IMAN hosted its 3rd biennial Arts & Culture Retreat from Tuesday, April 26th to Thursday, April 28th in Lake Geneva, WI. More than 80 participants from all over the country, Europe and Africa attended the Retreat this year. They represented artistic disciplines and genres such as spoken word, poetry, hip hop, music, dance, filmmaking, visual art, and comedy. The scholars who attended the Retreat this year were Sh. Abdullah Adhami, Prof. Asifa Quraishi, and Imam Suhaib Webb. Many of the attendees were returning participants from the previous Retreats, but there were also a significant number of new artists and scholars.
After prayer, the Retreat opened on Tuesday with IMAN’s Director of Arts and Culture, Asad Jafri, presenting an overview of IMAN’s history of engagement with the arts over the last 15 years. Connecting that history to the current Retreat, he talked about how its agenda had been designed to build upon the work done and relationships established at the previous Retreats and IMAN’s general work in the arts in the recent years. Jafri reminded the attendees that two specific issues discussed at the last Retreat were the formation and function of a national Muslim arts council and a Muslim arts collective, and announced that the first IMAN Arts Council was formed earlier in the year and that ideas and plans for the Muslim Arts Collective were going to be the main topic for discussion and exchange during the working sessions of the Retreat.
The work of the Retreat started in earnest after the opening session. Each working part followed the pattern of: (a) combined session where the topic was introduced, (b) facilitated breakout sessions for detailed discussion, and (c) report back by breakout groups to the combined session. The first and only working session on Tuesday afternoon was centered on a proposed manifesto for the Muslim Arts Collective.
There were two more working sessions on Wednesday: one around the functions of the Arts Collective and other on the complexities of identity formation, for artists and other community members.
All three working sessions produced great ideas and lots of interest among the participants. The closing session on Thursday, the last day of the Retreat, was focused on the consolidation of these many excellent ideas and the formation of teams with responsibility for following up on and developing them. Three working committees – Committee on function and manifesto of the Arts Collective; Committee to develop a network of artists; and Committee to build the Arts Collective website – were formed with at least five participants volunteering to serve on each committee. These committees will work with one or two coordinators to develop final recommendations for the formation and, then, structure, direction and functions of the Arts Collective over the next few months. The entire process will also be facilitated by Asad Jafri.
But these Retreats have not just been a deliberative space for the exchange of ideas over the meaning of art and the role of artists in the American Muslim community, but they have also been a creative space where artists collaborate during cipher sessions that are intimate and spontaneous, and a spiritual space where artists and scholars explore the connections between creativity and spirituality. This year’s Retreat was no different.
There were cipher sessions both Tuesday and Wednesday night where poets recited, musicians played, hip hoppers and comedians freestyled, visual artists represented, and filmmakers showed trailers. That wasn’t all: filmmakers also sang, activists played tunes, rappers shared funny stories, as all manner of creativity and collaboration flowed. Such are the moments in which not only artistic but sisterly and brotherly relationships are established that sustain us through good times and bad times.
Finally, all the activities at the Retreat were punctuated by the reflections offered by the esteemed scholars present. Topics covered included the place of spirituality in art and vice versa, spirituality made relevant through art, the pluralism of Shar`iah and its relationship to haqiqah (the truth). Art is always tied, directly or indirectly, to the cause of creating positive change in our individual and collective existence.
These Retreats display and renew IMAN’s commitment to the important role that artists and artistic expressions and representations play in the lives of communities, especially the ones that IMAN serves through its organizing and services. They also serve to advance the agenda of connecting socially conscious artists to critical social issues and to each other. The Retreat last month proved to be another success in all these regards.