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Conversations with Ameena Khan

Today we’d like to introduce you to Ameena Khan.

Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
I am a visual artist and art educator living and working in the Tampa Bay area. Although I am formally educated as an Environmental Engineer, after working for about ten years in my field, I realized that at the end of the day, I felt unfulfilled. While my work was important, I questioned whether I was using my skills to serve my community and honor my dreams. When I realized that my answer to that question was “no” and that my unique calling and passion is in the arts, I made a change. I invested time developing my skills, portfolio, and resume’ and kept my eyes open for opportunities in its many forms.

In 2013, I moved to Tampa and shortly thereafter I was offered a part-time position teaching art at a small, private school. This part-time role grew into a full-time position in the subsequent years. As I became more experienced in guiding students through creative expression, I began leading group art workshops for adults. These collaborative experiences gave strangers the opportunity to work together on a single piece, resulting in completely unique artworks that documented that connection and moment.

While most group art experiences I had led to date were on a smaller scale (15-30 people), in 2019 I was selected to create a collaborative mural on a residential intersection in historic Temple Terrace, FL. It was certainly my largest endeavor yet and by far the most meaningful. Nearly 200 people — from toddlers to City Council representatives — gathered on a Saturday morning to paint a mural depicting the unique history of their community. The design included the bright foliage and fruit of the Temple Orange groves and the undulating waves of the Hillsborough River. During the event, I remember stepping back and marveling at the sight of old friends and new, chatting, laughing, connecting, and creating together. That moment was magical, and it lives on in the memories of everyone who helped that day and everyone who has seen or will see the artwork in the future. That is why public art is so important — artwork that is not secured behind walls in a private collection but rather accessible for everyone to appreciate. Such art not only enhances the quality of life for all residents and visitors, but more importantly it brings people together and builds a sense of community. I have only just begun working in the vast arena of public art, but it is an incredibly exciting field and I look forward to seeing where it takes me!

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Carving a space for myself as a creative feels natural; far more than working as an engineer. In this way, the transition from engineer to artist has been smooth. Moreover, I recognize that having the opportunity to pivot from one career to an entirely different one is a privilege not available to many, and for that I am grateful.

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
Art has the ability to transcend the boundaries of culture, language, location and even time to touch hearts and transform communities. It gives strangers the opportunity to learn about one another — their fears, hopes, and dreams — and address complex ideas and emotions in a non-confrontational way. One such topic that I face daily is the misinformation and misunderstanding about Muslims and more specifically Muslim women. It has been my experience that stories about Muslim women are typically limited to one of two stereotypes: the victim or the siren. This oversimplification dehumanizes the complex lives of individuals and invents a vast separation between nonMuslim and Muslim women. It creates a sense of “us versus them” and relegates Muslim women to being “an OTHER” instead of just “another.” In an effort to expand the narrative and shrink the divide, the majority of my smaller, non-commercial works have focused on telling the unique and true stories of Muslim women.

The series that I am most proud of is called “Just a Peek, Please?” and is inspired by the true stories of American Muslim women who have agreed to share their experiences anonymously. These stories range in sentiment and complexity from faithful to faithless, fearful to fearless, embraced to isolated. Some pieces are concealed using a scarf previously worn by the muse, carrying with it something of the woman’s identity and experience. In an act that is typically unacceptable or taboo, the viewer is required to lift the woman’s article of clothing — or peek under it — to see the painting. The voyeuristic act creates the sense of a fleeting, intimate conversation between the viewer, muse, and artist.

We’re always looking for the lessons that can be learned in any situation, including tragic ones like the Covid-19 crisis. Are there any lessons you’ve learned that you can share?
One lesson the COVID19 pandemic has re-taught us all is the importance of the arts to our mental health. Whether through messages chalked on sidewalks, murals honoring frontline workers, poetry, performances, or music, art in its various forms has allowed people to connect and share their experiences despite isolation. The pandemic has reaffirmed the fact that art helps people process emotions, feel less alone, and have a sense of hope.

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