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Windows to Peace: Community Joins Local Mosque, Mural Arts and New Mayor to Create Art

The Al Aqsa Islamic Society in Kensington held the first of two “Paint Days” on Saturday, January 9, 2016 where people of all faiths were invited to paint and sculpt items to be used in a new exterior mural on the parking lot side of the building.

In 2004, the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and Artwell partnered with Al Aqsa, La Salle Academy, Moffett Elementary School and artists from all across Philadelphia to create a mural titled “Doorways to Peace” on the front of the building. The goal was to unite the community in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks and show that not all followers of Islam are terrorists. Now that terrorism is once again a very hot issue and Islamophobia is more present than ever, Al Aqsa is again reaching out to the community to put an indelible message of peace on the mosque.


A smiling Jim Kenney mingled with attendees on the heels of national criticism regarding his remarks about the shooting of officer Jesse Bartnett./Ptah Gabrie

The new mural project is titled “Windows to Peace” and will feature a painted mural and hundreds of handmade tiles with personal inscriptions from volunteers and members of the community. According to Adab Ibrahim, Outreach Director and Community Liaison at Al Aqsa, the tiles will have pictures and words of hope and peace, but she also believes the event will instill these values in the minds of the people creating the art.

“We want [these tiles] to have meaning and for it to be a meaningful experience for those who work on the project as well,” Ibrahim said.

She believes art is the perfect vessel for peace and understanding. “A lot of times people don’t want to be lectured. It’s a way to kind of show your creativity and work with each other without formally discussing the topics of politics or religion,” Ibrahim said. “It helps bridge the gap and their understanding of each other might be a little better.”


These kids are rolling the clay flat so it can be cut into square tiles. They work together to make sure there is enough for everyone to sculpt a message through words or pictures./Ptah Gabrie

According to Jane Golden, Executive Director of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, the original exterior of Al Aqsa Islamic Academy did not reflect the inner beauty that was just through a those front doors.

“It was a bland exterior that did not convey the beauty inside,” Golden said.

In 2004, she saw art as a means to open those doors and let the mosques beauty show on the outside. “It has a certain kind of power to engage us and connect us sometimes in ways other things can’t,” Golden said. “I think what art making can do, when people sit around a table and say, ‘could you pass the blue? What do you think about this design?’ They start to see each other in terms of their humanity and commonality,” Golden said. When she was informed that there was once again religious tension in the neighborhood, Golden again teamed up with Artwell to create another mural.

According to the organization’s website, ArtWell was founded in 2000 to respond to the chronic community violence in Philadelphia by introducing a preventive, educational, arts-oriented approach to reach underserved communities and youth facing discrimination, poverty, violence, and the everyday challenges of growing up. Through arts education and creative reflection the organization supports young people to discover their strengths and face complex challenges.


Rola Jaber, Asma Abuali, Ali Jaber and Zoe Sherman are all having fun making mosaic tiles that will be installed as part of the mural./Ptah Gabrie

Local sculptor and mosaic artist Joe Brenman, who was an integral part of the original mural, was brought back to assist in the tile making aspect of the new piece.

“When Mural Arts said they wanted to expand the mural to include the parking lot side, I was really happy and wanted to join in,” Brenman said. He’s also an Artist in Residence at Artwell.

Volunteers were given a square piece of clay and asked to decorate it with a personal message or image of peace. Brenman will then take the tiles to his studio to be fired in his kiln. The tiles will be brought back to the 2nd mural paint day on January 30 so they can be glazed.

According to Brenman, he has about 100 tiles, but hopes to have about 300 when it’s time to install the mural. Brenman, who is Jewish, expressed his great appreciation for Al Aqsa’s continuing support and respect for him. He even described members of the mosque as “family.” “For me, it’s the connection with the community at the mosque which is the most important part,” Brenman said. “I’m Jewish and when we first did the mural it was Christians, Jews and Muslims working together,” Brenman said. “It’s all in support for the mosque and we are together and unified.”

Al Aqsa was thrust into the national spotlight when a pig’s head was thrown near the entrance to the academy in an apparent anti-Islamic gesture. This garnered attention from all across the world, but the suspects still remain at large.

Last week’s shooting of Philadelphia Police Officer Jesse Hartnett by an alleged ISIS sympathizer is stirring the pot again. Following his statements on the shooting, new Mayor Jim Kenney is taking heat on the national level. In a recent blog post, Allen B. West, a contributor on Fox News, calls for Mayor Kenney’s immediate removal for his comments stating that the actions of the shooter had nothing to do with Islam or the teachings of Islam, despite the perpetrator’s confession that he acted in the name of Islam and as an ISIS sympathizer. Kenney called the actions appalling and said he was sad that the shooter was linking his own criminality to a peaceful religion.

Kenney told Spirit News that his stop at Al Aqsa’s mural paint day was planned well in advance.

“We thought that it was important to show our residents that we appreciate their residency, we have people that will protect them, we want to include them in our community and that we’re all God’s children,” Kenney said.


Abby Berkowitz, 9, carefully paints a section of what will become the exterior mural./Ptah Gabrie

In the face of hungry reporters from most of the major news outlets in the city, Kenney refused to back down from his comments and added that “These are good law abiding people who deserve to live in peace and not be discriminated against.”

Kenney then went on to give reporters a history lesson on the riots of 1844 where three Catholic Churches, including St. Michael’s, which is within eyesight of Al Aqsa, were burned to the ground after two months of anti-Catholic rioting in Philadelphia. According to the mayor, the same mentality that spawned violence and fear of the “Bloody hand of the Pope” when Irish Catholic immigrants moved to Philadelphia is once again occurring.


The mural titled “Windows to Peace” will transform this plain wall with colorful words and images to inspire love and peace throughout the community. Council members Curtis Jones, Jr., and Helen Gym in the foreground./Ptah Gabrie

“Those churches were burned down with the same kind of attitude and maliciousness that is permeating this country today,” Kenney said. He then took his own brush and painted alongside Jane Golden, City Council members Curtis Jones, Jr., Helen Gym, Allan Domb and children of all faiths and ages.

The timing of Kenney’s visit politicized what was in fact a bunch of children and adults playing with paint and clay. “As free as this country is and as democratic as this country is, you’re free to be ignorant, rude and hateful,” Kenney said. “We’re going to celebrate each other and go forward together. Those ignorant, stupid people can stay behind.”

There is a certain permanence about mosaic and tile art. Each piece in set in mortar and when it dries, the work of each contributing artist and volunteer provides strength and durability. It’s something that can last many years and for that reason, the message of peace and love can be just as enduring.

“This mural doesn’t belong to us or the artists who create it. Once it goes up, it belongs to the community,” Golden said. “It should live on as a landmark and as a tremendous source of pride and inspiration.”

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