Noura Howell’s “Salaam Sculpture” was featured on the UC Berkeley campus this Spring. A collaboration with Sahil Mohan and Stan Clark of Astro Botanicals, the sculpture was featured on April 22nd and 23rd at the Islamaphobia conference and for 2 more days in front of South Hall. The interactive white inflatable takes the shape of the calligraphy for the Arabic word ‘Salaam’ or peace, which is also a ubiquitous greeting in many Muslim countries. Noura invited viewers to write on the sculpture and leave their own message with markers.
Noura is a BCNM Dedicated Emphasis student, pursuing a Ph.D in the School of Information. She felt that the sculpture is particularly topical given current events. Unlike the fallout post-9/11, there is an active pushback to islamophobia that Howell wanted to capture. This is related to her own complex relation with religion, as the daughter of a half-Egyptian, half-British mother and an American father.
In her own words:
“I was raised Muslim but my family is not very observant and I don’t consider myself a very religious person. Egyptian culture has always been a big part of my family life. Although Middle Eastern is usually marked as Caucasian on census forms, Middle Eastern Muslims have become a kind of racialized other. I grew up in the South in the U.S. and in many ways I am white and Southern, but not completely so, I still have aspects of Egyptian and Islamic culture, and along with this came personal and family experiences of Islamophobia, which motivated this project. However, at the same time, I want to be clear about acknowledging my white privilege and how, since I am white-passing I have a choice about whether to disclose these Egyptian and Islamic aspects of myself.”
She was originally inspired by a course she audited on Islamophobia and the Construction of Otherness. Motivated by the comment feed on a GoFundMe campaign to rebuild a mosque in Victoria, Texas, Noura hoped to create a data visualization around the topic. The idea soon transformed into a sculpture located in physical space. Noura developed the idea with support from Hatem Bazian.
Sahil Mohan is an undergraduate student studying architecture and new media, who is interested in the gray area of art, design, and technology in order to create works that promote acceptance and inclusiveness. His architecture and graphic design skills were essential in creating a sense of space and finding ways of writing on the sculpture that were appealing aesthetically.
Noura noted the importance and tactility of having a physical space for interaction. Although her commentary could have come in the form of a Twitter feed that accumulates messages, the very public nature of the sculpture is one of its strengths. The sculpture started as a very pure white structure that over time and with interaction became marked by others. She noted the contrast between the marker messages and the graffiti style markings, and how visitors would often wish to leave messages in their mother tongues. These visitors, however, would struggle to properly conjugate their messages, which resonated with Noura as a child between worlds.
Noura gives a special thanks to Raza Rehman, Dina Bseiso, Julian Self, Mariam Alazem, Omar Wassef, Camille Villa, Michelle Carney, Kimiko Ryokai, and Hatem Bazian, whose encouragement and advice made this project possible.