Virtual Visionaries Week 6: Art Inspired by Identity

About the Authors

Dr. Donia Jarrar (she/her) is an Arab and Muslim-American composer, pianist, and interdisciplinary artist. Born to a Palestinian father and an Egyptian mother, she grew up between Kuwait City, Alexandria, Ramallah, and New York. Her personal experiences have strongly shaped her compositional voice, leading her to explore themes of intergenerational memory, trauma/healing, identity, exile, displacement, and cultural narrative in her work. Dr. Jarrar was recently awarded the 2019 Discovery Grant for Female Composers from the National Opera Center of America for her work Seamstress, a documentary multimedia opera based on oral history interviews conducted with Palestinian women and girls from her community. She has been commissioned by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art and is a featured musician on the Emmy-award winning series Arab American Stories. She is currently working on an album trilogy under her experimental sound project moniker Phonodelica, highlighting the different sides of her spirituality and sexuality as a queer Muslim woman, both light and dark. The project debut album, Hidden Assemblages, unpacks the isolation and trauma of Islamophobia in all its forms while critiquing the racism that plagues Arab and Muslim communities and celebrating the Black-Palestinian solidarity movements. In December 2019, Hidden Assemblages was featured on Spotify’s editorial cosmic playlists, curated by astrologer and author Chani Nicholas.

Rosy Simas (Seneca, Heron Clan) is a transdisciplinary artist. “The culture, history, and identity stored in my body is the underpinning of all my artwork. Creating is a spiritual act for me, rooted in nature, formed through my link to my ancestors and the land of which we are made.”
Simas’ projects merge movement with media, sound, and objects for stage and installation. She unites cultural concepts and images with scientific and philosophical theories to create work that is literal, abstract, and metaphoric. Her work weaves themes of personal and collective identity with family, sovereignty, equality, and healing. She creates dance work with a team of Native artists and artists of color, driven by movement-vocabularies developed through deep listening.
Simas is a recipient of Dance/USA, McKnight, Guggenheim, First People Fund, and Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Fellowships, as well as a Joyce Award. Her work has toured Turtle Island and France with the support of NEFA National Dance Project, MAP Fund, and National Performance Network.

From Donia:

I am writing this sitting in my small studio in Los Angeles on the day Israel plans to annex the remainder of my homeland. We are over three months into social distancing, back in lockdown, and have been banned from traveling to 54 different countries. Pride month and the moment when over 50,000 folks marched for All Black Lives on June 14th in Hollywood, might have passed us by, but the Black Lives Matter movement is only growing stronger in the face of systemic oppression and police brutality. To write briefly on my experience as an artist and how my identity is woven through my own personal creative journey at this time leaves something to be desired. The truth is, I cannot sit here in good faith and have a conversation on art and identity without addressing the role academic institutions have played in their upholding of white supremacy through a lack of Black, Indigenous, Persons of Color representation and a Eurocentric curricular structure. As a young composer I realized at some point that I would have to claim my identity for myself in order to not participate in my own erasure. There was no single moment that led me to this realization, but rather, a series of microagressions and offenses that forced me to take the matters of my creative pursuits and endeavors into my own hands. 

I embody multiple identities within myself. In the weeks leading up to this post I spent some time speaking with family, friends and colleagues on identity and the pressure to conform to certain notions of what it means to be:






Arab. American.

Third-culture. Immigrant. Composer. 

At one time I even identified as refugee, but that shifted out of my vocabulary when I realized the Gulf War I fled in 1990 and my experiences thereafter were nowhere near the struggles and traumas faced by those of the current refugee crisis. 

In my experience as a Muslim woman composer and an Arab, I’ve been approached several times by artistic directors and independent musicians or curators who want to commission me just to fill their quota, without ever having done the research of listening to or exploring my work beyond that, just because they want to feature Muslim voices in their shows. They are then baffled when they discover I write experimental music and in fact do not play the oud and cannot teach their Arabic Music Ensembles. 

