What Happens When We Nurture is an exhibition of mixed media artworks by Leili Arai Tavallaei, Suldano Abdiruhman, Tayyab Maqsood, and Anysa Saleh. According to the curatorial statement, this group exhibition asks: “What happens when we nurture a budding idea, a forgotten memory, or a restrictive space?” The answer, currently on view at Black Artist Research Space (BARS), is a show that explores memory, the archive, family, community, and identity. 

Installation view of What Happens When We Nurture at Black Artist Research Space.
Installation view of What Happens When We Nurture at Black Artist Research Space.  Image Courtesy of Black Artist Research Space and Vivian Marie Photo.

Islam & Print (I&P) is a collaborative platform co-founded by artists Safiyah Cheatam and Dan Flounders in 2022. What Happens When We Nurture features artwork created by the inaugural fellowship class. The exhibition fully embodies the mission of I&P to “champion diverse Muslim experiences and strengthen career readiness by building a network of regional, emerging visual artists of all mediums through our annual fellowship.”  

Flounders is the lead printer, and Cheatam is the grant writer and project manager. The duo utilizes two studio spaces in Maryland Art Place, and the works in the show were printed between there and two other community art spaces, NoMüNoMü and Current Space.

A part of I&P’s mission is building an archive of contemporary Muslim artwork. The inaugural cohort created print artworks for their own personal archives and for I&P’s collective archive. I&P is radically correcting the contemporary and historical art record, creating a database of Muslim artistic contributions made by themselves and their peers. 

What Happens When We Nurture features an array of prints, ephemera, video works, and objects, recalling the idea of home and referencing the individual artist’s lived experiences and vulnerability. The inaugural fellows were selected through a nationwide open call. For a year, the fellows receive mentorship, critiques, access to studio space, and learn how to print their works alongside Flounders. Artist prints are more economical to ship and display than originals. They also give the artist the freedom to work out ideas and make mistakes through a medium that is more forgiving. 

In curating What Happens When We Nurture, Cheatam and Flounders asked the group to create at least two artworks but gave them free rein to select what other supporting contextual objects or materials they’d want on display. This charge resulted in an exhibition of works from various locations that feel deeply familiar to the viewer. We are all fully informed and formed by our own surroundings and context, but there are universal experiences that are consistent across the human experience, including memory, family, love, and community. 

Anysa Saleh is a mixed-media artist from Yemen who lives and works in Baltimore. Her work draws from her childhood memories and experiences and focuses on her upbringing in Yemen. Saleh offers an installation that transports visitors to a traditional Yemeni living room. There is an intricate black and green-trimmed sofa, pillows, and a rug. A tufted surface features snacks and drinks covered in Arabic writing. The book on display is open to a page that mirrors the hand-carved molds on other walls of the gallery. The molds reference windows and ceilings traditionally found in Yemen. Another element is a projected video that features a woman with her hair flowing; her movement is fluid and free. Saleh has imbued this space with a sense of home, where many women might feel the most safe. 

Leili Arai Tavallaei is an interdisciplinary animator focusing on archives, family history, and memory. “Your Ame Brought This Over” (2022) is a vibrant multicolor screen print on cotton paper. It features a grid of objects, including an old Nokia cell phone, a heart-shaped jewelry box, and a Pink Panther keychain. All the objects embedded in the print are present and on display in the gallery. They’re things from her family’s attic, gifts, and souvenirs, carefully preserved, transported, and represented in Baltimore.

Installation by Leili Arai Tavallaei on display. Image Courtesy of Black Artist Research Space and Vivian Marie Photo.

Suldano Abdiruhman is originally from Baltimore but is based in Philadelphia. Her artwork focuses on language, verbal and nonverbal communication, and textiles as a form of “communication, meditation, protection, and marker of time.” Abdiruhman utilizes drawing, sculpture, and various textile methods to explore mystical ideas and empathy. In “A SILVER LINING, A GOOD IDEA” (2022), a graphite-and-crayon drawing on cotton paper, there are symbols — a bed, a hashtag, and a lightbulb — offering a glimpse into the artist’s own visual vocabulary. Ancestral memory, ritual, and spirituality are evident here, as well as the underlying thread of care that reappears throughout. In the center of the gallery, a mixed-media installation serves as an altar to her grandfather. There are numerous natural elements, crystals, sand, and a vessel — a shell full of water that I watched Cheatam refill during my visit. 

Tayyab Maqsood’s work emphasizes the diversity of Islamic life and existence, pushing back against the existing hierarchies and power dynamics embedded within Muslim communities. Maqsood’s work confronts misogyny and patriarchy in sacred spaces like Masjids. 

“Too often queer and trans-Muslims are denied access to spiritual life,” he says in his artist statement. In his practice, Masqood uplifts queer Muslim communities and “cultivates Islam that leaves no one behind because, in Islam, every person has a right to faith without fear of violence or ex-communication.”  

Tayyab Maqsood “Indexed Demarcations (Vehicles of Separation).” Image Courtesy of Black Artist Research Space and Vivian Marie Photo.

Masqood’s prints are surreal dreamscapes that visually disrupt the status quo. In these realms, marginalized and Queer Muslim folks can enter spaces that have traditionally and historically rejected them. Drenched in navy and concrete hues, “Indexed Demarcations (Vehicles of Separation)” (2022) is a large rectangular monoprint on cotton paper. It is a depiction of a Masjid holy space that has been deconstructed and recalibrated. Rows of chairs and the walls of the deconstructed Masjid unfurl across the print. He has visually and literally opened up every wall of the Masjid to allow metaphorical space for Queer Muslims to visualize themselves in an area where they are allowed to practice their faith while maintaining the wholeness of their identity without shame and judgment. 

Both Blackness and Islam, two significant aspects of human identity, exemplify the complexity and richness of individual experiences within their broader communities. Far from monolithic, these identities are intricate tapestries woven from diverse histories, beliefs, and perspectives. Islam, one of the world’s major religions, comprises an array of interpretations and practices across various regions and historical periods. Often misconceived as a uniform belief system, Islam encompasses numerous sects, schools of thought, and cultural adaptations. The individuals in this show illustrate a profound diversity that challenges any notion of a monolithic faith or existence. 

The question embedded in the title — What Happens When We Nurture — is answered by these four artists and every fiber, material, and detail in their respective works on display. What happens when individuals from marginalized communities collaborate, build, and create autonomous structures to uplift and restore folks who look like them? The co-founders of I&P have provided a vehicle for exploring the idea of art as a vehicle for communication and liberation. The results can move worlds when artists are given the space, time, and resources to create.  

Installation view of What Happens When We Nurture at Black Artist Research Space. Image Courtesy of Black Artist Research Space and Vivian Marie Photo.

What Happens When We Nurture is on view at Black Artist Research Space (BARS) 426 West Franklin Street through July 30.

Teri Henderson is the Arts and Culture Editor of Baltimore Beat. She is the author of the 2021 book Black Collagists. Previously, she was a staff writer for BmoreArt, gallery coordinator for Connect +...