Murtaza ValiI was born and raised in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates - one of the oil rich Gulf states which as a country is about as old as I am. I’m an Indian citizen though, always have been. The U.A.E. doesn’t give citizenship to people born there. So, I’ve never lived in the only country that has been kind enough to claim me as its own and have instead divided my life between two countries that have categorized me as (resident) alien. Although I’m eligible for naturalization in the US now, which I will gladly take up, especially since India just recently allowed dual citizenship and I won’t have to surrender that passport.

I’m a full-time graduate student in the midst of a Ph.D. in Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts/New York University. The focus of my studies is 20th Century European & American art and for my dissertation I’m hoping to untangle the varied ways in which contemporary artists from outside the West, now settled in the West – for example, artists like Shahzia Sikander, Shirin Neshat, Do-Ho Suh, Kimsooja, Ghada Amer - translate their culture, through their art practices. I’m particularly interested in exploring the effect that their increasing visibility has on mainstream art discourse in the West. I haven’t quite decided what I want to do once I’m done with school, whether I want to teach or work at a museum.

I currently live in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. I moved to New York from Baltimore in 1998 and lived for 4 years in the West Village before moving out to Brooklyn. It took me a while to get used to Brooklyn, but I love this neighborhood. It’s quiet, beautiful, friendly and just happening enough to keep me entertained. However, I do hate the fact that I can’t get any decent food after 11 pm. I’m a bit of a night owl and got spoilt living in the Village, just around the corner from Joe’s Pizza. I’m 30 and I just got married about six months ago.


How did you come to live in the US?
The U.A.E. didn’t really have too many great opportunities for further education while I was growing up there. Frustrated with the school I was at I decided to finish up my secondary schooling in England. I came to the US, traveling by myself for the first time, after securing admission at a school in London, to visit family in Kansas City. My aunt suggested I talk to the administration at the school her children went to and so I did, and they offered me a spot in their graduating class. With just a suitcase full of clothes I decided to stay and have been in the US since.

It was the same summer as the first Gulf War so a lot of people assumed that that was the reason I left home, but honestly I was in no danger at home. Being away from my home and parents was difficult, but it was made a little easier by the fact that I was with family. The other major struggle was my accent, I had to often repeat myself in class and stop using English words like thrice, lift etc.

On 9/11 you were visiting your family in the United Arab Emirates. It must have been pretty strange to watch it from abroad, and in the Middle East no less. What were people's initial reactions there to what happened?
Yeah, it was surreal. It was frustrating. Both my brother, who lives in Baltimore and has a lot of friends who live and work in DC, and I were home visiting my parents. They were so relieved that we were with them and safe and they didn’t have to worry about us. On the other hand, my brother and I, were worried out of our skulls, about all our friends here. And it was frustrating to be so far away, to be so disconnected, to watch on TV. To not be able to help.

New York for me is home and I wanted to be here, to feel the pain with the rest of the city. At that point I lived in Manhattan too, not close to but not that far way from Ground Zero. Being home when it happened was also a humbling experience, putting things in perspective. In that part of the world, people treated the events in much the same way people here might treat a disaster in some far flung corner of the world. People were saddened and interested in the events as a topical news story but soon forgot about it and went about their normal lives. I could think of nothing else and people kept telling me to get over it.

There was a strong fear of backlash against Arabs and Muslims and many people there tried to convince us to stay there and not bother returning but that was completely out of the question. Although coming back was frightening too. We were hearing all these rumors about searches and detentions at the airports and we figured as Muslims returning from the Middle East we were sure to get into some shit. But our flight back two weeks later was fairly uneventful, we were searched in London, but nothing extraordinary, and we had no problems at immigration or customs in New York. My Indian passport saved me, while citizens of Muslim countries were searched and detained and interrogated, as Indians we weren’t considered to be a threat.

Didn’t the FBI visit your home a few days after 9/11. What was that all about?
That’s a funny story. My father owns a hospital in Sharjah. He had visited me in the summer of 2001 and had purchased some x-ray proof plastic to case his mobile x-ray unit and had had it delivered to my apartment in the Village. I guess in the days after 9/11, the FBI and NYPD, found my dad’s name and my address on a list of people who had recently bought suspicious materials and so they came by to visit.

Of course I was back home, but my roommate was home and when he first went to open the door and ask who it was and they told him it was FBI and NYPD he thought it was a friend playing a practical joke. “I ain’t opening the door for no damn police” he blurted our in his best Midwestern drawl. And it was only after they assured him they were legit and he saw ID did he let them in. They asked him questions, he answered them and they left.

