Nayfa Naji and Amal Azzam didn’t see a platform for Muslim and MENA (Middle Eastern or North African) artists in Milwaukee, so they put together the city’s first all-Muslim exhibition in 2019. It was meant to be a one-time thing, but they kept getting the same question from gallery visitors: “What’s next?”
“That’s really how we started,” Naji says. “From then on, we hosted some workshops, we did a couple murals, [and] we have been doing community engagement-type work as well.”
Thus, the two women, who are Palestinian American and Muslim as well as artists themselves, founded Fanana Banana. The name combines the Arabic word for artists, fanana, with a bit of rhyming fun. “Banana just gave it a nice catch,” Naji says. Even the logo sports Arabic calligraphy.
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Since that first show, they’ve hosted over a dozen events, all with an interactive bent. These include art-making stations, Instagram-worthy photo opportunities and, of course, snacks to help engage crowds. Their “We Are MKE” art show featured a station where visitors could paint with squirt guns, as well as an elaborate balloon installation. “This is how art shows should be, or at least it should be an option for people to go out and have fun and experience art materials and things that they normally may not have the chance to do,” Azzam says.
Despite the light-hearted activities at the events, the art itself often tackles serious topics, including identity struggles and the challenge of bridging communities. “It’s really nice to hear different perspectives, different stories and just to be able to spark those conversations,” Naji says. “If [attendees] are having those conversations with you, they’re having it amongst each other as well.”
After hosting their most high-profile gallery show to date at the Milwaukee Artist Resource Network, “Reflecting My Muslim Americanism,” the co-founders are yet again pondering what’s next. “We’re brainstorming right now,” Azzam says.
Three Muslim and MENA Artists to Watch
1. Nada Alzalloum
Alzalloum is the founder of Bloom For Growth, a nonprofit that uses art and research to spread awareness of social justice issues and inspire change both locally and globally. Her own work reflects her experiences as a Palestinian immigrant and a daughter of refugees.
2. Amelia Bader
A student at UW-Madison, Bader founded Art for Change UW, a student organization that uses art as a medium for social change. Her paintings reflect the intersection of activism and art.
3. Rida Fatima
Combining Arabic calligraphy and architectural paintings in her art, Fatima is currently working on a piece based on a recent trip to Pakistan. She also offers classes at her studio, Reeds Art.