Local Muslim artists, writers dream of a better future in new art anthology

·2 min read
Aquil Virani partnered with the Silk Road Institute, an organization that amplifies Canadian Muslim artists, to create the anthology, which asks artists to picture a better future.  (Submitted by Aquil Virani - image credit)
Aquil Virani partnered with the Silk Road Institute, an organization that amplifies Canadian Muslim artists, to create the anthology, which asks artists to picture a better future. (Submitted by Aquil Virani - image credit)

Last spring, Ottawa-based visual artist Aquil Virani put out a call for submissions for a new bilingual art anthology with a prompt for Muslim artists: to dream of a better future.

Those dreams are now published in Ottawa Inshallah, a book featuring everything from poems and photography to henna designs.

Virani was inspired to explore the theme during pandemic lockdowns.

"I think we can all relate to the idea of hard times right now, and ... dreaming of a better future is great in so many ways," he told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning. "It's kind of like brainstorming to make our world a better place."

For local poet Shamima Khan, the title of the anthology ties into that idea.

Submitted by Aquil Virani
Submitted by Aquil Virani

"It's a mix of English and Arabic, it's a microcosm of the differences and similarities and I think there's a strong note of hope in the second word, because Inshallah has a lot of meaning," she said, adding it means "God willing."

"I choose to see it as a symbol of an optimistic future."

Virani says while the anthology is a "celebration of Muslim creativity," he hopes it will be enjoyed by all, regardless of religion.

"It's an invitation to learn a bit more and an invitation to dream," he said.

Despite it being a book made up of Muslim artists, Virani made it clear in his call for submissions he didn't want artists to feel pressured to "Muslim it up."

Submitted by Aquil Virani
Submitted by Aquil Virani

"The nuance here is that I'm giving the individual artists and writers the chance to decide for themselves their relationship to being Muslim [and] whether they want to include that in their work," he said.

The sentiment is echoed by Khan, whose piece in the anthology is a poem called "Identity."

Submitted by Aquil Virani
Submitted by Aquil Virani

Part love letter and part criticism, her poem explores Ottawa's history of colonization, its reputation as "the city that fun forgot," and what it means to her as her chosen home.

"What I find particularly interesting about Ottawa is that it does have a certain reputation and like all reputations, that's a mix of generalization and perception," she said. "And I think the reality is quite different and unique."

While Khan says her religion is just one part of her identity, "having a Muslim lens" made writing that much more interesting.

Khan says she found herself contemplating questions around the authenticity of Ottawa's multiculturalism and her place as an immigrant on unceded Algonquin territory going forward.

"The older I get, the more I realize how representation matters, who is [considered] a Canadian artist," she said.

All of it helped her consider what the future might look like and "what we can contribute and build here."

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