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Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824–1904),
The Muezzin , 1865
oil on canvas, 32 x 25 1/2 in.
Bequest of Francis T. B. Martin, 1995.37. Photograph © Bruce M. White, 2019

Through exhibitions, permanent collection acquisitions, and programming, Joslyn is working to elevate and amplify perspectives that historically have been underrepresented in the galleries. The Museum recognizes the potential of interpretation to highlight the diverse histories, beliefs, and practices embodied in works of art. With OMAHA SPEAKS, we look to broaden the conventional interpretation of objects in our permanent collection by introducing commentary from leaders in our community.

Ferial Pearson, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Teacher Education, University of Nebraska at Omaha

The story of the first muezzin, Bilal ibn Rabah, is one of courage. Born in Mecca, he was a slave from Habasha, modern day Ethiopia. One of the first converts to Islam, he was tortured by the man who owned him, refusing to denounce his new faith. Bought and freed by Abu Bakr, who was sent by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), Bilal began the tradition of sounding the call to prayer from a rooftop. It is a figure in this tradition that the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme has depicted here.

When I study The Muezzin, I feel pride that my Islamic faith and the land of my East African ancestors is represented in a painting in Omaha. I also feel discomfort with Gérôme’s cultural appropriation, as he cobbled together tropes of Cairo and Islam into an inaccurate depiction of a city and a faith. Inaccurate depictions of Muslims and Black human beings have perpetuated the type of misconceptions that have led to Islamophobic and anti-Black hate crimes here in Nebraska where this painting is displayed, as well as in France, where Gérôme painted it. I feel hope that those who read this label will bring understanding, acceptance, and love towards the Bilal ibn Rabahs of today.

Dr. Ferial Pearson (Mama Beast) is a mother, activist, author, educator, speaker, poet, comedienne, cook, and citizen of the world. As a Kenyan Indian Muslim immigrant queer disabled woman of color, she is passionate about Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Accessibility, and Kindness. She has received national and local awards for her work, authored two books, and spoken at TEDx Omaha. Her goal is to make sure you know that you are loved and that you are enough.

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