After a childhood and education in the UK, I flew from London to Washington DC 18 months ago, and started exhibiting my art in Trump’s America. It wasn’t planned: my family, friends and entire life is in the UK. And seven hours is a long time to spend in the air when you miss your mum’s cooking.
But I had to make my work a priority. As an artist of Muslim heritage working with Arabic calligraphy and sacred texts including the Quran, I feel a duty to share my work with those who need – and want – it the most.
I had reservations about taking my work to the American people. I didn’t have a big network Stateside, and didn’t know how a country very different to my own would react to Islamic art, which is still a niche in the art world.
In the past, a lot of my work has been exhibited in the Middle East, where Muslim-majority populations with high disposable income provided a ready market for my work. But although I was dealing with my co-religionists, there were big cultural differences. So I wanted a new challenge.
Despite some of the perceptions around America, particularly in the past two years, the welcoming, extroverted culture that Yanks are famous for is alive and well, providing lots of opportunities that I lacked at home.
Much of this is historical: like any country, America has its fair share of xenophobes and racists, but overall the US is open to different cultures and ideas - particularly if they come from someone like me. Someone who is an immigrant with a dream.
Aside from the culture, I was pleasantly surprised by how open and democratic the US arts scene is. Rather than being dominated by an impenetrable elite, there are so many galleries, large and small, as well as private patrons and supporters who have helped me showcase my pieces in their workplaces and homes.
Although my clients come from all faiths and none, most of them continue to be Muslims - this is natural. It is not just broader society that is going through a process of understanding the truth of Islam - second generation Muslims are also searching for a relatable way to reconnect with their heritage and share it with their friends from different backgrounds.
In that respect, they’re much the same as non-Muslims - we are all living in secular times and trying to work out how to access the rich traditions of the world’s faiths, including Islam. Because art is so universal, it’s particularly appreciated by non-Muslims who may have no other way of connecting with a faith that is the topic of so much comment, ridicule and abuse.
Islamic art is Islam without the baggage, which is why it is so popular with non-Muslims as well as progressive Muslims like myself. By taking mystical poetry and the Quran out of its traditional location of the sufi lodge or the Mosque, and into people’s living rooms, I’m not only helping them see Islam in a new light, but helping myself on my own journey.
I’m not the first or only artist to do this. Art has long been the way for previously alien cultures to be introduced, and Americans are welcoming Islamic culture - perhaps more than the world realises.
Rumi, the 13th century Persian mystical poet, features prominently in my work. I have spent weeks perfecting visual representations of a single line from his magnus opus, the Masnavi.
And many Americans are hugely supportive of my labour of love, since Rumi is consistently the best-selling poet in America, despite having died 800 years ago, and having written in a foreign language, inhabiting a foreign culture. Mevlana (or “Master”, as he is affectionately known the world over) is even the subject of a Hollywood biopic in development, with Leonardo Dicaprio the front-runner play the starring role.
Muslims using art to connect with others has become a mainstay of American culture. It’s not just me with my Rumi and Quranic pieces: Riz Ahmed, a fellow British Muslim and client of mine, has found huge success in Hollywood, even winning an Emmy Award in 2017. And in comedy, Hasan Minhaj is showing that Muslims can be funny about a range of topics every week on his Netflix show.
None of us set out to become diplomats or spokespeople for the 1.8 billion Muslims in the world. But we can at least let our art speak for itself.
Aadil Abedi is a British Muslim artist living in Washington DC. His website is aadilabedi.com