Arabic Billboards are popping up in Middle America. Why?


One reads ‘Ahlan wa Sahlan’, while the other translates to ‘human being’

Unless you’ve been living under a digital detox rock, you’ll know that the US midterms are happening tomorrow – but something you might not have heard about as of yet is the work of For Freedom. The organisation has dubbed itself the “largest creative collaboration in US history” and is showcasing the work of artists in the lead up to the vote on November 6.

The organisation was founded in 2016 by two artists, and uses “art as a vehicle for participation to deepen public discussions on civic issues” – and the most visible project is their Billboard series.

They have given artists from around the world free reign to express themselves on billboards in all 50 states, as well as an extra site in Washington D.C. and one in Puerto Rico. All of the billboards were funded, simultaneously, through 52 separate Kickstarter campaigns.

On display in Lansing, Michigan right now is a work by Lebanese-born, Germany-raised Jamila El Sahili – her work is a simple typographic piece that features the Arabic script for ‘human being’:

Sahili told the Lansing State Journal that she intentionally did not translate the script, as she wanted people to discuss it rather than just read it. She said the choice of phrase is her response to what she calls the “dehumanising” of the Muslim community in America post-9/11. “What I would like to say to people who see my billboard and are scared is, do not judge people by labels. Get to know the people you’re scared of. Ninety-nine percent of the time, you have nothing to fear. We are all human.”

The midterms will be a historic moment in Michigan as Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib runs unopposed and is all but certain to be the first Muslim woman elected to US Congress.

Another billboard also in the Midwest, is Michael Rakowitz’s in Saint Paul, Minnesota. It has “Ahlan wa Sahlan” in Arabic written on it, as well as English copy that reads: “may you arrive as part of the family and tread an easy path as you enter”. Rakowitz is an Iraqi-American artist, known for his community projects, such as Enemy Kitchen in 2004 when he taught recipes from Baghdad to students, discussing war in the process.Rakowitz’s sculpture The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist was unveiled in London’s Trafalgar Square earlier this year. The sculpture is made from empty date syrup cans from Iraq and is a replica of the protective deity Lamassu:Another regional presence in the billboards project is Palestinian artist Emily Jacir, who designed a billboard that now stands in Salem, Oregon and reminds passersby that Allah is the Arabic word for the god of all religions.For Freedoms is inspired by American artist Norman Rockwell’s 1943 Four Freedom series of paintings, which represented freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear:

Here is the original:


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