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‘City of Faith’ exhibition highlights NYC’s various religions

Contesting the popular view that New York City is characterized by a high degree of secularism, the “City of Faith: Religion, Activism, and Urban Space” exhibition emphasizes that the essence of New York City cannot be comprehended without focusing on religion. Curated by Azra Dawood, the exhibition is taking place at the Museum of the City of New York. Comprised of various items including maps, portraits and interactive installations, the exhibition argues that the secularism that is believed to be prevalent in New York is actually covert Protestantism. Moreover, apart from the prevalence of Protestantism, it can be understood that Catholic and Jewish communities also play a significant role and South Asian religious communities can become extremely discernible and indistinguishable.

Religion News Service reports:

In popular culture, New York City is often portrayed as distinctly secular. But “City of Faith: Religion, Activism, and Urban Space,” a new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, suggests that the city — and the public spaces, scents, acts of solidarity and, yes, the hate crimes therein — can’t be understood without religion.

“I think religion is a subtext in the various spaces and conversations where we imagined it to be absent,” the exhibition’s curator, Azra Dawood, told Religion News Service in a recent interview at the museum. “And I’m really hoping that the exhibition surfaces some of the ways in which religion is actually a part of the city.”

With a collection of original portraits, maps and interactive installations (featuring curated scents and soundtracks), Dawood challenges New York’s nonreligious reputation, arguing that the city’s perceived secularism is really covert Protestantism. Against this backdrop — in which Protestantism dominates (via land, money and politics) and Catholic and Jewish communities have made inroads — South Asian communities can become both indistinguishable and hypervisible.

As a Muslim and South Asian woman, Dawood is personally familiar with this dynamic, and as an architectural historian, she often considers how religion shows up in concrete and visible ways.

“(Religion) is not siloed off in explicitly religious institutions, such as churches, synagogues, temples, mosques,” Dawood observed. “You find it in the city’s shared public spaces, on streets and sidewalks and waterways, foodways.”

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