For Chicago-based artist Alaa Mukahhal, using the the bullhorn in many of her pro-migrant art is a symbol of how undocumented immigrants, in her words, “have to constantly yell to be heard.” That sentiment is all too familiar to Alaa, who became undocumented after her visa expired shortly after she arrived in the U.S. at the age of six. I first saw Alaa’s poster work being circulated on Facebook around 2011. I was struck by how Alaa reclaimed the symbol of the bullhorn in many of the posters she created for the Immigrant Youth Justice League’s Coming Out Of the Shadows events.
I had the chance to finally meet her last February when we were both part of a panel at the University of Chicago Law School. Last week, Alaa took some time off her busy organizer schedule to talk to me about her art and share some thoughts regarding this year’s efforts at immigration reform.
Julio Salgado: When did you start doing pro-migrant artwork?
Alaa Mukahhal: I met folks from the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) after I did a speech at an Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights event in 2010. They were having an event called “Dream Deferred Life Denied” about folks who are undocumented and have committed suicide and I offered to create a flier for their event.
Why is it important to have art within the immigrant rights movement?
We need the images. We need to be able to portray the movement. You need images and something that symbolizes the movement. The butterflies that Favianna (Rodriguez) has done really sticks with people. I thought about that when I was making the children’s butterflies for the recent children’s march in Chicago. I like paying homage to other artist’s work and making it your own but recognizing their work. People need to recognize the work that goes into these designs. It’s about respect for people who do this type of work. I’m a strong supporter of giving credit where credit is due. We need to support each other’s work.
What was your first impression of the U.S. when you arrived?
We spent a lot of time inside. The first couple of years I wanted to go back to Kuwait. I hated it here. Food was different. Everything was weird. It took a few years to get the hang of it. I was actually proud of not having papers. I was like ‘I am not American, I don’t have to worry about dealing with their problems or take responsibility for the harm the American government does in other countries.’
Did you have any artistic influences growing up in Kuwait?
I don’t remember much about Kuwait. Just from what I’ve heard from my parents. I am a fan of Palestinian artist Naji al-Ali, famous for his political cartoons criticizing Israel and for the creation of his character Handala, the little boy giving the back to you. Naji was 10 years old when Israel was formed. The cartoon character, who is supposed to be 10 years old, never grew up and won’t grow up until he has his country back. He has his back turned to the world. A lot of Palestinian artists face very similar issues as the undocumented because they grew up in another country and never feel at home. Naji was forced into exile to London because his cartoons were very political.
Were your parents encouraging of your artistic talents?
Very much so. Especially my mom. She would tell me ‘you can use [art] for marketing or become a designer.’ She was actually my first art teacher. She would pick a picture for me and I would trace it. Because of it, I am really good at seeing something and drawing it. It was always images of cartoons and not people. Islamic tradition discourages you from drawing people and you can see that in my current work, where I draw a lot of figures and silhouettes rather than actual people.
Why did you decide to study architecture?
My parents actually wanted me to be a pharmacist. I wanted to go into political science. Then they told me to do engineering and we compromised and I did architecture. There are very few POC who are active architects in this country. Most of the people talking to us in our classes were white men or if there were POC architects, they were from other countries. They would only focus on the architecture of Europe and not talk about architecture from Africa or other non-European countries.
One important aspect that kept me in school was the limited funds. If i was going to switch majors half way, that would have been shitty for my parents, who were paying out of their pockets for my education. So I was committed. I have an obsession with seeing my work and knowing I’m leaving something behind. Marking my mark, so to speak, as a way to validate my existence. I think that urge comes from [the idea] that I’m not supposed to be here to begin with. Creating art and architecture definitely makes me feel I’m leaving something concrete.
Being a gay man in a movement attached to religious (at many times homophobic) groups made me feel like an outcast. I was different in a group that was seen different. I always felt that my dad had this attitude of like, you’re already gay, why be out about it and put a target on your back. Was this ever the case with you as an undocumented Muslim woman given the way that this country feels towards the Muslim community?
Well the conversation is always like ‘this is not very appropriate for a Muslim girl to do.’ or ‘When are you going to settle and get a regular job?’ But I like this job! We need to show that this is our issue too. For the Muslim community, this is a Latino issue. But just last week, we had a Muslim leader who did a civil disobedience in solidarity with immigration reform with other religious leaders. This is huge! The idea is that we’re trying to create an inclusive movement and don’t want to let people out. A few years ago it would have been out of the question. There are other Muslim groups that are slowly coming out. There’s a lot of stigma. Why would you turn yourself into a target and be racially profiled.
I feel like its definitely changing a little bit. Today I got an e-mail from a grad student who is Muslim and undocumented and recently applied for DACA. We really haven’t mobilized our people like we should. It’s happening but slowly. It’s a process.
In an essay you wrote for IYJL, you mentioned that you did things “the right way” but ended up in deportation proceedings. What does that say about the system of immigration and what would you do to fix it?
It’s an issue of race and policy. The quotas are an issue of race. We created the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). If [Comprehensive Immigration Reform] passes today, it’s only for people here. What about people that arrive here in 2014? Only more enforcement. Immigration reform is a bandage for now. We need to create an easier flow [across] the border. People to need able to move in and out. It’s a question of how we change the culture through the media and art. That’s how you change the conversation about race and deportations. We need to have a huge shift in culture. It’d be nice to take down the borders, though.
There’s a lot of talk about something big happening in 2013. Our parents are excited. But we all know that is hard to trust politicians. I’ve always felt that what the mainstream media portrays as our realities is very different from what we’re actually going through. While some folks are fighting for full citizenship, people like our parents just want a driver’s license and a legit work permit. As artists, how can we continue to portray those realities?
In order to change politics, you need to engage politics. If you want to change the culture, you need to engage in media. You have to create the reality that you see. Plato (and I hate Plato) refers to art as the lowest form of truth. To me, art is the closest thing to truth.
See this image that I made? When I presented this image, a lot of groups said that they were sick of that image and that they’re tired of it. People thought it was controversial. They wanted to show how American we are. They took my file and turn into a full heart and a silhouette of a white family and with a ballot to vote. This image that they are presenting is not our reality. Our reality is that we’re being separated. This image of wholesomeness and whiteness is not our reality. It’s what they want us to be. But this what we are. It is [our] struggle as artists to bring our reality to our art. That’s why the butterfly is so great. We migrate out of survival. That’s our reality. The bullhorn that I used for the Coming Out of the Shadows posters is great, because we have to constantly yell to be heard.