Milwaukee artists bring unheard voices into the spotlight

By Emily Julka | January 5, 2023


The art community is often seen as very insular with specific places that serve as hubs for the arts. These places often come to mind when thinking of art, but that does not need to be the case. Amal Azzam and Nayfa Naji are working to change this landscape piece-by-piece. They are the co-founders of Fanana Banana, an organization dedicated to featuring art that often goes unnoticed.

The goal of this project began with attempting to minimize the disparity between artists, “There’s a huge gap from an artist that is practicing to a professional artist that is featured in galleries… and so I think now our mission is how we can change that for ourselves and for other people, ” Azzam said. Bringing art away from the large hubs of art is only one part of their mission.

The other side of their mission is encapsulated in their name, Fanana Banana. “Fanana, in Arabic, means ‘artist,’ and then Banana just gave it that goofy twist to it,” Naji explained. The project began with shining a spotlight on Muslim or MENA artists, but the focus has shifted to sharing works from anyone that needs their work shared. They strive to have their shows be full of people viewing the art so the art can be properly shared. This also allows for the artists to get their works out to people who will often follow them on social media, and, in some cases, even purchase the artwork on display.

In sharing artwork, Azzam and Naji are also sharing stories that may have never been told without them. Their current exhibition is titled “Reflecting My Muslim Americanism,” and it, “Is a show that features local Muslim artists and it features their work and the way that they represent their own identity and the personal struggles or just stories of Muslims in America,” Azzam explained. This art is not just for Muslim Americans, as Naji explains, “It also benefits people who don’t know us, and it’s like they’re able to see us through art. It’s about a community and understanding.”


This work is part The Wisconsin Muslim Project from PBS Wisconsin, a project supported by the Doris Duke Foundation through the Building Bridges Program. The mission of the Building Bridges Program is to support national efforts, working with U.S. Muslims, to increase mutual understanding and well-being among diverse populations for the benefit of building stronger, inclusive communities.

Emily Julka

Emily Julka

Emily Julka is a producer and storyteller for the “Wisconsin Life” project. She tries to make the best of all four seasons in Wisconsin, and considers the Upper Peninsula of Michigan “definitely part of our state.”

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