Ten blocks from campus, the art of Iraqi immigrant and Penn parent Mayada Alhumssi is on display

While many students engage with art through student performances and publications, one Penn student has a unique connection to art in the city: her mother. Mayada Alhumssi, the mother of College sophomore Zubaida AlQaissi, is showcasing her paintings at the Philadelphia Folklore Project Gallery in an exhibition titled “Iraqi Songs in Color.” 

Alhumssi is an artist and architect who moved from Iraq to Syria after the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, and then to America in 2012 to escape the civil wars in Syria. Alhumssi said her artistic interpretations of Iraqi folk songs serve to preserve her culture for the next generation in her community. 

“For my community, I want the new generation to know about these songs through my visual art,” Alhumssi said, “[and] to revive these songs in my painting.” AlQaissi said, for her mother, art was a “lifeline” and a means of cultural connection — one that has also found an audience among other members of the Iraqi community in Philadelphia. 

“I think it’s been really important for all the Iraqi families that we know, to enjoy her art as a way to connect,” AlQaissi said. “Again, it’s pretty difficult to connect with culture once you’re in a different place.” AlQaissi also said the Philadelphia Folklore Project, which works to sustain cultural and artistic practices of people in Philadelphia, provided support to Alhumssi by helping her apply for grants. 

Although Alhumssi had experimented with painting folklore songs before this, PFP’s interest encouraged her to create the collection that makes up the exhibition today. AlQaissi and her mother are not the only connection Penn has to PFP. According to PFP Director Selina Morales, the work of Penn Ph.D. students studying folklore and folklife played an important role in PFP’s conception 30 years ago. 

“Those early recordings, ethnographic recordings, photographs, stories, documents about family businesses, about community-based celebration formed the foundation of the organization that we have now,” Morales said. PFP Director of Programs Toni Shapiro-Phim said this connection with Penn remains today. 

Asian American Studies professor Fariha Khan sits on the PFP board, and work-study students from Penn have helped the organization through tasks such as transcribing interviews. “I have a lovely relationship with all of them,” Shapiro-Phim said. “We have a work-study student from Penn right now.” 

AlQaissi said that Alhumssi plans to continue working with PFP, and in the future, possibly plans to create art about Iraqi traditional clothing. “It becomes this thing that we can hold on to that is tangible and that reminds us of culture for people who are displaced, dispossessed,” AlQaissi said, on her mother’s art. “It’s pretty powerful”. 

By Gianna Ferrarin

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