NEW YORK (RNS) — In 2012, Erika Menendez shoved Sunando Sen, 46, onto the New York City subway tracks in front of an oncoming train.
“I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers I’ve been beating them up,” she is quoted as having told police shortly after the fatal crime. Sen was born in India and raised Hindu.
In popular culture, New York City is often portrayed as distinctly secular. But “City of Faith: Religion, Activism, and Urban Space,” a new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, suggests that the city — and the public spaces, scents, acts of solidarity and, yes, the hate crimes therein — can’t be understood without religion.
“I think religion is a subtext in the various spaces and conversations where we imagined it to be absent,” the exhibition’s curator, Azra Dawood, told Religion News Service in a recent interview at the museum. “And I’m really hoping that the exhibition surfaces some of the ways in which religion is actually a part of the city.”
With a collection of original portraits, maps and interactive installations (featuring curated scents and soundtracks), Dawood challenges New York’s nonreligious reputation, arguing that the city’s perceived secularism is really covert Protestantism. Against this backdrop — in which Protestantism dominates (via land, money and politics) and Catholic and Jewish communities have made inroads — South Asian communities can become both indistinguishable and hypervisible.
As a Muslim and South Asian woman, Dawood is personally familiar with this dynamic, and as an architectural historian, she often considers how religion shows up in concrete and visible ways.
“(Religion) is not siloed off in explicitly religious institutions, such as churches, synagogues, temples, mosques,” Dawood observed. “You find it in the city’s shared public spaces, on streets and sidewalks and waterways, foodways.”
Dawood pointed to Johannes Eisele’s photo of a man praying next to a halal food cart in midtown Manhattan as an example of unexpected religion featured in the exhibit.
“The halal food carts began as a way of providing cheap halal food to Muslim communities working in different kinds of businesses,” she said. “Now it’s a gastronomic delight for all New Yorkers.”
Photographs displayed throughout the exhibit highlight how minority religious communities refuse to be boxed in by stereotypes. Photographed portraits by MIPSTERZ, a Muslim arts and culture collective, show Muslims grinning and striking poses in New York’s public landscape to reclaim the space. Portraits of New York-based Sikhs by Amit Amin and Naroop Jhooti celebrate people such as former NYC subway operator Sat Hari Singh. Singh, who saved 800 lives by reversing his train during 9/11, also successfully sued the Metropolitan Transportation Authority after it required employees to brand their religious headgear with MTA logos. These images provide a counterpoint to reductionist narratives.
While majority religions have the luxury of blending into a cultural landscape, the exhibit suggests Sikh, Hindu and Muslim groups don’t have that privilege. The flattening and racialized profiling of these communities is captured in the installation “CURB,” a sprawling book of poems encased in glass and placed in the center of one of the exhibit’s two rooms.
The poems — shown here as part of a limited-edition illustrated book that expands several feet when opened — explore violence against South Asian Americans in U.S. public spaces and are presented alongside two short films inspired by the poems.
Poet Divya Victor, who was also an adviser on the exhibition, describes her poems as emerging from “the long wake of the Patriot Act,” the era of the Muslim registry and the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies.
“I knew that poets and writers would need to begin paying special attention to surveillance, spectatorship, supremacist vigilance, and monetized public confession,” she told RNS. “I also knew that I needed to document the fear that my family members began to experience in public spaces with the rise of anti-immigrant and specifically anti-Asian acts.”
Victor added that the poems, which are available in paperback, also reflect the resistance to “both white and Hindu supremacist forces” taking root in South Asian communities.
Though the exhibit largely focuses on moments of beauty and solidarity among South Asian communities, it doesn’t shy away from grappling with the fraught realities of anti-Blackness and the legacy of the caste system. South Asian artist Utsa Hazarika’s “Pilgrims/This Is Not That Dawn,” for instance, is a commissioned multimedia piece that explores the complex relationship between Black and South Asian communities in America.
Beneath a large, stylized image of a stamp from India depicting Martin Luther King Jr., museumgoers are invited to put on headphones and hear the soundtrack Hazarika designed. Listeners overhear Martin Luther King Jr. reflect on his encounter with the caste system during his 1959 trip to India and are reminded by comedian Hasan Minhaj of how the civil rights movement paved the way for the growth of South Asian communities in the U.S.
“The only reason so many of us are here is because of the Immigration Act of ’65. That law rode the wave of the Civil Rights Act of ’64,” Minhaj says in the soundtrack.
“The exchanges between American civil rights activists and the anti-colonial movement in South Asia mark a period of internationalism that has largely fallen away from mainstream consciousness,” Hazarika told RNS in an email. “In the United States specifically, the potential of these movements has been obscured by both a loss of this internationalist history, and the racial structure within which South Asians have often tended towards a proximity to whiteness, rather than embracing their anti-colonial histories to oppose racialized violence.”
Other installations — such as the bold-colored portraits of South Asian American feminist activists by artist and South Asian Women’s Creative Collective founder Jaishri Abichandani — also uplift examples of South Asian activism both within and beyond cultural and religious circles.
Though New York is filled with the art, architecture, collective action and history of South Asian communities, this is the first exhibit at the century-old Museum of the City of New York to focus on them, according to Dawood. She hopes this exhibit, which closes in October, will prompt people to recognize the vibrant religious expressions of South Asian groups and to observe the subtle ways religion operates in the world around them.
“It is often really difficult to talk about religion. … I hope the exhibition shows how multilayered the conversation about religion is, and how much it’s a part of our landscape.”