I established Crescent Arts back in March 2001. My primary aim was to produce contemporary Islamic artwork that reflected the trends of British Muslims. As I ventured out to exhibit and promote my artwork in various galleries and events I gained a shocking realisation that there was a great void of knowledge and many misconceptions about the Islamic faith amongst non-Muslims. Not only where the pieces of artworks being appreciated for there aesthetic qualities, but there where providing an insight into Islamic cultures and belief's. With this experience I decided to take Crescent Arts in a new direction, as a vehicle to create awareness, understanding and tolerance. Little that I could foresee that this decision was profoundly appropriate due to the events of September 11th.

The sense of taking action was immense. On October 15th 2001 Crescent Arts and the Rotherham Churches Tourism Initiative staged a ground breaking exhibition of Islamic Art displayed in a Church and to my knowledge the first of it's kind. The event was called Faith to Faith and it generated an overwhelming positive reaction from the general public. Muslims who never stepped in to a church viewed the exhibition and it provided Non Muslims an insight into the commonalities between Christianity and Islam. People came up to me and said that I did a courages thing, but a humbly replied “if this modest gathering of shapes and colours can bring people together, then I have achieved my goal. Word spread of this unique event, so much so that I appeared in a national exhibition for Islamic Awareness Week in 2004. The theme of 'Your Muslim Neighbour', which seeks to highlight the valuable contributions made by Muslims from all walks of life to British society.

Since the Faith to Faith exhibition I have gone on to providing workshops in schools and youth clubs where the focus is to educate pupils about Islam through the medium of art. The workshops have a duel approach on one hand if the workshop is held in a mainly ethnic area and the majority in attendance are young Muslims, I focus on the importance of being a British Muslims and asked them to produce artwork that conveys a sense of identity and at the same time portraying myself as a positive role model. And on the other hand if the workshop is held in a insular white working class area the focus is commonalities between faiths. I can remember one incident where I was asked to a workshop in a village in Barnsley, which was former coal mining town. High unemployment and the prospects was bleak for most young people who have never socially encounter a person form a ethnic background. So holding a Islamic art workshop in this area I thought the chances of success was slim. I can remember vividly as I enter the room with 20 white teenagers and I could hear whispers of “ he's a Paki” and my response was “ well you know the meaning of Paki means clean as in Paki-Stan Clean-Land. “So call me a Paki because I am clean. I thought it was good ice breaker and the atmosphere in the room thawed. I went on explaining that I was born in this country and even though I'm though my faith is different culturally I'm interested in the same things as them, similar tastes in music, fashion, films and so on. The conclusion was that at first they saw me as someone different a person that they could not relate to , but at the end the differences didn't matter I was simply an artist teaching them how to be creative, but they still couldn't pronounce my name so they fondly called me Zed and it kind of stuck with ever since.

As I gained notoriety word spread to organization like the South Yorkshire Police Force where I was commissioned to produce their first ever official Eid Card in 2004. The SYPF thought it would be a good way of engaging with the local Muslim community. The great thing was I had creative freedom on what to design. The result was a digitally produce fictional image that conveys a mosque in a residential area with a police bicycle parked outside. By using a police bicycle and not a motorize vehicle was to portray a more sociable side of the police force. The design included a post box , which highlights that the scene is in the UK, and to show a sign of cooperation, the street is aptly named “Hope Street”. It was well received by both the police and the Muslim community so much so that design was used for a poster campaign. The strap line read “Engaging with our faith communities”. The success of the Eid card lead on to me working on another design project with the Police, but this time they wanted me to put together a multicultural/multi faith calendar. Again I was allowed creative freedom and the brief I set myself was to fuse visual elements of the police force with cultural elements of a minority. The calendar was sent through out the region to places of worship, business and organisations. The strap line read “many faiths, many cultures, one team. Again it was well received by everyone concerned.

As time went by I continued to produce art and developing workshops for educational purposes. Then In early 2006 I was contacted by an academic from Sheffield University: Dr Kate Phal. She was interested in me being part of a project that focused on the personal history of Pakistani Muslims families in Rotherham. Initially I was asked to design a website and visuals presentation to be incorporated into the final exhibition, but my involvement developed into an advisory role on the project. From a personal standpoint I was keen with this project to get the right message across, an opportunity to normalized and bridging perceived gaps about how British Muslims families live their day to day lives. It was also an opportunity to build a history of archives for future generation of Asian Muslims because at the moment it is difficult for past and present generation to trace back their family history through photographs and documentation. Five families participated and provided valuable information, which culminated in an exhibition called “Ferham Families” on the 14th March 2007 at the Rotherham Art Gallery. One memorable comment came form a family member who said “This exhibition and the website was my gift for my children and my children's children, so they can learn of past generation of our family's history. Subsequently The data from the Ferham Familes exhibition was transferred to an educational resource pack called Every Object Tells A Story in the form of a website in 2008, which is used around the world and in 2009 the research for the Ferham Families project and my artwork appeared in the University journal “Moving Worlds”. Unlike the The Faith to Faith exhibition where I was focusing on the spiritual commonalties the Ferham Families project was getting cross the commonalities trough social issues and I thought there was no reason why that Crescent Arts can produce works that conveys this, another facet so to speak.

Through the years I feel that Crescent Arts has provided an unique experience for those who wish to gain knowledge about the Islamic faith and also give an insight on how UK Muslims have integrated into British society. I would like to hope that I could carry on making a difference in bringing people together because being brought up in a small northern town like Rotherham the cultural divisions are easily witness, which make my determination to carry on with my artwork strong. It has always been my intention that Crescent Arts not be a religious organisation , but an Art group that create cultural awareness and understanding through visuals, exhibition and events. In my past experiences, establishments like the South Yorkshire Police Force value my advice through design and how that could be used to engage with the Muslim community. As an artist the work that I produce is not something I have to do, but is something I want to do. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than going through the creative process of visualising it in my imagination a design or and image and transferring that on to a canvas for people to appreciate and to make a personal impact.

Zahir Rafiq

Artist / Director