New York City’s History Is Muslim History

The Museum of the City of New York’s activist exhibition celebrates Muslim-American life.

In Muslim in New York, a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), there’s a photograph of a young boy taking a break from a pickup basketball game. He can’t be more than 10 years old, he’s wearing a Vans T-shirt, and he’s casually holding a well-worn Spalding ball as he looks directly into the camera with just the slightest smile. The caption from photographer Robert Gerhardt, who shot the image in 2011, mentions this takes place right before Friday prayer. The boy is also Muslim.

“The image is a subtle reminder of the often overlooked connections that Muslims have to broader American culture,” Sean Corcoran, curator of prints and photography at MCNY, says.

Robert Gerhardt, Young Basketball Player in the Park before Friday Prayers, Brooklyn, NY, 2011. [Photo: courtesy the Museum of the City of New York and the photographer]

At a time where politics are polarizing Americans and blatant discrimination is coming from the executive branch (Trump’s travel and immigration restrictions have been regarded as a Muslim ban), when differences are emphasized over similarities and a lack of understanding is fueling fear, Muslim in New York is a powerful reminder that our country is–and always has been–composed of diverse people. It’s our lifeblood and our identity.

Alexander Alland, Turkish-American Children at Table with Workbooks, ca. 1940. [Photo: courtesy the Museum of the City of New York and the photographer’s estate]

The 32 photographs on view come from the museum’s permanent collection and focus mostly on shots from the second half of the 20th century until today. You see people at graduations and weddings, police officers bowing their heads in prayers, children in head scarves using a camcorder, families at the dinner table, and mosques in the shadow of elevated subway tracks. The subjects are Muslim immigrants from all over the world, people who converted to the religion, and people whose ethnic backgrounds are from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Like the photo of the kid playing basketball, the images zero in on the intersectionality of identity in New York. And while this show does focus on the experience of a single city, you can imagine it reflects cities with large Muslim communities, too.

“We want people to take away a few important points,” Sarah Henry, deputy director and chief curator at MCNY, says. “We want them to understand that Muslims have been part of the diversity of New York since its founding, a point that builds on New York at Its Core, our new permanent exhibition. We want to show them that Muslim life in New York is diverse–ethnically, racially, and in national origin. And we want them to be able to experience and appreciate how the everyday lives of Muslim New Yorkers are woven into the fabric of the city.”

Robert Gerhardt, NYPD Traffic Officer at Prayers, Park 51, Manhattan, NY, 2012. [Photo: courtesy the Museum of the City of New York and the photographer]

Henry points out that Muslim history has been a part of New York’s history, from when it was named New Amsterdam and emerged as a trade hub that relied on slaves, some of whom were Muslim, to the the civil rights movement in the 1960s in which Black Muslims were a vocal community, to the years after the 1965 immigration act.

MCNY organized Muslim in New York in less than two weeks, and the show is emblematic of how cultural institutions are taking a more aggressive approach to activism in the wake of government-mandated injustice. It was a direct response to Trump’s immigration policy. While New York at Its Core is the product of long-term exhibition planning and celebrates the city’s heritage of diversity, this supplemental exhibit further underscores the argument that a city’s vitality is linked to its mix of cultures.

“[This exhibition] allows us to tell the story of Muslims in the five boroughs in a way that is emotionally provocative and visually striking,” Whitney Donhauser, MCNY’s director, says, “and we are proud to share these images with our neighbors in New York and visitors from across the country and around the globe.”

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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