Member Spotlight: MIPSTERZ
Since 2012, MIPSTERZ has been a home for Muslim artists and creators. The initial group formed during Ramadan, realizing that if the different groups of Muslims breaking fast every day were grouped into cliques like a high school cafeteria, they didn’t quite fit in with the yuppies, the investment bankers, or anyone else. They belonged with each other and started to jokingly refer to themselves as the Muslim hipsters.
As an arts and culture collective, MIPSTERZ has grown over the years. They have put out videos like “Somewhere in America”, produced events like the GOOD FUN MUSLIM FRIENDS CLUB, created a talk show, and curated an anthology of music. Their goal is to “curate, enable, and amplify creators of marginalized backgrounds through illustration, film, and music.” And now, with their most current work, they are looking to the future.
MIPSTERZ co-founder Abbas Rattani is an academic, entertainer, and advocate for individuality and self-expression in minority communities. He tells us about how MIPSTERZ functions as a collective, the ways that he and his collaborators are envisioning themselves as the future, and the challenges of navigating the very white world of funding.
How did MIPSTERZ come to be?
It came about pretty accidentally back in the summer of 2012, which also happened to be Ramadan, which is when Muslims, no matter what, have to break fast and eat at a certain period of time. And [we] typically do that in congregation, as a community. What ended up happening was different Muslim groups all over the city, based along shared interests, started coming together. One of the things we noticed was a lot of us didn't fit in in any one particular group.
We didn't really fit in with the corporate group. We didn't fit in with the engineers group or what have you. We started holding these very informal, artsy sessions. We didn't really have the kind of income that our Goldman Sachs Muslims had to break fast at a nice restaurant so we would just do potlucks in Washington Square Park; we would meet up in people's homes.
We had a kind of tongue-in-cheek way of describing ourselves. “There's the Muslim engineering group, there's the Muslim yuppies group, we'll be the Muslim hipster group because we're all into art and music.” And so we used to meet fairly regularly on a daily basis, obviously, and break fast together and eat and talk about different art projects that we were working on, different skills that we had. When Ramadan ended, it kind of consolidated into a collective over time.
And we met very regularly and we started developing new artistic projects in collaboration with each other. And then over the years, it went from being a community to an identity to an interpretation of how we view the world from that Muslim perspective, to being an art collective where we started putting out art work regularly.
Our first major press was in 2013. That was the year after we released a film, [“Somewhere in America”] and that broadened our scope.
Muslims from all over the world, creative Muslims [from France, Bolivia, Japan] came together on a worldwide scale. And then every year after that, we started doing group-level projects.
Tell me a little bit about yourself as an artist. What sort of work do you do?
Since college, a lot of what I did was satire and film. I went to UNC Chapel Hill for undergrad and I majored in religious studies. That really contributed to my satire because they taught us to be hypercritical about everything. And sometimes I think it's easier to be critical if you do it in a funny way.
And then I also did a lot of film. Philosophy is very dense but if you pick an artistic medium, you can convey messages a lot more easily. It's a lot more accessible. So I also turned to music production. And when I graduated college in 2009, I started taking it a little bit more seriously; dabbling in music, satire, stand up comedy, filmmaking, writing on a regular basis. From 2013 onward, I started seeing that short-form film was the media that I enjoyed the most. I could convey a lot of information without even dialogue, with just images alone.
The other thing I really liked doing was enabling and empowering other artists. I just enjoyed being around their energy. I look at my artistic skills compared to them and I'm like, “Man, I'm a noob. I've been an amateur my entire life.” And I appreciate that because I get to benefit from hanging around other creative people. Because I acknowledge that I'm such an amateur, I don't really have an ego about my artistic or creative skill.
I'm never like “It's my way or no way.” I'm always like, “Hey, what do you think about this? What if we did this? What do you think?” I want to hear what others are thinking; people who are a little bit more particular about their artwork and are very passionate about their artwork. I enjoy that because those folks clearly have a vision. They're seeing something in their mind's eye that I am incapable of seeing and I just want to hear about it and try to make it a reality.
On your website, you describe MIPSTERZ as a creative collective. How has that shown up in MIPSTERZ throughout the years? What does collectivity as a practice mean to you as a group?
We never really intended to be a creative collective. Everything was just so free-flowing. If somebody was good at sound and somebody was good at lighting and somebody was good at film, it was a very natural coming together.
The older we got, the better and the more refined our skills got, we still kept gravitating towards younger generations. Some of our imagination became more tamped down into [something] more realistic because we were like “We have to think about artwork that's feasible within a particular budget.” But the younger audiences were throwing the budget out the window. They're like, “If I had a billion dollars, this is what I would do.” That developed into a mentorship where we would curate younger artists or other artists that had more of a big picture, big idea and imagination, but less of the skills.
