Staff Writer Hannah Keyes attended a presentation on the MCNY exhibition, “City of Faith: Religion, Activism, and Urban Space,” by curator Azra Dawood and a following conversation between Dawood and professor Najam Haider.  

On Tuesday, April 11, The Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life hosted an event in the Heyman Center entitled “Curating the ‘City of Faith’: New Directions in Representing Religion in Contemporary Life” that featured a discussion by Azra Dawood, curator of the Museum of the City of New York exhibit currently on display, “City of Faith: Religion, Activism, and Urban Space,” and followed with a conversation between Dawood and Najam Haider, a Professor of Religion at Barnard College. 

The event began with a presentation from Azra Dawood. Dawood explained how discussions on religion are frequently seen as taboo and as the “third rail,” and how religion is often used as a lens for studying the non-West. However, Dawood explains how, contrary to the perception of New York City as secular, “New York is as religious as parts of the Bible Belt.” The “City of Faith” exhibit examines how communities outside of the big three New York City religions (Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism) make space for themselves in the city. Dawood centers the South Asian experiences and the large-scale surveillance and profiling they have experienced post 9/11 in her exhibit. She goes on to discuss how, in these environments, South Asian communities can be seen as either hyper-visible or invisible.

Next, Dawood displayed pictures of her exhibit and discussed certain aspects. She explained how the main room is divided into two sections, “Ambient Faith” and “Art and Activism.” “Ambient Faith” focuses on how communities use sounds and smells to take up space and how religion and faith can be expressed as background elements of environments like the city. A central piece in this part of the exhibit Dawood discussed is “A Love Supreme” by Tanais, named after the jazz album by John Coltrane. The piece hanging from the ceiling is organized like sheet music and honors the history of Muslims in the United States; the piece is also scented, providing a deeply sensory experience. “Art and Activism” brings together artists and activists to critique religious profiling and injustices. The piece from this part of the exhibit discussed by Dawood and brought to the event for us to view in person is “CURB” by Divya Victor and Aaron Cohick. “CURB” is an accordion-style folded book of poems about the profiling of South Asians in public spaces and how everyday spaces turn hostile.

Following the presentation and discussion, Dawood sat down for a conversation with Professor Haider. The conversation focused on the questions: What is curation? What is the role of the curator? How do they mediate between creating the exhibition within the space of a museum? In this section, Dawood further discussed more specific pieces from the exhibit. First, Dawood dove deeper into the earlier discussed piece, “A Love Supreme.” She explains how the scent of the piece complicated the process of creating the exhibition and forced them to think beyond the visual medium. During this section, a few more pieces from the exhibit were introduced, “Vendor Power” by The Center for Urban Pedagogy, Street Vendor Project, and Candy Chang, and “Jasmine Blooms at Night” by Jaishiri Abichandi to discuss the relationship between the curator and the artists.

The last section of the event was a Question and Answer session between the audience and Dawood. Audience members asked questions about why Dawood made certain choices in the creation of the exhibition. The following questions were more personal to Dawood’s experience as a curator, with one person asking, “How do you determine the success of an exhibition?” and “How did you deal with moments when your vision came into conflict with any artist or visitors who felt strongly opposed to the exhibit?” The final question asked was, “The exhibit focuses on South Asian experiences, why did you also choose to include Jewish and Catholic history?” Dawood responded by explaining that she did this to try to undercut the hypervisibility of these communities. She made the decision to afford complexity to communities placed inside the exhibition rather than the ones that were placed in the corridors. 

I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the Museum of New York to see the “City of Faith” Exhibition in person and I highly recommend paying a visit. The exhibition is open through October 22, 2023. Tickets can be purchased here

Museum of The City of New York via Wikimedia Commons