Wednesday, September 3, 2014

THIS Bridge — a two-year connection to Arab and Islamic arts at USF

Theater artist Andrea Assaf has initiated an ambitious event series to impart awareness of Arab and Islamic American culture and identity.

Posted By on Wed, Sep 3, 2014 at 7:38 PM

click to enlarge TIRELESSLY IN ACTION: Andrea Assaf founded Art2Action and the THIS Bridge event series. - MARC NORBERG
  • TIRELESSLY IN ACTION: Andrea Assaf founded Art2Action and the THIS Bridge event series.
The University of South Florida will be undergoing a socio-cultural immersion that goes beyond language, food choices and taboos.

Public events, many with free admission, will be taking place throughout 2014-15 as part of a series that speaks to what it means to be Arabic or Islamic in today’s society — with an emphasis on women who are either or both.

Lebanese American theater artist and NYU alum Andrea Assaf spearheaded the series, the first of its kind and a first for the Tampa Bay area. The artist-in-residence at USF for a 2-year period will be co-teaching classes, performances and academic events and coordinating other artist residencies.

The plan came to fruition when Assaf’s organization, Art2Action, became one of only six grantees in the nation awarded a “Building Bridges: Campus Community Engagement” grant from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. The project involves several USF academic departments, student associations and community partners. It recently received a $189,200 grant, funded by a component of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

Titled “THIS Bridge: Arab, Middle Eastern & Muslim Artists” — the name references seminal African-American-feminism literary works such as This Bridge Called My Back — will feature a slew of artists and performers of Middle Eastern descent and from the Middle East. The series began with a few pilot events earlier this year and got in full swing last week with a two-day visit from Negin Farsad. The Iranian-American comedian performed a stand-up show and presented the comedic documentary The Arabs Are Coming! The film follows a band of young Arab/Islamic-American comedians on a tour through the Deep South and conservative towns from Florida to Utah. Available on Netflix, the film got hearty laughs throughout the USF screening.

During a Q&A, USF web editor Sundus Al-Sharif — who wore a hijab (headdress) to the screening — thanked Farsad for her touching admissions to having had her feelings hurt when more conservative women have walked out of her shows when she told jokes with sexual candor.

Hijabis are criticized all the time,” Al Sharif said, “if you wear pretty colors or make-up — God forbid I have a hobby ... I’m wearing this on my own because I wanted to — why are you telling me how to wear it? ” Al Sharif’s dilemma paints a picture of the at-odds, multi-tiered predicaments of many Muslim women who experience discrimination from within and outside their culture.

click to enlarge OFF THE WALL: World renowned graffiti artist and muralist Aya Turek — here in Cologne, Germany — will be visiting next year to paint a wall at USF. - FACEBOOK.COM
  • OFF THE WALL: World renowned graffiti artist and muralist Aya Turek — here in Cologne, Germany — will be visiting next year to paint a wall at USF.

“THIS Bridge” will explore such issues around repression, misrepresentation and other injustices by collaborating with other academics, developing a new, cross-listed Special Topics course; stage plays and literature by Arab and Muslim writers, and facilitate ongoing workshops for Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim student associations.

One of the most compelling events of the series takes place fall 2015 at the USF’s Contemporary Museum of Art — an exhibition featuring Aya Turek, an Egyptian graffiti artist and muralist who’s in demand on the international art circuit. As part of the exhibition, Tayek will create new work outside the museum.

click to enlarge STIRRING IMPORT:  Iranian vocalist and daf player Aida Shahghasemi. - MARC NORBERG
  • STIRRING IMPORT: Iranian vocalist and daf player Aida Shahghasemi.
Much is planned between now and then. The second performance of the “THIS Bridge” season will be a concert performance of Eleven Reflections on September, written and directed by Assaf. Assaf describes the piece as “Spoken Word meets Middle Eastern music meets poetry and multimedia.” The elaborate, multi-genre performance reflects on the Arab Americans’ memories of 9/11 and the aftermath of life in a post-9/11 world.

The musings are universally empathetic and poignant to anyone who recalls “the constant, quiet rain of death amidst beauty.” The concert performance will spotlight Iranian vocalist and daf player Aida Shahghasemi, a musician who has toured the world with Iron & Wine and Marketa Irglova of the Swell Season and Once. After Tampa, the show will be staged at the Arab American National Museum and to La MaMa ETC in New York City, April-May 2015.

THIS Bridge: Arab, Middle Eastern & Muslim Artists Event Series Eleven Reflections on September 
 Sept. 8 & 10, 8 p.m. at Barness Recital Hall, USF School of Music
$15.25; tickets available at 
More event info at or

“Honestly, until 9/11, I wasn’t particularly aware of my identity as an Arab American on a daily basis,” shared Assaf, who was raised Catholic. “The winds of suspicion suddenly shifted in my direction, and it was alarming how quickly that could happen — how quickly your fellow Americans could turn. Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism certainly existed long before 9/11, but in the years since, it has been particularly acute, and the flames have been fueled by mainstream media that focus on militias, and the horrible realities of the wars we have been engaged in since the beginning of the 21st century. Now we have an entire generation whose political formation has taken place post-9/11. And this is what makes it urgent to increase understanding of Arab, Middle Eastern, and Muslim cultures, and to build bridges across identities.”

click to enlarge TRANSNATIONAL DANCER: A specialist in North African and Arab dance, Donna Mejia headlines two USF events this fall.
  • TRANSNATIONAL DANCER: A specialist in North African and Arab dance, Donna Mejia headlines two USF events this fall.

Upcoming events include Donna Mejia, transnational fusion dance artist specializing in North African and Arab dance forms, mixed with hip hop and electronica (venue details TBD) Oct. 2-13 ; Mejia returns Nov. 6-15 for the USF Fall Dance Concert at Theatre 2 on the USF-Tampa campus; “Building Bridges” Devised Theatre Workshop performance, exploring themes of culture, religion, gender, and U.S. policy. USF students perform their own original work, developed in this special course, open to all majors; Dec. 3 and 5, 8 p.m., at USF Theatre, TAR 120. Cristal Chanelle Truscott, who recently received the Doris Duke Impact Award for Theatre, will perform with her company, Progress Theatre, at USF with Art2Action in January 2015.

Throughout the series, artistic presentations will followed by opportunities for academic discourse and community discussions about gender, including contemporary Arab and Muslim feminisms, identity and U.S. policy. Feedback will be provided via Q&As and questionnaires after performances.

New York-based comedian Farsad, a TED fellow, writer and filmmaker expressed enthusiasm about Assaf’s efforts at the USF screening.

“What’s really smart about THIS Bridge,” Farsad shared, “is that it’s two years long — it’s consistent, it’s frequent and it’s a focused effort. I think that’s brilliant because what happens so often is that you get a grant to do something that’s forgotten six months later. What Andrea can do —a brilliant part of her proposal and the way she structured it — she can keep doing more. She can ask, ‘Did you like this? Did this make you think? Give me a month and I’ll do another thing.’ I think with that kind of ferocious programming you can really move the needle.”

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