FannBoy Friday: Abbas Rattani, Founder of MIPSTERZ

FannBoy Friday: Abbas Rattani, Founder of MIPSTERZ

Abbas Rattani is an acclaimed process artist, academic and founding director of MIPSTERZ with over a decade of experience advocating for individuality and self-expression in minority communities. MIPSTERZ is an arts and culture collective focused on enabling and amplifying Muslim creative expression in the arts through collaboration, incubation, and showcasing. MIPSTERZ’s work has been exhibited at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, THE SHED, Tribeca Film Festival, Carnegie Hall, Museum for the City of New York, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and Duke University. 

Abbas and I have been in touch since the 2015 release of my band The Kominas’ album “Stereotype.” I credit him with the success of our indie hit “Eid Mubarak,” which gets played worldwide at least twice a year. 

(Abbas’ interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

We are an organization that really champions individual self-expression. We think that’s from God

– Abbas Rattani

Shahjehan: What are MIPSTERZ’s plans for 2023?

Abbas: We got this generous grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic art in 2022 to build out our Muslim Futurism concept. And there was a lot of artwork that came with it: Exhibits, programming, films, music, etcetera. And in 2023 we ended up joining NEW INC. They have this program that helps cultivate and incubate emerging artists, so we spent a good portion of the first part of this year building out and setting goals for the upcoming year. And one of the things that we realized was that when we were working on the Muslim Futurism project, we were so focused on creating artwork, getting Muslims to collaborate and create works together. But one of the things that we could have done a better job of, and what is core to MIPSTERZ, is the more community-focused kinds of things. 

MIPSTERZ came about completely accidentally because we were trying to create an alternative to the niche groups that were in New York City at the time. … There were the corporate Muslim groups, the doctors group, the engineering group, and so we were like, “We don’t really fit in in any of these spots. How can we just be artists together?” And I think the community is what sustained us — what helped us grow. 

And then we became a digital community. We started doing artwork together and we just leaned so heavily into doing the artwork and making artwork together. Now, I think in 2023 and beyond, we want to get back to that community stuff. So we have this show that we’re doing now every single month called The Good Fun Muslim Friends Show. It’s a variety show that showcases folks in the community, but it’s really an excuse for all of us just to get together on Zoom and have a conversation, hang out and be kind of like we were during the pandemic. We [have been] able to meet with people all over the world: we have MIPSTERZ from France tuning in, from Japan, from Bolivia, from the U.S. and all of us are in this space once a month. We had our first show at the end of April, which was pretty rad. 

Shahjehan: Talk to me about your specific role within the organization. What’s your day-to-day like?

Abbas: I basically assumed this role as a director essentially, using the classic nonprofit terminology or art collective terminology, and I help guide the rest of the team. We have a creative director, art director, operations person, admin, and I kind of let the art director do whatever the heck they want. And the art director role changes every so often. We have Ayesha Jemila Daniels, Shimul Chowdhury, Sara Alfageeh, [we] previously had folks like Layla Shaikley, and I’m just there to kind of support and get them resources. If they have a project in mind, my role or goal is to figure out, “Okay, how can we get the right Muslim creatives on board with this project? Who do we bring on board? How do we get the funding? How do we … make this thing a reality?”

[Between 2017 and 2020]  Sara Alfageeh was our art director, creative director and she had the idea of making this multi chromatic sci-fi montage, the Alhamdu Muslim Futurism film that ended up going to Tribeca Film Festival. And the first thought I had was like, “Okay, this is gonna cost a lot of money. How do we do this?” And so we shot a 30-second version of it with whatever we could scrap. And then we launched a Kickstarter and Kickstarter chose us as one of the “Projects We Love” category. As a result we ended up getting more funding for it and then I helped orchestrate the next phase in iteration. And then it was about 100 Muslims that were involved in making that project a reality. And so on the day-to-day, that’s really what I do: more administrative, operational things. And then once in a while, like a Rick Rubin, I will input something completely useless to the creative process and take some partial credit for it. Shout out Rick Rubin. 

Shahjehan: What’s something you are super proud of that MIPSTERZ has created or been involved with?

