In the basement of the Al-Aqsa Islamic Academy, Philadelphia sculptor Joe Brenman assisted young members of Al-Aqsa with creating tiles to decorate the walls of the mosque. On one tile, a woman wrote out the Hebrew word “Shalom,” meaning peace.
In a nearby room, volunteers like Alissa Wesinger from the Mural Arts Program worked with community members to paint flowers on the new mural.
“It’s great getting to work with a community that I normally wouldn’t,” said Wesinger, who has been working with Mural Arts since their Open Source project in October.
Al-Aqsa Islamic Academy, a school and mosque in Fishtown at Germantown Avenue and Jefferson Street, hosted a community mural-making day on Jan. 9 through a collaboration with Mural Arts and ArtWell. Members of the two arts groups and the mosque hope the mural will bridge gaps between people of different faiths.
“[Al-Aqsa] is a little mecca of Islamic society because there is a mosque, full-time school, a weekend school, deli, a bookstore, a playground area,” said Adab Ibrahim, a board member for ArtWell and Outreach Director for Al-Aqsa. “We have a variety of people. We have South Asians, African Americans. It is a very diverse mosque.”
The evening’s work was divided into two rooms—one dedicated to tile designing with Brenman, and the other focused on mural design with Mural Arts artist Parris Stancell.
“I think it is going to show that there is a lot of respect and love towards the community and for the people of the city that are in support of that kind of hatred and disrespectful act, that didn’t work,” said Brenman, who added that members from his synagogue, Mishkan Shalom, were in attendance.
On Dec. 8, a severed pig’s head was found in front of the mosque, defacing the religious building and creating fear within the community. The mural project was created prior to this incident, but Ibrahim said that it is more important now than ever before.
“It makes it more important that we move ahead with these relationships because this is what keeps us together in times of tension and hatred,” Ibrahim said.
Ibrahim said that there was always interest in designing the wall on the Germantown Avenue exit side.
When Mural Arts approached Al-Aqsa with a new project of its own accord, Ibrahim said she reached out to ArtWell to recreate “community healing” with neighbors and community members. She wanted the project to invite people into the mosque.
The relationship between Al-Aqsa and ArtWell, a nonprofit arts education organization, began after 9/11 when Susan Teegen, ArtWell’s executive director approached Ibrahim.
“Susan came to me … and asked if my community would like to find a way to find healing through artmaking as a vehicle to address some of the uncertainty, the fear that was going on after 9/11 in the Muslim community,” Ibrahim said.
In 2002, ArtWell and Mural Arts partnered to lead the making of a mural.
“All of the concepts, content for the mural really came from curriculum that was lead and created by ArtWell,” ArtWell program director Julia Terry said. “So our teaching artists worked with youth and community members across all those different sites to use poetry and art to really reflect on our universal values, what peace means across cultures and how that is a shared value across faiths.”
There will be additional paint days at Al-Aqsa, the Asian Arts Initiative and ArtWell Jan. 30 and in the near future, Ibrahim said. The mural is expected to be on view by Spring 2016.
“I am really excited because I have seen the beauty of different people coming to the workspace before and developing these new relationships and how they have grown along the years,” Ibrahim said. “It provides this wonderful platform for people to learn about Al-Aqsa, ArtWell, Mural Arts, developing more relationships, more understandings and bridging the gap between people rather than the division that breaks people apart.”
Emily Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org