Bilawal Khoso (BK)
We have all experienced moments and emotions of feeling left out, out of place and more of a stranger than being welcomed. Whether moving to a new city, diving into a new challenge or taking on a new responsibility, we can all relate to those moments, likely on multiple occasions.
Now imagine experiencing these moments and not speaking the language as your first language, not having easy access to your favorite comfort foods and not being able to visit your family for months, if not years. This is a daily reality for many ISU students, like Muhammad Bilawal Khoso (BK).
In August of 2015, BK came to the U.S. as a 26-year-old from Pakistan. He was passionate about graphic design, and whose main goal was to learn more about the global perspective of design.
BK said the first time he felt out of place was at the airport when coming to the U.S., when airport security called him Muhammad (a common name in Pakistani culture that signifies religious heritage), rather than his given name, Bilawal, during a routine security check.
The stark reality of having an uncommon name, as well as looking different than the rest of those present at the airport and being looked at differently, became clear to him for the very first time that day at the airport. Since then, BK has tried to take every opportunity to increase awareness and understanding about himself and his experience as “out of place” international student.
This motivation charted the pathway for his master’s project. BK challenged himself to use his graphic design skills to inquire how the world could be a better place to live for everyone. In envisioning this, he asked himself, “What if design was not just ultimately destined for the landfill?” This idea provided the inspiration for his thesis project.
BK focused his efforts on creating a graphic design project that would engage in and with disenfranchised communities, giving them a voice by providing a platform and elevating their causes to celebrate the individual.
“Solutions in the world of design are above and beyond just aesthetics...but pertain toward cultural development, inspiration [and] social responsibility,” BK said.
From his experience, he was influenced to create a project where design not only was the created but developed “the meaning” behind the project. His hope was that the future of graphic design is not only aesthetically pleasing, but moves social construct and makes a significant impact to change behaviors, perceptions and understandings. BK’s vision was to ask the simple question of, “How can we all get along?” by sharing the stories of others.
So the creation of his project, GET, began. His mixed media installation project compiled the stories of individuals who do not make up a majority of the population, specifically including American Muslims, African Americans, the LGBTQA+ community, as well as international students from countries affected by travel restrictions.
Through stories about their lives, struggles and both personal and professional triumphs, BK aimed to negate the stereotypes and encourage people to eliminate the social constructs and preconceived notions by experiencing conversations through interactions with a physical project.
The end result was nine black and white portraits, 9’x9’ in size, showing only faces. With each portrait, a set of headphones allowed participants to hear the story of each person that was in front of them, larger than life.
One story is that of Abufalgha (i.e. Abu), who came from Libya to the U.S. to pursue higher education. He first studied in Pennsylvania and then moved to Iowa State for his graduate degree program, finding inspiration by the “melting pot” of Iowa State’s population. Abu shares two poignant stories. His first roommate was encouraged by his parents to ask for another roommate after reading Abu’s name. His roommate remained, however, and now they are good friends, even being welcomed to holiday meals with their families. Abu’s second story of adversity was when his parents couldn’t come to see him graduate from Iowa State due to the recent travel ban.
A second story introduces Graciela, whose mother fled to the United States when Graciela was a child: escaping civil war in Guatemala. Growing up with the fear of her mother being deported, Graciela graduated from West Point Military Academy. Her mother was not allowed to attend, as she did not have proper identification. Being deployed twice, Graciela wasn’t worried for her safety, but was more concerned with the loss her mother would have without the benefits military families receive. Upon her return, Graciela diligently worked to make her mother a U.S. citizen, where she had lived longer than Guatemala, but wasn’t allowed to become a citizen without proper paperwork.
“I wasn’t necessarily scared for my life...I was afraid of making the wrong move and exposing my mother was an illegal immigrant.”
Natasha, an Ames police officer, regularly receives calls from concerned neighbors requesting she break up seemingly-suspiscious activities. However, these activities often refer to a gathering of international students or minorities who are simply having a dinner party. Natasha is working to help people overcome diversity challenges, as she herself has faced the challenge of diversity when growing up with a Filipino father and a white, American mother. She uses her position as an officer to seek out and offer different views on racial justice, rather than dealing with fearful assumptions. She seeks to define where there are disparities and shortcomings in racial justice.
“Solutions in the world of design are above and beyond just aesthetics and corporate profits, but pertain toward cultural development, inspiration, social responsibility and voice of reason.”
As well as presenting his project through a public exhibition, BK spoke about GET at aTedX talk at Iowa State this semester.
BK will be graduating with a Master of Fine Arts degree this summer and will begin teaching at Graceland University as an assistant professor of graphic design, allowing him to continue inspiring and educating about the challenges that are faced by many in our world and the opportunities to overcome them.
The world is filled with so much diversity — diversity in culture, language and among individuals. No two people are the same, no matter if they live a world away or a block away. We each offer our own unique perspective on life through community talents and expertise. It is through embracing our diversity that we are most resilient and most sustainable.