Earning raves at a young age at Lichtenstein Center for Arts

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PITTSFIELD -- The Lichtenstein Center for the Arts has staged a comprehensive art exhibit, "Islam Contemporary," featuring 24 local, national and international artists. The show includes 90 works of art -- photography, prints, paintings, jewelry, sculpture and more -- displayed in both the Lichtenstein gallery and in Pittsfield's new Whitney Center for the Arts.

Megan Whilden, the city's director of cultural development, said "Islam Contemporary" is the first show curated at the Lichtenstein to be approached about touring. It also earned a "Critic's Pick" honor in the Boston Globe.

In addition to the talented artists involved, Whilden said the show's success should be credited to its curator, 23-year-old Abdul Aziz Sohail.

Over the course of just a few short months, he has transitioned from being an art history graduate of Brandeis University to distinguishing himself as a rising contributor to the contemporary arts world. Not bad for someone who, up until June, had never written a press release before.

The tall, trim and stylishly groomed Sohail spent the summer living in North Adams and working at the Lichtenstein as an arts management intern through the Berkshire Hills Internship Program (B-HIP), a program of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

On Saturday, he went to Boston to give a talk as a guest statement writer for the "Sacred Pages" exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. He was one of 25 guests to comment on this unique exhibition of pages of the Qu'ran from the MFA's Islamic collection.

After a few more days in Boston, Sohail will begin a journey to his hometown of Karachi, Pakistan.

"This whole experience has really helped me grow a lot," said Sohail. "Working on this show and the show in Boston, you work to connect with people in your field. Now people want to connect with me. I feel I've become a part of this new career world."

Sohail graduated from Karachi Grammar School, an alma mater of the late Benazir Bhutto, the 11th Prime Minister of Pakistan. He also went to St. Patrick's High School in Karachi, which groomed future prime ministers and other well-known leaders. Sohail says applying to American colleges and universities is a big deal among his peers. It is seen as a way to travel and gain a wider world view, in addition to a strong liberal arts education. Brandeis awarded him a full ride through the need-based Wien International Scholarship Program.

He initially planned to study environmental science at Brandeis. The young Muslim then considered majoring in Islamic studies before finally declaring his major in art history, with a history minor.

This past spring, while still attending Brandeis, he combined his interests, working as an intern with the American Islamic Congress in Boston, serving as an arts and culture program assistant and curator.

While he was interning there, the Boston Marathon bombing happened. The FBI identified the two marathon bombing suspects as Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev, both of whom identified as Muslim. The American-Muslim community braced itself for a new onslaught of anti-Islamic sentiment.

At the start of his summer in the Berkshires, Whilden consulted Sohail about a theme for a contemporary show in August. In that moment, "Islam Contemporary" was born.

"It was just after the bombing in Boston and I thought it would help with [Islamic] perspectives," Sohail said.

The intern curated the juried art show by putting out a call through his connections to artists back home and to cultural organizations in the Boston area and the Berkshires. A response came from all over -- from Williamstown to Lahore, Australia to Morrocco -- and from artists Muslim and non-Muslim, emerging and established. In tandem with the exhibit, Sohail also helped to coordinate a documentary film screening, music concert and one of the first community Eid celebrations honoring the conclusion of Ramadan.

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"It's been one of the most spectacular shows that the Lichtenstein has had," Whilden said. "I was impressed with his ability to pull together so many artists. We could have never done so without Aziz. He's very smart and very curious."

That curiousity seems to be a driving force in Sohail's life. In September, he will return to Pakistan for the first time in two years, and will begin working as the assistant manager for the Oral History Project of The Citizens Archive of Pakistan.

"I hope to continue working in a cross-cultural context," said Sohail. "My objective is to break my own barriers."

Familiar with the comforts of Karachi, he's hoping to network with artists in Peshawar and Quetta, Pakistan, as well as artists in Afghanistan.

"Bringing Pakistani and Afghani artists together is a really important thing to do, even if it means pushing the boundaries of their own people," Sohail said.

The young man said the fact that he's returning to Pakistan has worried some of his newfound U.S. friends and colleagues. Right now, he's determined to do so, but also told The Eagle he hopes to apply to graduate school in a few years, and is already considering the Berkshires own MCLA and Williams College.

Sandra Burton, the Lipp Family chair of dance at Williams and member of the steering committee for the Lift Ev'ry Voice Festival, worked with Sohail while staging an exhibit at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts.

"We've grown really fond of Aziz, as we have of other B-HIP interns, and really appreciate the quality of his internship and level of enthusiam and interest he showed in what was going on in our community," she said, "But he has great opportunity at home as well."

She said Sohail visions are on the same wavelength as other artistic leaders who are pushing to move through cultural and societal boundaries.

"The New England Foundation for the Arts has been working with Pakistan and other countries, as well as the State Department, around building relationships and the exchange of arts and artists," Burton said.

Now, through Sohail, and all whom participated in and attended this summer's exhibit, Berkshire County has a stake in fostering these relationships, too.

Sohail said a lot has changed in Pakistan during his lifetime. Despite the ongoing violence, he said he's seen democracy taking more effect in the way elections are run, through a growing number of media outlets, and more emerging artists.

"I think some of the greatest art comes from times of tension," he said.

"I think a lot of people don't want me to go home, they're afraid for me, but I'm doing what my heart tells me to do," he said.

To reach Jenn Smith:
or (413) 496-6239.
On Twitter: @JennSmith_Ink


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