Alison Kysia: Anti-Muslim Bigotry and the Healing Power of Art

September 17, 2021

By Meredith Watkins

In a virtual Wednesdays at the Center presentation, multimedia artist and grassroots educator Alison Kysia shared the stories and images behind her socially engaged art project titled, “99 Vessels: The Muslim Women Storytelling Project.”

Pinch pots of the 99 Clay Vessels project
Pinch pots of the 99 Clay Vessels project

The project began in 2017, when, as a response to her sustained experience of anti-Muslim bigotry, Kysia created a series of 99 clay pots to represent the 99 names of God in Islam. Each pot possesses its own unique shape, size, and fire marks while belonging to the whole, representing the Islamic principle of tawhid, the diversity of all encapsulated in one.

As the 20th anniversary of September 11th drew near in 2021, Kysia realized the project’s potential in representing and healing the bigotry other Muslim women have faced in the post-9/11 era. In collaboration with Homayra Ziad, Director of the Program in Islamic Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Kysia expanded the project to include a curated collection of premodern and contemporary poetry, centering upon the theme of clay, fire, and water as metaphors for spiritual transformation that is common in Islamic poetry.

Kysia and Ziad are also working with psychotherapist Sabrina N’Diay to begin a series of small group storytelling workshops for Muslim women. In the workshops, 99 women will share their experiences of bigotry in a safe and compassionate environment, and then create a work of art to represent their story, much like Kysia has done with her pottery. “As Muslims and women, many of us have been through traumatic experiences that we have not had the time or community space to reflect upon and process,” Kysia said, “The storytelling workshops offer an opportunity to reflect on these experiences out loud in a community of compassion.”

The stories, poems, and art created for this series will be included on the 99 Clay Vessels website, which will serve as an online art exhibition, healing resource, publicly accessible learning tool, and historical archive.

Following this virtual event, Kysia traveled to Duke to meet with first-year students in the Geopolitics & Culture Focus Cluster. Additionally, she hosted a ceramics workshop with DukeCreate, where participants created similar clay pinch pots that Kysia will use to build a larger memorial for her project.

This event was sponsored by the John Hope Franklin Center, the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies, and the Duke Islamic Studies Center. Wednesdays at the Center is a topical weekly series in which scholars, students, artists, journalists, and others speak informally about their work in conversation with Duke students, staff, faculty, and community members. Check out the upcoming events of Fall 2021.

99 Clay Vessels: The Muslim Women Storytelling Project. Full event video