Art, culture, religion and inspiration all come together in the Schuster Gallery’s current art exhibition, titled “Muslim/American, American/Muslim.”
The exhibition, which opened Aug. 30 and will continue until Oct. 30, features photographs taken by Robert Gerhardt, who reached out to Gannon University’s Schuster Gallery after reading an article published in 2012 about Muslim students’ increasing presence in private Catholic universities, including Gannon.
The photographs, taken mostly in states with a high Muslim population like New York, New Jersey and Illinois, shed light on everyday lives of American Muslims, with several shots of Muslims worshipping in mosques or around the country.
Lori Steadman, director of the Schuster Gallery and the Schuster program for the arts, said the program and the university think the exhibition is a good opportunity for students to get to know other cultures through photos.
“Gannon has a large Muslim presence on campus,” Steadman said. “The university always tries to open itself to the diverse student population.
“The gallery will help expose students to other religions and cultures through a unique medium.”
Gerhardt, 36, said the idea of the project began in spring 2010, after the Muslim American Society tried to buy an abandoned convent on Staten Island in New York to convert it into a community center and a mosque.
The uproar in the media over the proposed plan led Gerhardt to the MAS’s Brooklyn chapter, which allowed him to take pictures of its mosque. This encouraged him to shoot pictures of other mosques in the East Coast and Midwest.
He said that while his photos don’t represent every aspect of the Islamic culture in the United States – only the ones he was able to shoot – the collection is a work in progress.
Gerhardt’s ultimate goal for the project is to cover the entire United States.
“I’m trying to capture [the Islamic culture] in a good light while being truthful,” he said. “As an outsider of the culture myself, I am trying to give it an outside voice and present it from an outside point of view.”
Gerhardt, who was brought up Roman Catholic, said he knew only a little more than what the news and television presented about Islam.
“It was completely new territory for me to explore and I learned a lot from it,” he said.
Several students and faculty have visited the gallery, including Abdulrahman Alzaabi, a junior electrical engineering major, who said he found the photographs attention-grabbing and deep.
“It cast a light on two different cultures, both Muslim and American in one picture, which is very interesting,” Alzaabi said.
Alzaabi, who has been in the United States for three years, said although he hadn’t grown up in the United States, he felt a strong connection to the message the pictures conveyed.
Another student who said she enjoyed looking at the pictures in the art gallery was Zeinab Altaher, a sophomore biology/pre-med major, and who is also a follower of Islam.
Altaher, who was born in Erie, said strangers sometimes think she isn’t American only because she wears the traditional Islamic head scarf.
“Some people think I’m fresh off the boat,” Altaher said, “but that’s before they speak to me and realize I speak English with no accent.”
Altaher said she appreciated the way the American Muslim culture is depicted throughout the pictures in the gallery.
“I liked the photos and enjoyed that they don’t only show people praying, but also playing basketball and doing other non-religious activities,” she said.
American students also got the chance to examine the photographs, one of whom is Luis Pontillo, senior theatre and communication arts major.
He said the pictures bring to life another side of the Muslim people that non-Muslims don’t think about too often.
“I feel as if I’ve seen something personal in these images,” he said. “Images that mean more to their eyes than to mine.”
Pontillo’s favorite picture was one of a black top that read, “My name causes national security alerts, what does yours do?”
Like the majority of his work, Gerhardt’s collection is shot using black and white film.
“I am an old-school photographer,” he said. “There is something about film that drives more attention to the photographs.”
Steadman said the photographs were of superior quality and presented themselves well as a unit.
“Sometimes pictures in art galleries don’t look like they belong together,” Steadman said. “But [Gerhardt’s] photographs have a very cohesive look to them and all seem to belong to one theme.
“It’s a well-hung show and I am sure all groups at Gannon will enjoy and benefit from it.”
Gerhardt’s favorite photograph of his collection shows a New York City police officer praying at a mosque near ground zero.
“The idea that a New York City police officer is a Muslim is not new,” he said, “but then you have this officer in his uniform not only praying like everyone else, but is praying in a mosque in ground zero where several anti-mosque protests took place.”
The exhibition has been shown in several other universities in the United States and has also been featured in the Islamic Society of North America’s annual conference in Chicago in 2011.
It would later be shown in several other places, including Tennessee Technological University.
The Schuster’s exhibition was funded by the Schuster Art Gallery and is one of 11 galleries participating in the Erie Art Museum’s Gallery Night on Sept. 27.
Gerhardt was first exposed to photography during his junior year at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., when he took his first photography class with photographer Harold Feinstein and hasn’t stopped taking photographs since.
He said he hoped his photographs of Muslims in America would encourage discussion as to why people seem to dislike American Muslims and examine the misconceptions surrounding the faith.
“Basically a lot of people have no idea about what’s going on,” Gerdhart said.“They never got the chance to look.
“I hope they see it with an open mind and take the time to investigate what’s going on and take time to know the Islamic culture.”