You and your friends still get hassled. What's it like to be a South Asian Muslim living in New York today? How does it differ from when you first came to this country?
Yeah, I’ve had at least a couple of friends who have been pulled off planes and questioned. One of them was harassed and threatened by a group of firefighters shortly after. Both of them are US citizens, born and raised here. Over the years various friends have been questioned and harassed. And in the immediate aftermath, people told me that getting on the subway was nerve wracking because so many angry eyes were watching.

It’s never been easy being a Muslim in the US, Muslims have been stigmatized and demonized since at least the 70s. I don’t feel like its very different pre and post. The most significant difference has been greater solidarity amongst various Muslim and minority communities and increasing involvement in politics. Friends who felt distanced from their ethnic or religious communities before now feel a very strong link to them, a tie that encourages political participation, that demands protest and resistance.

This is a hard question for me to answer because (a) thankfully nothing has happened to me directly and (b) I have lived in the US for the last 15 years and I myself have changed dramatically in my time here, my relationship to Islam has changed. New York is also the most beautifully tolerant city in the US. People live and work, are forced to interact with people of other ethnicities, races, cultures every day. Inadvertently, people are less ignorant of and become more accustomed to difference. I was never surprised that a majority of the violent reprisals against Muslims (and unfortunately Sikhs) happened outside of New York.

How do you feel about the way Muslims are depicted by the media?
It’s upsetting and insulting to see Muslims reduced to fundamentalism and terrorism. There are many Muslims, religious and otherwise, who are peace loving, liberal and tolerant. These Muslims rarely get featured in the media. It is also annoying that Islam is presented as the scapegoat for struggles that are political in nature, that political terrorists are presented as religious terrorists.

This move does a double violence, it erases and belittles the particularities of the political struggle that certain populations are engaged in while simultaneously demonizing an entire religion. And once demonized, then everything a Muslim does that is different is seen as suspect.

You’re currently studying art but you also have a Master of Science from Johns Hopkins in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology. How did you get from there to here?
As a kid I liked to draw and paint and when I got to the US and had the opportunity to take art classes at school, I did and really enjoyed them. At college, although I was decidedly pre-med, I was curious and eager to explore what else was out there. Unfortunately, Johns Hopkins didn’t have a very strong studio arts program. What it did have was a strong Art History department.

I took the intro survey my freshman year and was hooked. By the time I graduated I was just a semester of German short of a major. I pondered Art History graduate school at the time, but still had my mind set on science and specifically something medical or health related. I come from a family of doctors, a certain degree of public service is ingrained. I decided to explore public health instead.

Although I enjoy science, the longer I worked in it the more I realized it was not for me and finally I decided to take the plunge into the unknown and try my hand at art history instead. Science never excited or overwhelmed me the way a great work of art or film does. Also science, and particularly medicine, is a fairly conservative field.

I, on the other hand, am a little anti-authoritarian and most definitely liberal. I feel more comfortable in the art world. After all even the most conservative elements of this world depend on all the eccentric, anti-authoritarian artists for their living.

Are you going to try to blend the two disciplines?
Having operated in both worlds, what frustrates me the most is how easily and irresponsibly inhabitants of each world choose to write off the other as completely inaccessible to them - there is no curiosity, no desire to explore. I’m definitely interested in blending the two and there are artists out there who use the knowledge and techniques of the biological sciences in their art works.

Working in science gave me a different perspective on creativity. Scientific disciplines are often presented as being non-creative, although to be done well a significant degree of creative thinking is necessary. At earlier points in history, before professions and fields became so differentiated, the scientist, artist and philosopher were often the same person, intelligence and creativity could and should be applied to every aspect of human life.

An interest in contemporary Indian art led to your involvement in the current show up at the Queens Museum of Art and co-presented at the Asia Society called Edge of Desire:Recent Art in India. What are some of the themes currently being explored by Indian artists?
I should first point out that the current show is not a survey of contemporary Indian art. Although it includes works by many key contemporary artists there are many who aren’t included. But its still a landmark show and will hopefully expose contemporary Indian art and these incredible artists to a new audience in the US.

India is the world’s largest democracy. It was founded as a socialist democracy and most artists there still have strong Leftist/Marxist politics. Unlike the West, where certain dogmatic forms of high modernism required art and politics to bifurcate, this separation has never been possible in the Indian context.

So a lot of what contemporary Indian artists deal with is political, responding to the growing fascism and religious fundamentalism that accompanied the rise to power, in the 90s, of the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. This rise to power resulted in open compromises of India’s democratic and secular principles and has led to recurring episodes of extreme violence along sectarian lines, often state sponsored, resulting in terrible atrocities against minority populations in India, most notably against the Muslims. Many of the works in the show are artistic responses, memorials almost, to episodes of violence that devastated cities or regions of India, like Bombay in 1992-93 and Gujarat in 2002.

