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Alaska artist reaches across rift of fear and uncertainty

  • Author: Shehla Anjum
    | Opinion
  • Updated: January 30, 2017
  • Published January 30, 2017

Demonstrators gather outside Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Saturday in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration. (Photo courtesy Michael Burke)

These are days of uncertainty and even fear for me.

Why? Because, like many Americans, I come from a foreign country and, like some, I was born a Muslim. The sense of unease began during the election, grew steadily and continues. As America's xenophobia increases, I feel insecure about my place in this country.

But I am also hopeful. While our new president is building walls to keep the world out, my friend and Alaska artist, Amy Meissner, reached across continents and oceans to contribute her art for an exhibition in Karachi, Pakistan, the place where I was born before coming to this country nearly 50 years ago.

Pakistan is, of course, a Muslim nation. It belongs to the Muslim world that our new president dislikes to the extent that during the campaign he considered banning Muslims from entering this country and creating a registry of those already here, perhaps including me.

I write as I depart for Pakistan to visit family. This time I leave amid the growing tumult of our new president's actions barring refugees and Muslims from several nations. This is a routine trip for me. But these are not normal times. I am a citizen and I travel on an American passport. But I don't know if some new ruling will come that distinguishes between native-born Americans or naturalized Americans by the time I return. I hope not.

I leave home with the knowledge that I know people such as Meissner, who look beyond labels ascribed to people like me and treat me as one of their own. Her gesture of goodwill, sending her art to Pakistan, has lifted my spirits. It gives me hope that there is much to celebrate even in these dark times.

Meissner, while not an immigrant like me, is a child of an immigrant mother from Sweden. She understands the need, not for walls but for bridges that bring countries and people together. She agreed to participate in the exhibition not only because it would mark her first foray into the international art scene but also because it was in Pakistan, a place where the status of women is still in flux. Meissner's work is important, for it explores the work of women – literal, physical and emotional.

"The Thread Unraveled" opened at Karachi's VM Gallery on Jan. 25. Meissner's work is displayed alongside that of 10 other artists — five Pakistanis, three from the United Kingdom, one from Slovenia and one from Ireland.

Amy Meissner’s quilt “Girl Story” (Image courtesy Amy Meissner)

Meissner's piece, "Girl Story," is provocative. It highlights a shared experience of women across the globe — menstruation — and the shame that still accompanies it in many parts of the world. The right side of the small quilt carries the words "Scrub" and "Harder." The left side has five doilies appliqued vertically, each with an embroidered red stain that progressively shrinks and disappears in the last one, with its topmost layer of silk organza cut, or "scrubbed away," to reveal the white cotton doily beneath.

The process for Meissner's work going to Pakistan began last March. I was there visiting family in Karachi. One night an email arrived from Meissner. She had received an invitation to take part in an international fiber art exhibition in Karachi. Did I know the gallery or the curator, Pakistani artist Samina Islam? I told her I had often visited the gallery and liked it but I did not know Islam.

Meissner had provided Islam's number and I called her. Islam's excitement about organizing the first fiber art exhibition in Pakistan, a country with a rich tradition of fabric and embroidery that has paid little attention to contemporary art using textiles. Her enthusiasm was palpable, and contagious. I too became excited at the prospect of an Alaska artist's work coming to Pakistan and I conveyed that to Meissner.

Receiving "cold invitations" from galleries and museums is not new for Meissner. The Anchorage Museum, recognizing her talent, will hold a solo exhibition of her work in 2018. The show will also travel to the Alaska State Museum in Juneau.

Many of Meissner's contemporaries in the fiber art world show internationally and she expected her first international venues to be in Canada or Europe. She never imagined her first international showing would be in distant Pakistan.

She felt it an honor to receive the invitation from an unknown gallery in a faraway land known more for its troubles than its art. She felt no apprehension about sending her work and even paid for shipping to Karachi and back because the nonprofit gallery, run by a philanthropy, lacks funds. For my part, I am glad for my small role in allaying any lingering doubts she might have harbored about sending work overseas.

I believe in the power of art to connect people from different cultures and I respect people like Meissner who know, as French writer Marcel Proust put it, that art allows us to emerge from ourselves and know what another person sees. I see the need for more shared experiences, more handshakes across religious and national lines, and more interactions with people. Opening our eyes to behold other worlds shines a light on our own world. We are all the better for the experience.

Soon I will view Meissner's piece at VM Gallery in Karachi and I will feel pride and affection for my fellow Alaskan and for my home. I will be assured that we are still reaching out to others.

Shehla Anjum is an Anchorage writer.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com

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