Painting at Everett Community College offends and enlightens

The painting is displayed almost directly opposite the entrance of the Russell Day Gallery at Everett Community College.

It was the first thing Doaa al Maly, 19, saw when she walked in one week ago.

On a blue background, a Muslim woman holds a Quran in one hand and a machine gun in the other, a grenade strapped to her chest.

A row of minarets lines each side, while machinery from oil refineries borders the top and bottom.

“At first, I thought it was racial stereotyping,” said al Maly. Now, a week later, al Maly said she realizes the situation is more complex.

The freedom of expression that allows the painting to be in the exhibit, she said, is the same freedom that also allows her to educate others about Muslim women.

“Now I’m painting a new picture, with words, of how I feel,” she said.

The painting, a watercolor with mixed media, is part of an exhibit of work by former students of Russell Day, the art instructor for whom the gallery was recently named.

In a plaque near the painting, which is untitled, Marysville artist Joan Cates writes about Day encouraging his students to travel and explore the world for themselves. She studied at EvCC between 1951 and 1953.

Cates, 74, said most of her recent artwork is heavily based on current world events.

“Politically speaking, I’m not taking one side or the other,” she said.

“I have no intention of insulting anybody,” Cates said. “That wasn’t my purpose at all. The painting is just based on current events that were taking place.”

A portion of the painting uses newspaper clippings about U.S. action in Iraq as a background.

“If a person who does have issues with it would take a second look they can think about some other things in the painting,” Cates said. “There are oil refineries, and I put some symbols that would indicate it was Muslim, but really I was just winging it on that. I was hoping I was doing the right thing.”

Al Maly said the painting is unnerving because the woman in it looks so similar to her: olive skin, a scarf wrapped tightly around her chin.

“That’s an al-Qaida woman, not a Muslim woman,” she said, adding that the artist should have included text near the piece to explain its context.

School officials said the exhibit does not contain explanations of the pieces because the works are meant to recognize Day, the artists’ instructor, and the influence he had on their work.

“In a different kind of show, each work would probably have some kind of statement by the artist about what the piece is about,” said Jeanne Leader, the college’s arts administrator. “So I can see where that could be a frustration when someone is trying to understand a piece and what its intent is, because that’s literally not part of the show.”

Nearly 1,000 people have visited the show, called “Catalyst,” since it opened in January. There haven’t been any other complaints about the displayed artwork.

Talib al Maly brought his entire family to Everett in 1994 after escaping persecution in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. They are now U.S. citizens, part of Everett’s sizable Iraqi community.

When Doaa al Maly saw the painting, her first reaction was to angrily confront museum volunteers.

She said she was told the “painting was meant to be in support of the school’s Muslim women.”

“But why didn’t they show us caring for our families? That picture does not show what Muslim women are like.”

Later, al Maly returned to the gallery with her father, and they asked for Cates’ painting to be removed.

Museum officials refused, and both father and daughter on Thursday said they appreciate the reason it’s still on display.

Al Maly and her father decided to use the opportunity to speak out against Muslim stereotypes.

“The painting is right, because there are some women who have bombed themselves,” Talib al Maly said, in a mix of Arabic and English, while his daughter interpreted. “It has happened, and people in the U.S. know this has happened. But, it’s very, very rare.”

“The Iraqi women here in America, they’re the same as women from America,” he said.

Many of Everett’s Iraqis attended EvCC to learn English when they first arrived. Now, many of their sons and daughters, who grew up here, are getting their undergraduate work done, many focusing in the science and medical courses.

Muslim women’s head scarves make them targets for harassment, said Teena Ellison, a coordinator for the Everett Housing Authority who works in the Grandview neighborhood, where many local Iraqis live.

The painting feeds the worst fears of those who don’t know any of Everett’s Muslims, she said.

“Still, art is art,” Ellison said. “We can take this time to have a voice, and point out that the Iraqis in this community are not wearing bombs.”

Talib al Maly said he wants to invite Cates to his home so they can discuss the differences between Wahhabism, the extreme sect promoted in Saudi Arabia, that preaches violence, and the local Shia Muslims from Iraq.

“I live in this community,” Talib al Maly said. “I want people to know who I am. I don’t want to be lost in my own community.”

Cates said she would welcome meeting the al Maly family and learning about them.

“I’d probably come to have a cup of tea,” she said.

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or

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