious traditions.
"Anytime I have the opportunity to
educate people about Islam, I’m going to
take that chance," Kiribedda says. "Islam is a religion of peace.
a religion that spans across the whole globe
and includes many ethnicities. I have
seen that it is not portrayed very positively in the media here, and I think
Opening eyes and minds
Povo spent time in January training docents who provide guided tours of the exhibit. Many are alumnae of St. Kate’s who graduated from the art history or studio arts programs. "We asked people [to be docents] who have an interest in this exhibit, an interest in art history, and some experience either with giving talks or docent tours," Povo says.
She assembled a script and provided training sessions to help the docents explain contextual information and answer questions about the art and artists. She also turned to Kiribedda — who reviewed the correct pronunciation of artist names — and others within the local Muslim community. Whatever questions the docents can’t answer are passed to volunteers from St. Kate’s Muslim Student Association.
"For this exhibit to truly challenge stereotypes, it must open the door to creative dialogue," Povo says. "We hope to begin a deeper dialogue that will help further the conversations that start at the exhibit."
When Povo started coordinating the exhibit and its related programming last fall, she realized how little she knew about Islam, the Muslim tradition and even the artists’ home countries. "I was feeling overwhelmed by what I didn’t know," Povo says. "I was totally unaware of how I could be saying something that was insensitive, and I wanted to learn."
Povo asked Ladan Yusuf, one of the panel members, if she was Somalian. "She explained to me that that isn’t actually a word," says Povo. "She is from Somalia, and she is Somali. It seems so simple, but it is disrespectful to be using descriptors that are not even words."
In one conversation with panel member Imani Jaafar-Mohammad, Povo learned how important it is to see Islam as an intercultural religion — and to understand the difference between culture and religion. From Hend Al-Mansour, who also will serve on the panel, she learned about how the values of Islam have been acquired from several different cultures.
Like everyone involved with "Breaking the Veils," Povo hopes the exhibit and its related programming will inspire deeper conversations both on and off campus — among students who attend as part of a class and among community members who keep talking about their experience.
"We can become a hotbed of dialogue," Daniels says. "We have the opportunity to educate the whole community. I think that is just incredible."
Sara Gilbert Frederick is a Mankato-based freelance writer and the former editor of U.S. Art.