MH: Your profession is not a very common one in the Muslim American community, why did you decide to get into art?
Well, I’ve always been naturally inclined towards the arts, and it was only a matter of time that I recognized the best thing I could do for myself was to use my gift in the best way possible — to create more opportunities for reflection, gratitude and beauty.
MH: Where do you find inspiration from for your art work?
Life and all the awesomeness of it. Ever since I can remember, I have been reflective of the human experience, from its chaos and despair to its magnificence and beauty. I’m always searching for insight and understanding and any simple event or moment can lead to the concept for my next painting.
MH: In Islamic history, there used to be a deep appreciation for art and it would have great significance to the degree that it would make a huge impact on the architecture of mosques, government buildings and household items. Today there seems to be a lack of appreciation of art and architecture in the Muslim community. As an architect and artist, how do you feel we can revive that appreciation?
Well, two things — First, I think the depreciation of arts in the Muslim-American community has something to do with the immigrant generation that came before us. Their focus wasn’t to bring about identity and change through arts and culture, but generally speaking, it was one of assimilating into American society, seeking higher education and creating financial opportunities for their families. Leading to my second point, I feel it’s up to our generation to use the privilege of our higher education and the roots that our parents laid down to integrate into society in such a way that we employ the arts to further refine and revive our cultural and religious identity. What does this mean in practical, tangible terms? For starters, it means that we employ and support in every way the talented professional Muslim artists who have been trailblazing the movement of bringing change through the arts for years now, even, and especially, if initially it was to just start beautifying their own personal worlds. If you need proof, just look up some of the great projects and work that some of these Artists have been creating and working on: El Seed and Karim Jab going global with their calligraphy graffiti and light calligraphy; Mustafa Davis and Ridwan Adhami — two of the most prolific photographers and talented brothers I know; Maryam Eskandari, a graduate of the Aga Khan Program in Islamic Architecture at Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology runs her own architecture business — Miim Designs; Tamir Diab, a Lighting Technical Director working in Visual Effects at WETA Digital, Ltd. has worked on two of the highest grossing films in Hollywood; Australian designer Peter Gould and typographer Tarek Atrissi have created award-winning designs with high profile clientele; Mark Gonzalez and Omar Offendum — two of the most remarkable spoken word and hip-hop artists and performers of our generation, and the list goes on. This is just a tiny drop in the ocean of talented Muslim Artists that exist who are dedicating their lives to the revival and recognition of the arts.
MH: Do you feel there is a revival in appreciation of art in the Muslim community?
Absolutely. I remember being at Islamic Conferences and being the only Artist present with a booth or an exhibit ten years ago, but now you go to these events and you have Artists headlining and giving speeches, and booths representing the creative fields all over the bazaar. My clientele population has changed drastically from parents and friends of parents commissioning me for work as a favor, to young professionals hiring me to design their marriage certificates, eid cards, or making custom paintings as gift or to be placed in their own homes, for example. Although our community has a long way to go, I’ve definitely seen a shift in mindset where art is being seen and appreciated less as commodity, and more as a service to society. If this much has changed in ten years, it’s pretty exciting to think of what the next ten years will bring on. I’m optimistic, and it’s a good time to be an Artist (though honestly — any time is a good time to be an Artist).
MH: What types of mediums do you most enjoy working with and why?
I love all mediums of paint — oil, acrylic and watercolor, but my absolute favorite is oil. I’ve found oil paints to require a lot more patience in the process of using them than other mediums, and each color mixes with the other — nothing is independent (at least the way I use colors). Each color informs the next one. I find there’s a lot of discovery and time for reflection instead of a focus on the end product because of this, and the painting gradually comes to reveal itself in the end. In fact, when I approach a painting, I never know what the end product will look like; I try to remain solid in my intention throughout the process and have faith that the painting will reveal itself in the end, inshaAllah.
MH: Your artwork can be described as contemporary. Are there elements within your artwork that draw inspiration from classical art or calligraphy?
Of course, any form of art really stems from an understanding of the traditional arts. I’d describe my work as conceptual, actually, and it stems more from my discipline and appreciation of proportion and structure because of my architectural background, and less from calligraphy, per se. When I first started painting, I drew very representational and literal works of art, and I was interested in being able to render a scene or image exactly as I saw it, and less as I experienced it. Over the years, however, my view of the world inevitably changed, and my experience in the architectural field led me to become more conceptual with my work. In other words, skill, technique and a good foundation in color theory were still vital to making a “good” painting, but a great work of art for me became one which mastered an expression of an idea from start to finish, on every level, instead of accuracy in visual depiction of a subject. If I captured my experience, then I considered my painting successful and complete (as much as one can be).
MH: Some say art is a way to express emotions and feelings. Has your artwork done the same for you? How has your art allowed you to express yourself?
Absolutely, all of my work is very personal to me, and essentially, it is my soul coming through. I learned how to express myself with colors and forms before I did with words, so painting and drawing have really just been a natural extension of my hands and my inner workings. Articulating emotions through words is an entirely different challenge. I think my work has evolved into more abstracted work particularly because of this — expression is so incredibly unique and personal, ambiguous and ever-changing, so all I can really expect is to be able to share it and hope that the viewer will bring his or her own interpretation to it. The goal isn’t for them to match their expression with mine, but to be catalyzed to express their own reaction in their own way.
MH: Some Muslim artists make the distinction between being a Muslim artist vs. an artist that just happens to be Muslim who is inspired by his/her faith. In your opinion is there a difference?
That’s a really great question — there’s really no wrong or right, but my opinion is that there is a difference. I attempt to live my life with the most consciousness that I can, so I try not to do or be anything just by default. While making “Islamic art” or paintings with Arabic calligraphy is not my focus as an Artist, I would most definitely call myself a “Muslim Artist” because my inspiration stems from my spirituality and consciousness of God. Having said that, I also don’t separate my identities of being Muslim, an Artist, or even a woman — they are all inherent to who I am and I don’t feel I’ve ever had to censor or filter myself because of any one of them. Alhamdulillah, my parents raised me in an open and nurturing enough environment, and although I experienced the typical American-Pakistani-Muslim identity conflicts from time to time, I never felt the need to express one identity over the other. I was always encouraged to be close to my heart and express my own ideas of who I was.
MH: What advice would you give to those who would like to pursue your career path?
The advice I would give to others, and myself, would be to create discipline in your life and put in the hard work to find your voice. The work that is truly interesting and has longevity is the work that is honest, and authentic, but none of it will come to surface without hard work and commitment to your art.