On the other hand, India’s economy, after being closed and carefully state controlled for the first four decades post-independence, was opened up in the early 90s and this along with the introduction of satellite TV and the Internet has completely transformed Indian life, politics, culture etc. A lot of the artists in this show are addressing these issues, examining the various ways in which the processes of globalization, the introduction of multinationals, the move towards a commodity driven consumer economy have affected life in India.

This change in Indian culture and media has also led artists to explore untraditional media and a lot of the work is installation and video. Also included alongside the metropolitan, urban artists are pieces by folk artists, working in a ‘traditional’, naïve idiom. These practices, considered by many to be dying art forms are still alive, vibrant, topical and contemporary in subject matter.

You also recently went to India on a grant…
It was great to go to India, meet and converse with many of these artists and experience first hand the spaces and conditions that inspire the work I had been seeing in the Contemporary South Asia galleries in New York, like Admit One, BosePaciaModern and Talwar.

I was also blown away by the strength of their convictions: political, in that they choose to continue to live and produce work in India, committed to preserving the democratic and secular ideals of the nation and to their vocation and craft, many of the facilities I saw were sparse compared to art schools here yet these artists committed their lives to art, producing work that holds its own in international arenas, teaching successive generations, producing and sustaining a progressive art community in India.

In conjunction with the Indian art show, there is a great companion show at the Queens Museum of Art, called Fatal Love: South Asian American Art Now, which brings together a diverse group of artists of South Asian origin based in the U.S. There is a burgeoning South Asian culture scene in America, with New York at its epicenter. There is an increasing South Asian presence in literature, most notably, but also in film and other media, theater and increasingly in the visual arts. It is the presence and vibrancy of this scene that drew me to New York.

Another focus of your studies is Bollywood cinema. What is Bollywood cinema?
Bollywood is a blanket term used to refer to Indian popular films, the products of the most prolific film industry in the world. It’s products are exported and watched around the world and have become increasingly visible in the West, supported by significant South Asian diaspora communities in the US, Canada and the UK.

In addition to the films in Hindi, there are also many films produced in the regional languages of India. Most Indian film scholars use ‘Bollywood’ to describe a particular type of cinema that appeared in the 90s, an effect of globalization. These films, which have been responsible for increasing the success and visibility of Indian popular film in the West, focus on the Indian family, on romance and nostalgic longing for lost homeland.

How did it start?
Film in India has a long history. The Lumiere brothers’ early films were shown in Bombay to packed audiences shortly after they were shown in Paris. The first fully Indian feature film was produced in 1913. As might be expected, a film industry almost a century old has gone through many dramatic changes. The earliest films were mythologicals, retelling in cinematic form the ancient stories of India’s gods and goddesses. Special effects were used in these films to show the miracles associated with the gods.

Film scholars suggest that many of the unique features of Indian popular cinema, the song and dance routines, the intermingling of various genres, the melodrama and romance, the preference of star over role, are derive from earlier forms of urban entertainment in India, specifically the Parsi theater, and also have links to folk performance traditions, such as picture recitation and devotional plays.

These conventions have been part of the tradition for so long that now they are necessary for success - the audience expects it. There is a film festival at the Walter Reade theater at Lincoln Center in April which will showcase the films of Amitabh Bachchan, Indian popular cinema’s biggest star. A great opportunity to watch some classics and to see how Indian cinema has changed since Amitabh, who is still acting today, first appeared.

Do you think Indian cinema has helped or harmed the image of women in Indian society?
These films often reinforce traditional Indian family values, i.e. conservative values, which place women in a particular, domestic role. And the roles available to women are often limited in scope, they play the love interest for the male hero and are often only included as sexual objects showcased in the song and dance numbers. This is changing though, there are more strong female characters appearing in these films, which I think reflects the changing status of women in both the film industry and in Indian society.

You're also on the steering committee for the Rasa Theater, an off-Broadway theater company whose objective is to project the South Asian and South Asian-American experience on the mainstream stage. How difficult was it to get it going?
It was easy and not easy. My wife is a co-founder of the company which is how I got involved. The point of the company is to provide South Asian theater professionals, actors, playwrights, directors, etc., with opportunities and spaces in which to develop their skills, develop and present characters and stories that challenge the common stereotypes of South Asians, the cab driver, the convenience store/newsstand owner, the terrorist. And in New York there is a small but vibrant community of such artists and these artists are incredibly talented, committed and generous with their time and energy. So finding the talent and the material was never a problem. That aspect was easy, the difficult part was raising money.

It’s difficult to get a non-profit going because you are required to produce work for a couple of years before you can officially apply for non-profit status and become eligible for grants. So you have to produce without any recourse to public funds. We started off throwing a lot of fund raising parties and lots of people came out and supported us. And as with any start up we hit up friends and family and had to invest in the company ourselves. New York’s also a tough city, there is so much competition and everything is so much more expensive. But a company such as ours might also have been impossible in any other city but New York, which provides us with both a strong theater going audience and a large South Asian community to draw from.

