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Sobia Ahmad is building a wall.
Not a border wall, like the one being debated in Washington; hers is an installation art project that wants to highlight the faces, fears, and faith of America’s Muslim immigrants.
The Washington, D.C.-area artist’s new piece, “Small Identities,” features a swathe of white arabesque tiles stamped with tiny, black-and-white faces copied from passports, drivers’ licenses, and green cards that she’s been compiling over the past year.
“I remember how invisible I felt when I came here,” Ahmad, a Muslim who moved from Pakistan to Maryland at the age of 14, said. “And when we think of the people affected by our strict immigration policies, we look at them like this — a cluster of images and tiles — and we lose track of individual identities.”
This is a reflection of the times we're in, and I had to report that.
The idea hit Ahmad, who is now 25, back in November 2016, around the time of President Donald Trump’s election and rhetoric continued to build about a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. But she didn’t begin the work of collecting Muslim immigrants’ ID photos for her project until after Trump’s inauguration last January, and when the administration announced its intent to restrict travel from six predominantly Muslim countries.
At that point, Ahmad had been working on a series of videos depicting her praying in the streets of D.C. and Baltimore. It was a response to the verbal abuse and “new wave of Islamophobia” she experienced herself, but after the news of the travel ban, she decided to wanted to explore narratives beyond her own.
Ahmad’s wall installation will be the centerpiece of her solo show at the VisArts gallery in Rockville, Maryland, from Feb. 16 to March 18. But viewers there may notice something strange about the project: the majority of it is empty.
That’s because soon after she began asking her friends and family for photos, people shook their heads. “I don't think it's safe for me to submit my families’ photos,” she recalled some people telling her. Others asked, “I could be at risk with the law. What if we're targeted or harassed on the street?”
So for every person who told her they were too afraid to submit their ID photo, Ahmad added a blank, white tile to her project.
“There were very real fears of hatred and violence,” Ahmad said. “But this is a reflection of the times we're in, and I had to report that.”
So far, she has collected about 25 ID photos — and more than 80 empty tiles, each one representing “the fear, the psychological toll” of the travel ban and the political climate at large, she explains. Her project had, over the year, accidentally becoming a documentation of the widespread fear within the American Muslim community.
And while she was happy to let the project take shape as it did, Ahmad said the responses made her begin to wonder whether her art was endangering its subjects.
“I'm not at risk of deportation or separation from my family or losing my job or getting in trouble with the law,” she said. “I had several moments where I wondered if I should be doing this at all.”
For her, the stories of broken families and stalled immigration proceedings are personal. When Ahmad left the Pakistani city of Gujranwala for the U.S., she, her mother, and younger brother left behind her father and older brother. Both had to wait years before they received their visas due to higher security measures for men. That led to her first brush with activism: in ninth grade, she wrote a letter to then-Congressman Chris Van Hollen criticizing the injustices of the U.S. immigration system.
“It still gives me chills when I think about what my father escaped,” she said. Her father, a minority Ahmadi Muslim, was a frequent target of local hardline clerics. “And then I think of what others escape when they come here as refugees and asylees….That’s why I’m doing this: to explore the human toll of politics.”
Ahmad initially tossed around other ideas: asking immigrants for their initials or signatures, taking photos from their backs. But the image of the 2-by-2 passport photo strong as a political symbol, she said. And as stories about people being detained at airports and held in detention centers made headlines every day, she felt even stronger about using it.
The result? An intimate look at society’s belittling, politicalization, and erasure of Muslim identities and narratives, she said.
“This is an act of defiance on my part,” she said. “I'm making art out of this because I believe it holds immense power — the power to create and understand our identities, the power to tease, to elicit, to rebel, to raise our voice against injustices.”