Hamja Ahsan – Calling the Azaan in the art world
In the run-up to this year’s Documenta Fifteen, Hamja Ahsan reflects on his stay in the Netherlands and his residency at the Jan Van Eyck Academie (2020-21). For the yearly Open Studios, Ahsan transformed his studio to a public prayer room. At Documenta he will also open a public space, one in which the prayer mats are replaced by a deep fryer.
‘How are we going to celebrate you being selected for Documenta?’, asked my friend Ahmed when the news came out. The answer was clear as daylight to me: ‘We are going to the mosque to pray, bow down and express gratitude to our creator.’ Ahmed was my fellow resident at the Jan Van Eyck Academy, a young muslim man from Nigeria. Ahmed and I enjoyed many Ramadan nights together, munching on halal fried chicken wings at the local Turkish fast food shop until the end of our residency at the Van Eyck parted us. He had already made multiple visits to the local mosque in Maastricht. This would be my first. We hopped on our bicycles and rode towards the mosque to be there in time for the Asr afternoon prayer. It was the first time I had been to a mosque to pray since childhood.
Although muslims make up one in four of the human race, this statistic is not reflected in the art world, either in audiences, engagement, discursive or historical representation. It makes me question what, then, is the artworld? Those from diasporas who gain prominence and fame seem to sell out their entire deen (Islamic way of life) to assimilate as full-fledged hipsters. In the art world – a world I have inhabited for over a decade after graduating art school in London – coming across a muslim who prays, memorises the Quran or performs the accompanying rituals, is about as rare as meeting a unicorn.
The closer we got to the local mosque, the more I was struck by the differences in the composition of people in the area, even though it was just a ten-minute bike ride away from the academy. The people donned all sorts of clothes: adidas tracksuits, business suits, embroidered thobes… Here, black and brown people were in the majority ー a complete inversion to the prosecco-loving, affluent white crowd that crowded the terraces of the Maastricht high street and made up our Open Studio audiences. Due to covid regulations, we had to bring our own prayer mat to the mosque. As I didn’t have one, I purchased two new colourful prayer mats from the mosque Imam shop. I took them back to the studio with me and formed them into a prayer congregation with Ahmed’s black prayer mat, which he brought from his family home in Nigeria, placed at the head. That year, for the annual Open Studios, I decided to turn my white cube studio into a public prayer room.
For her own Open Studios, my fellow resident Erika Roux made a video installation about the activist group La Révolution est en Marche (LREEM). All hailing their North African backgrounds and living in the notorious Parisian banlieue, its members campaign against structural racism and imperialism in French society. It struck me that we had to import our sole Arab audiences all the way from the Paris suburbs, while we seemed to be disconnected from those living locally and studying just next door at University of Maastricht. A young Algerian guy from the group was particularly moved by my prayer room. He showed me a picture of himself, palms opened to the sky. Despite us not speaking the same language, there was a bond between us.
The Netherlands is not a country that is particularly hospitable towards muslims. Around election time, the walls around my house are plastered with Geert Wilders’ face, accompanied by populist slogans about banning the Quran. The mosques of Amsterdam had been vandalised multiple times during my residency. It was the 30th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, the ethnic cleansing of over 8000 Bosnian muslims. Although the Dutch courts in the Hague ruled that the Dutch army bore complicity in the genocide, there were no memorial events organised on the 11th of July, the official EU day of rememberance. All of this made me want to be more observant, grow in piety and embrace my heritage.
I found solace in the prayer room. It was not meant as an artwork, installation, institutional critique or performance, but simply as a functional prayer room, open to the public as a space of reflection. Five times a day, at salaat times, the azaan (the call to prayer) from the Al-Aqsa mosque in Palestine would play from a minaret display clock which could be heard throughout the gardens and corridors of the Van Eyck. Later that year, when I made my first research trip to Kassel, it struck me how visibly muslim the city around the central ruruHaus headquarters of Documenta 15. Women in headscarves, an entire high street of Turks, Syrians, bearded Afghans, Somalis and Morrocans in abayas and kurtas, kebab shops and oriental supermarkets. What was the gulf of understanding between us and these local people? Did Documenta, ‘the world’s most prestigious art event’, mean anything to them? Despite Documenta’s ‘decolonial turn’ that had invited curators all the way from Indonesia, the world’s largest muslim nation, it seemed we were living in parallel worlds. Could the art world become a place of equal belonging to the streets surrounding it, and beyond that, all the peoples of the muslim world? The question remains unsettled in my heart.
Upon my return home, I wrote my exhibition proposal to the Documenta team. I will open a halal fried chicken chain inside the next Documenta.
Hamja Ahsan operates in the fluid space of being an artist, writer, curator, and activist, addressing state crime, contemporary Islamophobia, repression of civil liberties under the so-called War on Terror, and prison solidarity.
For more information, see the website of Documenta fifteen.
is an artist, writer, activist and curator