Late last month, in response to President Donald Trump’s proposed “Muslim Ban,” the Museum of Modern Art in New York City did some redecorating, adding contemporary pieces by artists from a handful of the seven countries initially implicated in the ban. The move was applauded and celebrated around the internet and in the art world.
Meanwhile, smaller organizations that have showcased such things all along don’t require a new approach.
Since 1999, Mizna’s mission has been to highlight the work of Arab and Muslim artists and writers. Lana Barkawi is the executive and artistic director of the St. Paul-based Arab arts organization with a national and global reach.
Since the Arab Spring in 2011, Mizna has also been showcasing the work of Syrian artists, utilizing its regularly scheduled programming, which includes the yearly Arab Film Festival and a biannual print journal. The result is an impressive conglomerate of work that demonstrates the effectiveness of careful, consistent curation in times of crisis and after.
“Right [after the Arab Spring], we were figuring out what we should do, because we’re a tiny arts organization in the Midwest. What’s our role?” Barkawi says. “We thought, ‘Well, we need to be part of the conversation, because if we’re not, there will be others [who will do so] in irresponsible ways. We put out a call for writing on literature in revolution, and the following spring we published a journal with that theme.”
The “Literature in Revolution” issue, published in 2012, featured work by Mohja Kahf, a Syrian author and scholar. Kahf also put Mizna in touch with Syrian activist Maimouna Alammar to write for the issue on her experience of watching her brother be taken away by authorities for protesting Assad’s regime. Alammar later Skyped in for the issue-release reading from an undisclosed location.
“She couldn’t share with us where she was because she is in fear for her life,” Barkawi says. “Her brother was detained, and her family are activists. It was very powerful and moving.”
Though far from being their first issue to feature written and visual work by Syrian artists, that “Literature in Revolution” issue sparked a new focus for Barkawi and the Mizna team that continues today.
“I feel like that is something we really value: a long-term relationship with particular artists and with topics and causes,” she says. “It’s just a good capturing of the moment for Arab writers here and in the Arab world.”
In subsequent editions of the journal, Mizna has published the work of Syrian visual artists such as Ismail Rifai, a Syrian painter, and Osama Esid. In 2015, Mizna produced Still / Life / Syria (pictured above), a Northern Spark installation of Esid’s photos taken at Syrian refugee camps.
“These works were really responding to the civil war and the horrors that were happening in Syria,” Barkawi says. “It’s not like you do something like [the ‘Literature in Revolution’ issue] and that’s it, because there is this deeper, long-term engagement.”
Mizna just released its latest print journal, tackling topics related to the environment. It is available for purchase at Mizna’s headquarters, where some of Esid’s photographs are also on display. On March 31, Mizna will host a reading and dialog between Palestinian-American authors Ibtisam Barakat and Naomi Shihab Nye.