MIPSTERZ went from a larger hodgepodge of people to a mentorship [model] to everybody working in concert with each other to pick one project. We realized that we were doing a bunch of smaller projects and only 50 percent of them were getting completed. We thought it would be better to do one or two projects a year, concentrate all of our efforts and talents into one thing and then try to carve out areas where different artists could fit in.
So if we did an audiovisual project, obviously the audio could be among the musicians. Then within the musicians, some people were interested in production and some people were just interested in playing their instrument, whether that be the tabla or the guitar or mixing or remixing. And then once that component came together, somebody else was like, “Well, I only like capturing film. I could care less what the backtrack is. I just want to capture the cool images.” It kind of worked out seamlessly, more often than not, that people carved out their little niches.
And it was my job to bring it all together with the creative director at that time. Every two or three years, we'll have a new person who steps into that role, most recently with Sara Alfageeh. She's an illustrator. She's done work with Star Wars and Marvel.
It sounds like decisions are getting made in a collaborative but autonomous way and that there is a person who's at the helm, but rather than it being about executing that person's vision, the person at the helm is facilitating everyone else's vision and making it cohesive.
That's why I've taken this position, because I think I don't have any cool ideas on my own. I just like hearing everybody else's ideas and seeing how we can bring it all together. I'm not a painter. I'm not a musician. I don't know how to play any instruments. I think because of that, I'm not glued to one particular thing. And I think working with these other artists, it's clear that when you're passionate about your thing, you see the world through that lens.
My biggest challenge is trying to have [artists] let go just a little bit so that others can come in. At the end of the day, it's not about any individual artist. It's about us putting out one thing together. Oftentimes, when we put out artwork, we just say it’s a MIPSTERZ project. And then if you do want to peel behind the hood to look at exactly who was involved, those credits are there and obviously people need credits for their portfolio. But when we publicize the work, we say this is a MIPSTERZ project.
From GOOD FUN MUSLIM FRIENDS CLUB, 2019
I don't think people often articulate creative leadership in this way.
That’s why we got involved with Fractured Atlas in the first place [because] as a minority group, there's already a structural exclusion of funds. A lot of white institutions or even white artists have access to money and capital a lot more readily than folks of color. I think folks of color have to kind of either prove their whiteness or to have to prove their minority-ness, depending on the grant body. So that's one issue.
The other issue is that when you're free flowing because of the tax structure in the United States, you just can't acquire capital. Somebody has to get taxed the moment money enters somebody's bank account. If I'm the person who accepts money from a donation, I'm the one who gets taxed on this money that just showed up into my bank.
But then having a fiscal sponsor, that's a 501(c)(3), that's another level of fund allocation. A lot of the grants that we ended up applying to require that 501(c)(3) designation. We're just trying to make the art, we're not trying to get bogged down in this tax code situation right now.
Unfortunately, I think it is a product of the United States tax code that you can't access capital unless you fit certain parameters.
Can you explain more what you mean by proving your whiteness or proving your minority-ness? That's such a powerful way to put it.
There are grants in the United States that were created, for example, after 9/11 that in so many words basically said so long as you sell out your community, [as long as] you are a Muslim in the way that we think Muslims should be, as defined by the current political structures, then you can have access to that capital. Grants implicitly said we don't really care about the flourishing of your community, we care about you teaching non-Muslims about Islamic art. But in order to create art, your community needs to flourish.
MUSLIMS IN SPAAACE enamel pin
And so it puts you in that little weird catch-22 situation. When you sell out your community, you make it an unsafe space for that flourishing. You start seeing more assimilationist kinds of ideas and in a way you end up contributing to your own othering. You can contribute to your own orientalism.
A recent example is that CBS just produced a show called the “United States of Al” which is centered around an American family. The lead is a war veteran and now his Afghan translator has come to visit. The Afghan translator is just a prop in that narrative because ultimately that show is about white American trauma and the war, not the ways in which the war devastated and continues to devastate communities abroad on false pretenses.
The other one about proving your minority-ness goes back to this notion that there is something inherently different between white Americans and non-white Americans. And whether you're Muslim or you're Black or whomever, you kind of have to prove to this granting body who takes on this "Oh, we're super liberal and we want to champion the Black voice or the Native American or the Muslim voice," but then have preconceived ideas of what the Muslim voice looks like or what the Black voice looks like.
The notion that I have to fit into a Muslim American mold that's been defined by white folks is egregious to me, also unnatural to me. It's just not my authentic self. And that's kind of what I mean about proving that minority-ness.
There are some grants that are specifically allocated for minority flourishing. But when you submit your application, you have to really prove how you are a minority that now makes you qualified to tap into these funds. And oftentimes those funds are old white money that are just like “We're trying to do something good for the world.” [But they’re] using old orientalist structures to do that.
When you win a grant, you're patting yourself on the back and you're like, “Oh my God, now we have access to capital for us to do something with.” But then, what is the name or the allocation of how they got the wealth in the first place? I sit with that on a regular basis, too.
Let's talk about the aesthetic, the vibe of MIPSTERZ. We can concentrate it on your most recent project, ALHAMDU.
