Jefferson faculty member creates interfaith mural in South Philly.
Symbols of trust, hope, respect, rebirth, enlightenment, peace and harmony radiate from Rashidah Salam’s new mural at South Philly’s St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church and the Aquinas Center.
The powerful piece centers on a group of people of various ages, races, religions and physical abilities sitting around a table and sharing a meal. A warm and colorful floral pattern surrounds the scene.
“The mural reinforces the idea that regardless of religion, belief or tradition, every human deserves respect,” says Salam at the Sept. 24 dedication ceremony of “Dare to Understand.” “Our message for the mural is the continuing appreciation of diversity.”
Salam, a Jefferson faculty member in the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce and her husband, Jared Bader, spent over a year planning and working on the piece that takes up a full side of the St. Thomas Aquinas Independence Mission School. Importantly, they solicited input from the community on the mural’s look and feel, asked them to assist with some of the painting, and even had them serve as models.
“All the people in the mural are the same people they bump into and pass by on the street,” says Salam, a native of Malaysia, whose art has appeared at a Barnes exhibition and other notable galleries and shows.
Toni Nichelson is one such individual featured in the mural. When taking the stage, the Aquinas Center member joked, “I almost feel like I don’t belong up here—all I did was pose for a picture,” she says with a laugh.
“Our community is diverse and vibrant,” Nichelson went on to tell the crowd. “People from all over the world call South Philadelphia home. We are Muslim. We are Christian. We are Buddhist. We are neighbors, and when we work together on a project like this, we see how much more we have in common rather than what separates us.”
One of the 4,000-plus murals across the city, “Dare to Understand” fits in perfectly with the vibrant urban landscape, says Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia, which supported the project along with Interfaith Philadelphia, Radian and the National Endowment for the Arts.
“It speaks volumes about what art can do, how it can connect people, and how it can both reflect and generate community,” Golden says. “It’s quite magnificent.”
Rev. Monsignor Hugh Shields, a pastor with St. Thomas Aquinas, thanked Salam and Bader for listening to the community’s stories and suggestions and weaving them into a multicultural tapestry of different traditions, faiths and races.
He says he hopes that feelings of love, acceptance, compassion, understanding and support jump off the wall and into people’s hearts when they see their work.
“Let this mural be a light that guides us forward,” says Golden, moments before confetti rained down to close out the ceremony.