Photo credit: ArtbySaba
it is … women and women of color who are challenging the status quo through art, music, writing, fashion, etc. – Saba Barnard
Today I’m featuring an interview with Saba Barnard, a rising Muslim American artist. Last month, while conducting research for “March on Women” series I came across many talented women and learned more about them, and while doing so I also came across Mrs. Barnard. I learned of her when I read Thrival Room‘s article 32 Photos That Hope to Change the Way We Look at Muslim American Women— must-read article highlighting great American Muslim women.
Saba Chaudhry Barnard, is a gifted artist and a first -generation Pakistani Muslim American woman. Her art is a reflection of her Pakistani and Muslim background in America which she uses in her portraits in a way to undefine labels that are put on American Muslims, particularly women.
I reached out to Saba, to interview her and get to know more about her Technicolor series– which she is calling subjects for. Find out more below.
Define your art. What makes it unique?
My art is an ever-evolving thing that consumes my life…a visual expression of the ideas that I obsess about on a daily basis. Up to this point, the work has pretty consistently dealt with identity within a social context – considering race, religion, and gender within an American context. I suppose my art is unique to me in that every one of my choices in my art grows from my own life and experiences, even though I’m painting portraits of other people. I do, however, feel that although it’s unique, it is one part of a vast group of women and women of color who are challenging the status quo through art, music, writing, fashion, etc.
What aspects/inspirations of your Pakistani Muslim background do you incorporate in your pieces?
In my most recent series, An-Noor, I feel that the aesthetic draws from South Asian textile designs and traditions. One of the strongest attachments I have with Pakistani culture is the amazing clothes. My use of rhinestones, glitter, sequins, speaks to the kind of beautiful ornamentation that is typical in Pakistan and India.
There are also geometric patterns and other references to Islamic art, and the imagery in one of the paintings is derived from ayat An-Noor. And of course, all the women I am painting are Muslim women, so that’s certainly there.
I noticed on your blog that you take inspiration from famous painting such as Arnolfini portrait, and portraits of Mary, mother of Jesus. Why these famous paintings? What research did you do or do you do?
I look at a lot of art history books and do a lot of Google image searching. There are quite a few reasons that I reference these famous paintings. I feel that tradition has a lot of power, and I wanted to use the strength of these iconic postures and their grandeur. It also gives the viewer a feeling of recognition, so instead of being confronted by something entirely new, it feels familiar. I like the comfort that there is in that. But still, I am putting women and women of color into these images, where previously they were not represented. So it’s a new interpretation that very freely manipulates and transforms iconography for my own purposes.
Maesta, my interpretation of the Madonna Enthroned, is packed full of this overlap of traditions. Mary exists in Christianity, of course, but she also exists in Islam (as Maryam), and traditionally is depicted with a long gown or robe and a headscarf, much like the woman in the painting is dressed. There is a literal layering of an Islamic pattern on top of the stripes of the American flag, with geometric shapes tucked inside organic forms– it takes all these elements that are often placed in contrast and instead combines them. I feel that that is a more honest representation of an American Muslim identity, one that is not confined to an “eastern” or “western” sphere, but incorporates both in a very natural way. Western art history was an inspiring part of my education, but I also have these other traditions that are part of me, as well, so I feel that that array of influences is represented in the paintings. The halo, which appears in every painting, is an example of a visual symbol used across cultures to communicate the same idea.
What is your favorite piece you have done thus far? Why?
I get asked this a lot and it’s really hard to say. Sometimes I will come up with a concrete answer, but honestly, every painting is its own little world for me, especially in An-Noor. Each one really takes me somewhere. I have certain paintings that were more challenging, and so I love them for that reason, and others that came out almost in one breath, and I love those too.
Tell us a little more about the Technicolor series. Why are you calling subjects for it? What type of subjects are you looking for?
Technicolor Muslimah was my first big idea for a body of work, and it was completed back in 2011. It was made as a positive assertion of identity that hoped to use color and smiles to dispel some of the static and stereotypical representations of Muslim women that dominate the media. Unfortunately I feel that the Technicolor Muslimah series, as it is right now, is a fairly homogenous group, visually and otherwise. And to show that Muslim women are not homogenous, I don’t know that the most effective thing is to present another homogenous image, even if it’s nicer than the one that’s already out there. Every woman is wearing hijab in almost exactly the same style, and there is not one African American woman represented in that group. I was hoping to address some of my concerns with Technicolor Muslimah in my most recent series, and so An-Noor is certainly more inclusive and diverse. Still, I just felt that it didn’t fix legitimate shortcomings in Technicolor Muslimah, so now I am revisiting that project, 3 years later, to resolve those issues.It was something that has nagged at me for a while, but I didn’t do anything about it. After being included on that list of 32 Muslim American Women which was hoping change the narrow perceptions of Muslims, and seeing the concern raised that no African American women were included on that list, it really hit me that it was absolutely not okay, and that I couldn’t continue to make excuses for why my own work was perpetuating this same kind of exclusion. So that was the thing that helped me take that step to send out a call for subjects to expand the series so that it could finally be completed.
I’m looking for women who can help make this series more diverse to send me selfies that they feel represent who they are. I’m looking for images that are communicative, of women of all different colors, who wear hijab or don’t, who represent some of the groups that are marginalized or underrepresented even within the Muslim community itself. I have gotten quite a few volunteers and some heartbreakingly beautiful letters, which was totally unexpected. From those images I will choose a handful that I feel will help make this series more inclusive and dynamic.
What would you like people to know about your art?
That they are much better when seen in person! Too often we only experience art through a cellphone screen, and it is not at all like experiencing art in real life.
What is your dream project or goal?
I guess my goal is to make work that is relevant to contemporary social issues and illustrate that dialogue that is currently taking place. I am looking forward to continuing to explore these issues, but getting to a point where the work can operate on the level of theory rather than biography. Which means that I want the work to become even more inclusive, and instead of dealing so specifically with the individual or groups of individuals, to focus more on the systems through which we interpret and understand one another. I feel that these methods of “understanding” can make us all invisible to one another until we can’t clearly see ourselves or anyone else. I find that it can be confusing to even nail down which thoughts and feelings are ours, and which have been planted there by other people, advertising, our institutions. More specifically I am interested in the gaze, the relationship of the subject and object in that interaction, and the different manifestations of that gaze. The male gaze and imperial gaze are examples. That’s all pretty vague right now.
Lastly, what is the best advice you have been given?
The best “advice” I’ve gotten would probably be a concept from Islam… of questioning and being aware of one’s own intentions. And so throughout the process of making art, I try to consistently check in with my intentions, and am critical of whether or not the artwork is staying true to that and to myself.
You can follow Saba on her journey and find out more about her work on her facebook fanpage, and her website.
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Have a wonderful Friday and weekend!