“I don’t need someone to tell me to “be more Arab or be more Palestinian” composer Felix Jarrar says to me on a Facetime call earlier this week. “Because I’ve been very vocal in my music about what I do, I’ve never been asked to write something about my heritage.” He puts an emphasis on the last part, before revealing the many times he has been asked to represent Black composers by different commissioners, because they actually don’t understand that he is not Black. He has to then explain to them that he is of Palestinian and Sri-Lankan origins, and then do the labor of pointing them towards Black composers. I’ve dealt with similar experiences because many white composers have mistaken me for Latinx. 

For students, staff, and faculty of color, it is expected that their white colleagues, professors and mentors will not be not familiar with their ethnic background and the complexities of navigating white supremacist structures within the institution. They therefore end up carrying the burden of becoming representatives of their race. It is not only white faculty who are guilty of this transgression, but faculty of color who struggled with similar issues as their students and want to see them embrace their identity through their racial and/or ethnic heritage because they also grew up with the onus of being the sole member of their race in their cohort, their class, or their department. I know I’ve had my fair share of women of color composers mentor me towards becoming a cultural ambassador for Palestine, or Egypt, depending on the day. Our parents and our mentors experience identity and erasure in different ways, and so we struggle to find common ground. But it is imperative that faculty mentors allow their students freedom of expression, and do not burden their students of color with the idea that they are cultural ambassadors. Just because a student identifies as Arab, for example, it doesn’t mean that they want to write songs for the revolution. It doesn’t mean they want to take the Music of the Middle East course offering, and as faculty members, it certainly doesn’t mean that they should be hired to teach that course either. The unfortunate reality is that outside of these borders and within the walls of academia there is often not much room for us and our work. And while we’re on the subject, the entire labeling of regions through a Eurocentric lens presents another issue. It is why at this time I no longer identify as Middle Eastern, but rather, Arab-American and North African, an artist of the SWANA Diaspora (Southwest Asia/North Africa). 

As I grew into my voice and identity as an artist, these differences of opinion with mentors made me seek out writings on identity and spirituality, on how to navigate these personal borders and boundaries of our Bodies and our Selves, when each individual experience is so unique. When I realized the problem was an intergenerational one that led me to seek out writings by other queer academics and artists of color. I scoured through the University of Michigan’s Music Library to try to find other Palestinian, Egyptian or Muslim women composers to relate my work to, but it seemed there were none, and so to the writers, visual artists and musicians of Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, and Black heritage I went, because that was all I could find on the shelves at the time. 

Students of color need to see themselves and their identities represented in as many ways as possible, and that means allowing those students and giving them the resources to express themselves fully beyond the boundaries of what is deemed their role as cultural bearers and representatives of their race. Their identity is not to be appropriated, misused, or tokenized, especially when they are facing a war of identities within themselves and their own communities. In the words of Latinx author and scholar Yvette DeChavez “faculty and administration are in a position of power, which means it’s up to them to do the work of making themselves better, of holding themselves accountable. Read books! Read the internet! The tools are everywhere and absolutely available—it’s up to them to make use of them. Additionally, there are tons of academics of color who are doing the work of decolonizing and diversifying. Hire us! Hire us for teaching positions, hire us to speak to faculty and administration, hire us to host workshops.”

I leave the reader with an essential passage from Gloria Anzaldua’s Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality:

It’s not race, gender, class, sexuality, or any single aspect of the self that determines identity but the interaction of all these aspects plus as yet unnamed features. We discover, uncover, create our identities as we interrelate with others and our alrededores/surroundings. Identity grows out of our interactions, and we strategically reinvent ourselves to accommodate our exchanges. Identity is an ongoing story, one that changes with each telling, one we revise at each way station, each stop, in our viaje de la vida (life’s journey).

From Rosy:

Can you talk about an early work you created that catapulted your desire to make art infused with your identity, and some of the things you’ve learned since?

One misconception about Native artists, is the assumption that an artist who is Native is not a Native artist unless they are dealing with subject matter that is recognizably Native to others. And by others, I mean non-Native folks and even other Native people who have been influenced by pervasive stereotypes of Native people (the Nobel savage, the Indian maiden, the drunk Indian, and the Big Bad Indian).