Abbas: I think the thing that I’m most proud of is our ability to just corral Muslim artists wherever they are and get them excited and amped about a particular project, as odd or wild as the idea initially may be. Sometimes I will reach out to an artist who I admire or think they’re out of our league, and they’re like, “Yeah, we’ll do it.” Case in point, you guys, The Kominas. We had known about you for a long time and when we did that show, like an NPR tiny desk thing

Shahjehan: I’ll never forget that show in Yusuf’s apartment!

Abbas: Exactly. And we were just like, “Hey, you might not know us, we’re nobody, but would you be interested in performing in this bedroom?” And we were expecting a no. We were expecting maybe the email would get lost or I don’t know what. … 

Another one of those moments was when Fatima Farheen Mirza wrote her epic novel “A Place For Us” and I just shot her an email being like, “Hey you have no idea who I am, but would you be interested in doing this reading at our show called Colonized Dreams?” And she was like, “Yeah, definitely.” And I was like, “Why? Why did you say yes?” And I think those are the moments that I’m most proud of. 

Those are [also] the moments that make me the most curious about this enigma of the group, you know? Because everybody is like, “Man, this name — the name of the organization — it’s too kitsch,” but at the same time, they’ll say yes to whatever the ask is. And that throws me for a loop every time. But it just is such a joy because it highlights to me that there’s a Muslimness, however it is defined by that creative, that unites us and links us in that creative world. 

When people ask  “What is MIPSTERZ?” or “What does MIPSTERZ stand for? What are the principles?” I think they’re alluding to a larger theological question, but we’re not a theological organization. We are an organization that really champions individual self-expression. We think that’s from God and that’s something that we all tend to agree on — the Muslimness, whether we recognize it or not and whether we name it or not. In some ways, we are inspired by the Islamic tradition, whether growing up in a Muslim majority country, whether being surrounded by it. It permeates our creative process whether we want to name it or not. And I think that the artists that have been the most open to collabing see it and recognize it without necessarily even having to say it or, or name it, you know? And I think that’s been such a beautiful process to manifest. In some ways, the dynamism of people’s relationship with Islam and being Muslim … has also been very meaningful. And I know this sounds like a bunch of abstract nonsense, but let me contextualize it.

So I will meet an artist earlier in their career. They’re like, “Yeah, I’m kind of Muslim. My mom is from Pakistan, my dad’s from Iran. … I don’t really think about it, but I grew up Muslim. But anyway, that’s not important. I play the qanun. I played some instrument from my dad’s country, but let’s focus on this.” And I’m like, “Yeah, sure, who cares? Let’s focus on that.” But then as we are jamming and as more and more hangouts happen where we’re bonding as human beings, there will be different Muslim artists that peel off and say, “Hey, I’ll be right back. I’m gonna go pray Maghrib. I’ll join you in a sec.” Or they’ll be fasting during Ramadan. And then these artists who once had a “whatever” definition of Islam or different connection of it are just like, “Wait, wait a minute, wait. I respect your cool. And you respect my cool. I respect you as an artist. You respect me as an artist, but you are really Muslim and you’re into this Islam thing. Maybe I didn’t give it a fair shake,” you know? 

And for them to have that dynamic process and not think of religion, or whatever religion represents, [as] an abstract entity, as a stagnant thing, as a thing that actually can hold one definition, has also been a remarkable study into what human beings are and how creativity in the arts has its own transformative language, in a way that reminds me of how Islamic mystics or Muslim Sufis communicate without really using words. They just communicate with their presence and with their being. And they have an aura about themselves that I think artists do too that really comes out in these moments.

Note: I didn’t say anything during our interview, but Abbas’ answer to this question gave me an immediate sense of peace and nostalgia.

Shahjehan: One thing I’ll ask a musician or an author or an actor is “When was the first time you wrote a song or the first time you were on a set or the first time where you felt like, ‘Oh, this is really something I can do’?” So from the MIPSTERZ perspective, when was the first time you felt like this was something really meaningful and viable?

Abbas: That’s a hard question because there were so many of those moments. … I think there was just a shock and surprise that we were even in [those] moment[s]. And I think there was a little bit of imposter syndrome because you tend to see certain kinds of people in those spaces and in those roles, like rich white people, you know? 

