Siti Azzah Binti Syed Sultan didn’t worry much about Islamophobia before she came to the United States in 2012. Recent political and cultural developments in the United States, however, have seen her address the phenomenon of anti-Muslim sentiment in her artwork.
In one work of art, Sultan addressed anti-Muslim sentiment in America by stitching together pieces of hijabs mailed to her by Muslim American women. The hijabs are red, white, or blue in color and are stitched into an American flag.
ThinkProgress recently sent Sultan a few questions over email to learn more about her art — and what she hopes will come of it. ThinkProgress: Can you tell us about your background? Azzah Sultan: My name is Siti Azzah Binti Syed Sultan, 20 years old, and I am from Malaysia. I came to New York at the age of 16 to study Fine Arts at Parsons The New School of Design. Currently, I am a senior and will be graduating this spring semester. I grew up constantly moving to new countries every few years. Moving around did definitely give an impact in the way I see the world. The basis of my work stems from exploring my identity through my faith and my personal background. From painting portraits of Muslim women, it has manifested towards using art as a platform for Muslim voices to be heard in a Western society. TP: What inspired you to be political in your art work?
AS: Art has always been political in nature. Throughout history you see people using art as a way or tool to voice their opinions about their social environment and issues that surround them. Art is always a critique on something, and that itself makes it political. I use art as a way to voice my own opinions on issues and struggles that Muslims face within a western society, as it has direct effects on me as a Muslim.
TP: How did being a religious/ethnic minority in the United States influence your work? How do you think it might vary if you were creating art in a different setting or country where these issues weren’t as prominent?
AS: Before coming to the U.S. when I was with my family and within the comfort zone of a place called home, I didn’t really have to worry about Islamophobia as I was within a safe space where I didn’t feel targeted. Coming to the U.S., leaving my family and friends and having to practice my faith without a familiar environment, I did feel somewhat alienated. I started to realize that my faith was the only thing that I could hold on to feel secure. Which is why I found it important to highlight aspects of my religion in my art, as the Islamic faith is what that has molded me into what I am today. I use art to express my feelings and frustrations towards the society I am living in. By doing so, my feelings would be felt and my voice heard without antagonizing anyone or jeopardizing my true faith.
I am still young and have a lot to learn about my Islamic faith. This point has to be made known to the society where Muslims are a minority and every action of a Muslim women is viewed as a symbol of the Islamic faith, which indeed is unfair. Muslims should not be burdened with the responsibility of portraying the entire faith when each and every Muslim are at different stages of their life and are in the process of learning and equipping with the knowledge of Islam. Being far away from my family, which took me out of the comfort zone, did indeed assist me in seeking and equip myself with a better knowledge about my religion, so as to correct the misnomers on the understanding of Islam by non-Muslims.
TP: How do you get inspiration? Is it from daily life or do you actively seek out things that drive you (like anger from watching the news)?
AS: At the height of Islamophobia in the United States, Muslims felt and are still feeling a sense of displacement in terms of their belonging here in the United States. There is a constant reminder of us not being welcome here, which is illustrated through the news media and hate speeches spewed by certain political figures. On my part of being a Muslim, I play my humble role in pointing out these issues and contextualizing them within my expression world of art. I use my own personal experiences of being Muslim in America, as well as the general stereotypes of how we are viewed. Part of my art work looks at certain world events that have contributed to the rise of Islamophobia.
The traditions and cultural practices that come from your homeland may not be the norm to follow in the current country you are living. Traditional garments, foods, and practices are then left to the side and forgotten if the immigrant feels the need to fully practice the social norm in the country they live in. This is very common with young children immigrants, as their traditional practices aren’t welcomed within their peers. I try to use this idea of culture and ethnic background and how that correlates with being a Muslim within my art work.
TP: What do you hope to achieve with your art?
AS: I just want to live in a society where minorities would not have to face the type of discrimination we face today. Although this may be a utopia, I sincerely hope we all would be able to attain such a position one day. I want my art to be able to break down the stereotypes and ill thoughts brought against Islam and Muslims. I want us to feel safe.
TP: What do you hope your art shows people? Are you targeting a general audience or a more niche audience?
AS: The target audience that I keep in mind are mostly the Muslim youths who grew up in the post 9/11 world. I do this because of my own personal understanding. At the same time, it is this generation that are the ones that face a lot of struggle, in terms of practicing their faith and having to deal with discrimination and prejudices. There is always a pressure to assimilate, to forget your background, and to reject your history in order to fit in. Acts of worship like praying in public, reading the Quran, and dressing, can make someone an easy target for abuse, torment, and discrimination. What I try to do within art is to make the struggles of Muslims to be heard. By doing so, the art itself can educate others and break those barriers. I do as well keep in mind those who hold negative and limited views of Islam and Muslims, especially in the western society. This is the audience through which I wish to convey my views and voice to be heard, to break down the stereotypes.
TP: Which artists (or other figures) inspire you or your work?
AS: Three artists whom I feel connected to are Emily Jacir, Walid Raad, and Francis Alÿs. These three artists have great influence over my art works as I see the type of content they focus on is quite similar to what I steer towards. As for me, I try to reclaim through art, the words that have been stolen from my faith, and the ideologies of my faith that is often misinterpreted. But the two figures that I look up to most are my parents. I owe it to them, and it is their upbringing, teachings, and guidance that has molded me the way you see me today.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.