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Traces of American Muslim Culture in NY Museum

Photogenic Life of American Muslims in New York

Traces of American Muslim Culture in NY Museum

A photograph of a young boy taking a break from a pickup basketball game is the first banner photo that welcomed the visitors of the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) during February.

The photogenic child is probably ten years old or less, he’s wearing a Vans T-shirt, and he’s casually holding a well-worn Spalding ball as he looks directly into the camera with just the slightest smile.

The caption chosen by the photographer Robert Gerhardt, who shot the image in 2011, mentions this shot was taken right before Friday prayer. The boy is also Muslim.

That’s how the museum of New York has unveiled its exhibition named ‘Muslim in New York ‘which explored how highly essential the Muslim Community is to the culture of the city of New York.

“The image is a subtle reminder of the often overlooked connections that Muslims have to broader American culture,” Sean Corcoran, curator of prints and photography at MCNY, told

According to, this event was an act of joining the list of institutions condemning latest Trump’s refugee ban.

At a time when politics are polarizing Americans and blatant discrimination is coming from the executive branch, when differences are emphasized over similarities and a lack of understanding is fueling fear, ‘Muslim in New York’ is a powerful reminder that USA is—and always has been—composed of diverse people. It is its lifeblood and identity.

Who Are They?

The 34 photographs on view come from the MCNY’s permanent collection and focus mostly on shots from the second half of the 20th century until today.

The subjects are Muslim immigrants from all over the world, people who converted to the religion, and people whose ethnic backgrounds are from Asia, Africa and Europe.

The photographs were taken by four artists. Some images date back to the 1940s, with images taken by Alexander Alland of a diverse group of New York Muslims including Arabs, Turks, Afghans, East Indians, Albanians, Malayans, and African Americans.

Ed Grazda’s 1990s series “New York Masjid: The Mosques of New York City” features both immigrant and New York-born Muslims, while Mel Rosenthal focused on Arab Muslims in New York in the early 2000s. On his behalf, Gerhardt’s photographs of New York Muslims in the early 2010s completed the exhibition.

You see people at graduations and weddings, police officers bowing their heads in prayers, children in head scarves using a camcorder, families at the dinner table, and mosques in the shadow of elevated subway tracks.

Message of Diversity

Like the photo of the kid playing basketball, the images zero in on the intersectionality of identity in New York. And while this show does focus on the experience of a single city, you can imagine it reflects other cities with large Muslim communities, too.

“We want people to take away a few important points,” Sarah Henry, deputy director and chief curator at MCNY, told

“We want them to understand that Muslims have been part of the diversity of New York since its founding, a point that builds on New York at Its Core, our new permanent exhibition. We want to show them that Muslim life in New York is diverse—ethnically, racially, and in national origin. And we want them to be able to experience and appreciate how the everyday lives of Muslim New Yorkers are woven into the fabric of the city,” Henry continued.

She also points out that Muslim history has been a part of New York’s history, from the time it was named New Amsterdam and emerged as a trade hub that relied on slaves, some of whom were Muslim, to the civil rights movement in the 1960s in which Black Muslims were a vocal community, to the years after the 1965 immigration act.

MCNY organized Muslim in New York in less than two weeks, and the show is emblematic of how cultural institutions are taking a more aggressive approach to activism in the wake of government-mandated injustice. It was a direct response to Trump’s immigration policy.

“[This exhibition] allows us to tell the story of Muslims in the five boroughs in a way that is emotionally provocative and visually striking,” Whitney Donhauser, MCNY’s director, expressed to, “and we are proud to share these images with our neighbors in New York and visitors from across the country and around the globe.”

“This special installation comes at a time when the place of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries is being scrutinized, and even challenged, on a national level,” Donhauser stated in a statement that touched on the history of Muslims in New York, which dates back to the 17th century and once saw a thriving “Little Syria” neighborhood in Lower Manhattan.

According to, 270,000 Muslims call New York home, which makes about three percent of the city’s total population.


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