What kinds of projects are they up to?
We have participated in the Lark Theatre’s South Asian Playwrights Festival for the last few years. In addition, we have presented a number of staged readings, which although not full productions, are extremely useful tools for playwrights, allowing them to see their work performed by professional actors. It helps them judge how successful the dialogue, pacing and structure are.

We put on our first off-broadway production last year, which consisted of two one acts, an adaptation of a little known Eugene O’Neill piece called the ‘Abortion’ and an original comic piece called ‘The End of the Apurnas’ by Sarovar Banka. We also participated in the city-wide Vijay Tendulkar Festival last year, which showcased the work of one of India’s greatest modern playwrights. Currently we are developing a piece to be presented at the Queens Museum of Art in conjunction with the Fatal Love show. And as always, we’re trying to raise money.

If someone was visiting you from out of town this weekend and was interested in checking out some art, what galleries, museums, etc. would you recommend they hit?
I would definitely recommend checking out Edge of Desire and Fatal Love. Also Greater New York 2005 at P.S.1 in Long Island City - not only is it a great museum but the last installment of this show in 2000 was incredible and many of the artists featured in that show have gone on to have significant careers. The new MoMA is a must. I would also recommend the New Museum of Contemporary Art, temporarily located in Chelsea, which has a show focusing on the East Village scene of the 80s. Also NYU's Grey Art Gallery which has got a fascinating show of twentieth century Arab commercial photography curated by two contemporary artists entitled Mapping Sitting: On Portraiture and Photography; it is simultaneously an art installation and a historical show. The Tim Hawkinson retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art is spectacular as well. People criticize it as being gimmicky but I’m a sucker for gimmicks that are that clever.

Give an example of something you witnessed or experienced that had you think "only in New York” or "I'm so glad I live in this city."
My “only in New York” “I’m so glad I live in this city” moments are often moments of calm. As much as I love the energy of this city, the times when I have consciously thought to myself, ‘I love this city’, are when the city is quiet, after a snowstorm, or late at night/early in the morning. At these times, I like to get myself a cup of tea, sit near a major intersection (Broadway and Houston is a favorite) or walk around and just feel the energy of the city change, as its slows down and goes to bed or as it gradually wakes up and comes to life.

Since this is the "city that never sleeps", tell us a good late night story.
I was once on my way back from a concert or a club and I was walking home and the sun was coming up and bakeries were making their deliveries. I came across a bag of bread just lying against the door of a fancy restaurant so I stole a baguette. I figured anyone who is that trusting in a city like New York deserved to be taught a lesson. Best bread I have ever had in my life .

Who is your favorite New Yorker (dead or alive) and why?
Tough question. Andy Warhol. He was so quintessentially New York. The original too cool hipster. I can’t imagine liking him though.

You're in a time machine that can take you back in time. What day in NYC history would you go back to?
I would probably go back to 9/11. I still wonder what it was like to be here when all that happened to experience it first hand. I wonder how that would have affected me differently. I also missed the blackout in 2003, that must have been a profound experience as well. You only really recognize how much the city does for you and to you when in some way or the other it stops functioning.

Billy's Topless is now a bagel shop, no more smoking in bars or restaurants, Times Square has been Disneyfied, what's next?
The Olympics are coming. As much as I recognize that they will bring a lot of business to the city for a summer they are going to make living in this city unbearably painful. And what’s worse is, I don’t even like watching the Olympics, they’re boring, too sanitary a sporting event for my tastes.

If you could change just one thing about New York City, what would it be?
The high rents, it is so difficult to live as a student in this city. You have all of this incredible opportunity but can’t afford to participate in much of it. My most cynical plan, which has been soundly criticized by everyone I have discussed it with, is to cut Central Park in half and building housing in its place. The extra apartments might bring rents down a little. As much as I love Brooklyn and my neighborhood, part of me would love to be able to move back into Manhattan and walk everywhere again.

What source(s) do you turn to for news?
I hate the fact that almost everyone I know gets their information from two sources, the New York Times and the New Yorker, so I’m a bit snobby and refuse to read either of those publications. I also can’t stand American news in general, it is to local and I grew up reading world news. Instead, I read the news on Yahoo and BBC and the Village Voice, especially for the horoscope.

Bloomberg, 4 more years?
I’m not sure. As much as I feel the need to dismiss him because he’s conservative, he hasn’t done much to truly piss me off, not like his predecessor. Although he did allow the Republican National Convention to come here and disrupt my life and sanity for a week. I’d have to see who was up against him.

It's the year 2024, what do you think will be the hot topic of discussion at the water cooler?
Britney Spear’s most recent face lift.

If you could ask God one question, what would you ask?

Interview by Raphie Frank and Mindy Bond