When science fiction became very popular in the United States, there was a subset of science fiction, literature and art that Black folks started creating, which is now what you would think of as Afrofuturism. They were envisioning it in parallel with the white science fiction movement; what a Black kind of science fiction or a Black future would look like.
Learning from that, we started thinking about what it would look like if we inhabited a new planet like Naboo or Tatooine or some other Star Wars-type planet. We created our world in the year 3000.
One of the things that came to mind was this notion of cosmopolitanism, where everybody is blending in with everything. So we started designing these outfits almost as a form of speculative fiction. These outfits were going to be made of patterns and textures and textiles from all over the world, probably from Muslim-majority countries, but also incorporating Japanese and New York street fashion, because that's what's in and it was also largely based on how we were dressing.
Myself, I would be wearing a North African shashiya hat made out of wool, a hoodie, a salwar-kameez from South Asia and then huge limited-edition Ewing sneakers. And then a friend of mine is wearing this very long, almost trench coat with Iranian embroidery on one side and Palestinian embroidery on the other side. Among my friends, we were already wearing things like that. I had a friend who drove a motorcycle and he would have the keffiyeh and then a hardcore ‘80s leather jacket. And it was just very seamless.
When we thought about ALHAMDU, we were like, in the future, this is going to be revved up.
Even with language, one of the other things is that now if you hear modern Arabic, it's really mixed in with the dialect of that country. If you have South Asian workers that work in Egypt, they're throwing in Hindi or Urdu in addition to the Arabic and English. It's just a hodgepodge of language. So almost how the birth of Swahili came about. Swahili is a language that's both indigenous African, it's Arabic. There's English in there because of colonization. There's Gujarati, Hindi. It's a big mix. It's a coastal language. And so we imagined that in the future, people would be speaking some iteration of Swahili for those same purposes.
We shot in Vasquez Rocks and So Cal [Southern California] because it has this otherworldly appeal to it. And we shot in Joshua Tree and then we shot in the New York City subway at 5 A.M. on a Sunday when it's desolate. We deliberately did all those things to highlight, if we took over a world or in a postapocalyptic United States where we had to reinhabit, what would it look like?
Especially by taking yourself as the inspiration for the aesthetic, you're affirming yourselves as the future. You're affirming your community by saying “We're what's here, we're what's next.”
We ended up photographing and filming and that became the catalyst for imagining another planet or another world or a post-apocalyptic, brand-new United States. If you hit the reset button and the Muslim third culture aesthetic is the predominant aesthetic.
That became the catalyst to think about [our project] Muslim Futurism. So ALHAMDU came before Muslim Futurism.
And so we started thinking about expanding Muslim Futurism similarly to Afrofuturism. But because it is so fledgling, [we decided to] try to do an exhibit.
We thought to ourselves, “Let's do a two-year art exhibit where we bring in artwork from other Muslim artists in the United States or abroad that have some element of a future vision. Let's bring all that together. Let's add our MIPSTERZ artwork in with the ALHAMDU project. Then let's develop deliberate programming from experts. Let's actually reach out to experts who study topics around identity, community, imagination, resistance, liberation, which ended up becoming the five core themes of the project. Let's start soliciting artwork around those five themes. Let's use the artwork as a catalyst for deeper conversations.”
There will be galleries or museum spaces set up that will have the actual artwork. In the physical locations, we’ll be using digital mapping and other immersive technology to make it more of an immersive art experience so that when the visitor walks in, the entire world around them transforms. So not only are they looking at art, but art is engaging with them and their existence manipulates the art. So it's participatory as well. We'll have programming which will also be streamed online and available in a digital form. Once the exhibit is over or while the exhibit is happening concurrently, we're making a digital rendering that can be sent out to people's phones or to schools or what have you. [Then, all you’d need is] one of those cheap Google VR headsets. You can slip your phone into it and walk through this virtual exhibit for folks that can’t actually go to the physical space.
Do you have the art spaces locked down or is this forthcoming?
We have one place locked down in Miami at a museum that's tentative for 2024, we're working on one in Iowa, and then another one in Colorado Springs inshallah..
We've actually avoided some of these major cities, largely because we know arts and culture happen on a regular basis there. We've been targeting areas like Iowa City, Colorado Springs, predominantly white areas. There was some research data that showed that a lot of these folks who have this anti-Muslim animus largely have it because they just never interacted with anything Muslim or clearly defined as being Muslim.
We're picking areas that are predominantly white because we want to disrupt their day-to-day. Even these museums, they just get white artists most of the time. It's a lot of white perpetuating whiteness.
I think our real goal is just to be counter-culture; to push back on the status quo, to be a little bit disruptive in a thought-provoking way. We show up with a project and it sometimes makes white folks uncomfortable. If you allow these larger power structures to dominate, it can lead to the total erasure of a community. So that's kind of what the ethos overall is, to be thought-provoking and thoughtful through art.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Content Specialist at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.