For example, we became musicians in residence at Zoo Labs in Oakland, and we were in this compound for two weeks, making new sonic waves, pun intended. And we were working and collabing with another artist in residence who happened to be Kanye West’s songwriter Malik Yusuf. You know, this guy has like six, seven Grammys  and he’s sitting next to us being like, “Yeah, you should restructure this song like this” and I’m like, “Am I really,  talking to Malik Yusuf right now?” and he is like, “Yeah, I’m Muslim, my kids are Muslim, and we’re  just jiving as artists in this environment.” And being in this space, we were just like, “Do we really belong here? You know, maybe we could be doing this. This doesn’t seem hard.” I mean, we’re doing the same things that Malik is doing. 

When we were on stage at Tribeca on the red carpet, I’m just like, “Really?” We kind of made this film not thinking that it was good enough for a stage like that or the Atlanta Film Festival or even Carnegie Hall. … As a New Yorker [we grew up with these] these institutions around us, but we never thought that this could ever be something we could do full-time or ever, you know? I think whenever we are in those moments, or find ourselves in those moments, I’m just like, “I think you guys sent us the acceptance email when you really meant the rejection email.” 

The third moment I will say is that event that Fatima Farheen Mirza did, her book reading at the Colonized Dreams. I remember the week before the show, the New York Times put out “10 Things You Need to Do This Weekend” and … we were on the list. … We were above the Meek Mill concert … and I’m like, that is probably the thing that everybody would wanna go to, not this random MIPSTERZ show. White people who take their cultural cues from the New York Times all showed up and it was this jam-packed thing at the Knockdown Center in Queens. I was just like, “Whoa. How did the New York Times even find out about this? Nobody reached out to them to my knowledge.”Those are the moments that I’m just like, “Maybe we should be the ones that are doing this.” It throws me for a loop every time

Shahjehan: Finally, who are two or three other creators, or in your case, other organizations, that are doing work in the American Muslim community that inspire you?

Abbas: One person definitely is Omid Safi of Duke University. He was a professor at UNC Chapel Hill when I was a student there. And I think he’s always just been not only an ally, but a sounding board for a lot of ideas. And I think he’s been somebody who’s been very consistent with that. And I think even up until now, if there are any moves that I think MIPSTERZ should make and I’m on the fence about how to go about it — like [are there] Islamic justice principles being espoused here? — I will reach out to Omid Safi and say, “Hey, can I pick your brain about this thing?” He’s been a very big influence in that regard. 

Another person has been Zahra Ayubi. She’s a professor at Dartmouth and I think she studies gender ethics and Islam. And she was my TA in college and we just had this great mentor-mentee relationship. Being somebody who is a feminist, I want to make sure that these ethical principles are coming at it from the appropriate lenses and frameworks, and one that’s well-rooted in larger justice and ethics principles, so I will pitch ideas or have Zahra be a sounding board for a lot of things. She’s recommended so many interesting folks and put folks on our radar that I don’t think we would have known otherwise, like one of her students who’s now a PhD at Yale, Iman AbdoulKarim. She has this podcast  that she just started called “Name It.” She was a student at the time at Dartmouth under Zahra and she was like, “You need to talk to her. She is the future of Islamic studies.” And she was right. We’ve maintained a great relationship with her as a result. 

And then the list wouldn’t be complete without a nod to Sara Alfageeh. She’s an illustrator, but much more than that: an entrepreneur, just a creative force, you know?. I remember meeting her when she was maybe a sophomore in art school here in Massachusetts at Lesley, and she ended up being the creative director of MIPSTERZ for three or four years and that was a pivotal moment that changed the course that we were going in. And even the artistic focus, the visual art focus, the illustration focus, she’s somebody who has just a very strong head on her shoulders. She’s stubborn in all the right creative ways that you expect from a creative person. And I think she’s somebody that still is making waves and determining the future of what contemporary Muslim art looks like and how to be successful in that space.

[As far as organizations] I will name one that isn’t Muslim, but has a strong affinity for Muslims: The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. They’ve really turned things around and focused heavily on enabling and taking chances on Muslim artists and Muslim arts organizations. It’s just amazing to see They have no reason to, other than the fact that Doris Duke was the daughter of James Buchanan Duke Tobacco Tycoon, and she just happened to be an orientalist that exotified Islamic art, like everybody did back in the day, but when she passed, [she left] an endowment for enhancing Islamic art and now they’ve expanded that to Muslim contemporary art. And I think that’s so beautiful. I think the only other organization that may be doing something like this is the Aga Khan Museum.

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