Contemporary Identities

TEXT Ian Chodikoff

PHOTO Riaz Mehmood

In addition to being a place of religious worship, mosques also serve as community centres and venues for learning. For the Muslim diaspora around the world, the mosque plays an important role in anchoring Muslim communities within their respective geographies. As part of a recent exhibition entitled Muqarnas: Intersections of Contemporary Islamic Architecture, a visual exploration of the mosque seen through a collection of amateur photographs examined how Canadian Muslims have adapted to a range of urban and suburban conditions across the country when creating their own places of worship. The images depicted how office buildings, commercial storefronts, and converted churches can be configured to accommodate the evolution of Muslim life in Canada.

The word “Muqarnas” refers to a traditional Islamic architectural style of decoration, usually consisting of three-dimensional triangular forms enmeshed into intricate designs to create honeycomb patterns on walls, vaults and the undersides of domes. Curated by Nadia Kurd, the program coordinator of SAVAC (South Asian Visual Arts Collective), the exhibition was presented in collaboration with the Niagara Artists’ Centre in St. Catharines, a staid Ontario community located along the Welland Canal and within the Niagara Escarpment. SAVAC is a Toronto-based, artist-run, non-profit organization that presents contemporary work of visual artists who are of South Asian origin. Because SAVAC is very small, they have no permanent gallery and thus partnered with the Niagara Artists’ Centre. In addition to the exhibition on contemporary mosque designs, Kurd invited US-based artist Lubna Agha and BC-based architect Sharif Senbel to display examples of their art and architecture exploring identity in contemporary Muslim communities across North America.

Locating the exhibition in St. Catharines (pop. 130,000) is an appropriate gesture in explaining how Muslim communities adapt to the heterogeneous Canadian built environment. On the final day of the exhibition, Orangemen, Sicilian-Canadians, majorettes and St. Catharines’ very own candidate for the popular television show Canadian Idol paraded in front of the gallery in celebration of the annual Niagara Grape and Wine Festival. The combined visual effect of a fall parade and an exhibition examining Muslim life is a fitting representation of some of the many cultural elements defining Canadian cosmopolitanism that is found in many urban communities across our country.

For more information on SAVAC, please visit their website at Current exhibitions at the Niagara Artists’ Centre can be found at