Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Student Exhibition Examines Muslim Identity through ‘Remixed’ Photo Portraits

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Selected by Duke Chapel as this year’s C. Eric Lincoln Fellow in Theology and Arts, graduate student Shiraz Ahmed explores how and why local Muslim men wear beards in his exhibition The Beards of Muslim Men.

The exhibition, which will be on display in the Chapel from April 12 to May 5, places photographic portraits of bearded Muslim men on stylized backgrounds. The series of images can be viewed when the Chapel is open to the public daily from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., except during private ceremonies.

Ahmed will give a talk on his exhibition on Tuesday, April 25, at 6:00 p.m. It is free and open to the public.

Pursuing a master of fine arts in documentary at Duke, Ahmed was prompted to create the exhibition based on his recent experience of living in metro Detroit.

“There’s a lot of attention on Muslim men with beards and whether the beards are religiously inspired, which they can be often, but a lot of times for people, especially in my generation, they aren't—they are just beards for aesthetic reasons,” Ahmed said. “From my experience of being Muslim and living in a very diverse Muslim area in Michigan, I wanted to show that there really is no way of ‘looking like a Muslim man.’”

Coming to Duke, Ahmed had an opportunity to begin his project when he participated in a tour of local mosques organized by Duke’s Center for Muslim Life. On the tour last September, he met people he could approach to be portrait subjects.

“I picked the beards I liked,” Ahmed said about choosing his subjects. “I knew I wanted a diversity of age and a diversity of beards.”

Ahmed was chosen from among a competitive applicant pool to be this year’s C. Eric Lincoln Fellow. The fellowship provides funding to a student to complete a sacred art project that reflects on the work and legacy of the late Duke professor C. Eric Lincoln, a poet, minister, and scholar who chronicled the Black American religious experience in Christianity and Islam in groundbreaking books including The Black Muslims in America and Race, Religion, and the Continuing American Dilemma.

“If you walk through the Chapel on any given day, you are surrounded by faces: some faces are etched in stone and in stained glass, here for decades; some faces move through the pews and aisles, filling our sanctuary for a little while,” said the Rev. Kathryn Lester-Bacon, the Chapel’s director of Religious Life, who served on the selection committee. “Ahmed's striking portraits offer us the chance to share time, space, and creative reflection with some faces of our local Muslim neighbors.”

Having worked in local journalism previously, Ahmed has taken hundreds of standard photographic portraits, but for The Beards of Muslim Men, he wanted to take a more artistic approach by cropping out the faces of his subjects and placing them on thematically linked backgrounds—a process he calls “remixing.”

“I wanted to show the essence of a person, which is the object of a portrait, but not do it within traditional portrait modes,” he said. “I very dramatically edited the photos to convey a deeper point about how I am bringing them together.”

“This is something I don’t know if I could have done in my practice before being in the [Duke MFA] program,” he said. “I wanted the images to look like pop art.... I wanted them to have this Warhol-esque feeling.”

Previous student exhibitions supported by the C. Eric Lincoln Fellowship include prints of Christian saints and Duke community members, photographic portraits of Black female ministers in Virginia, and paintings of religious expression in India. Learn more about the fellowship.