All of us are impacted by colonization and the images and ideas that history books, films, and literature have created are pervasive through the settler-colonial gaze. These idealizations and inhuman representations have been created primarily by explorers, missionaries, ethnographers, filmmakers, musicians, historians, and poets. A Native artist today finds themselves sorting through these problematic assumptions on a daily basis, as they attempt to make a living, creating and sharing their work as an artist via presentation, exhibition, grants, fellowships, and/or sales.

My story likens to this scenario.

I didn’t begin my public biography with “I am “Seneca, Heron Clan,” or even just “Native American,” until I was in my 30s. As a young choreographer I wanted my work to stand on its own, without subjecting myself to tokenism or being used as a diversity pawn, as I’ve witnessed within the dance communities I worked in. I was very adamant about starting the first company for women and girls of color in Minneapolis in 1994. I did that – yet it was short lived, as the actual interest in such a radical shift in the ideals of dance were not welcomed, yet.

I understood that from the day I set foot in a dance studio in 1981, that these spaces were reserved for white bodies. And not just white bodies, but a specific kind of white body. I understood I didn’t have that body, and there were probably moments I tried to have that body – but that it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. By the time I entered the dance and theater world I had a solid foundation of who I was. I had been raised to be an urban Native. My family is Seneca and I grew up around other Natives and Ojibwe (Anishinaabe) elders (Minnesota is Dakota and Anishinaabe territory). 

Until I was in my early 40s, my work was not outwardly recognizable as “being Native”. A few artists of color recognized my identity within my work. Yet, to other Native people my work has always obviously been about identity. 

In 2007 I developed a work, Have Gun Will Shoot, in response to the Gulf War. I departed from my non narrative work to create a 90-minute dance about women in the military. Specifically, the story followed one individual from their early idealism about serving until their eventual death through war. To prepare for this work I trained with the ROTC for a year and brought these movements and the comradery of military women into the choreography. 

I didn’t use any recognizable Native symbolism and I didn’t write about the main character being Native in the program, but this piece was specifically about a Native woman. I come from a long line of individuals who have served in the military, Seneca military – from the Revolutionary war where they sided with the British to uncles who served in WWII and Korea. The drive to defend Turtle Island, and specifically Haudenosaunee (Six Nations of the Iroquois) is in my DNA.

What are some of the challenges you’ve found in creating art that is so close to home? The joys?

In 2012, I decided to research and develop a work inspired by my grandmother’s life and her side of our Seneca family. I was interested in where she remains within my body and how my body responds to the events of her life. What I found were clear movement patterns and gestures that were not in my current physical vocabulary. She was, as well as other family, ancestors, in my bones, organs, spirit, – and in order to engage with them, I had to listen deeply. This began a practice of deep listening, which I still use within my work today, in solo context as well as when I work with other performers. 

I worked with a composer on making sound and film recordings back home on the reservation in New York. From these images and sounds, the composition was crafted.

This work was toured to over 14 venues and our artistic team worked tirelessly to bring the work to Native audiences – even if only a handful of those in attendance were Native within any given city or town. 

How does your cultural identity change the way you experience art?

I don’t really know how to answer this question because I have always been Native and so my view of the world has always been through a Native lens. 

What has shifted over time is how I engage socially and politically within the arts, specifically within the fields of dance and visual arts. There is a misconception that Native people who grow up in Native families know everything they need to know about Native history, culture and arts. I don’t know where this assumption comes from, but it is obviously not true. There is also the idea that if you want to learn more about your Native culture, there is something wrong with how you were brought up. Nothing could be further than the truth. The pursuit of knowledge about one’s culture and history through the body, mind and spirit should be encouraged and supported fully. It is not a defect. Most Nations don’t have cultural systems of learning available to the majority of people who belong to a tribe as most tribal members of any given tribe live away from reservations and communities.

The more I learn (because there is much to continually educate myself on) about Native law, history, activism, and culture, the more I am able to position myself semi-safely within a world that is predominately white.

Want to hear more?

Join us this Thursday, July 9 from 4:00-5:00PM EDT via Zoom.This conversational session will delve into their posts in greater depth, providing a chance for participants to ask questions and engage with these authors in real time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s