36" x 48"
acrylic paint, silver leaf, glitter

Laila in Rainbows

“Verily, with hardship comes ease.” Quran 94:5

Laila in Rainbows (With Hardship Comes Ease) is an interpretive portrait of Laila Nur, “a self-taught singer, songwriter and guitarist originally from New York and currently living in Greensboro, NC. Raised Sunni Muslim and now a proud Lesbian and activist, she applies her life journey to the music she coins ‘Revolutionary Love Music’: a musical experience for equal love and global connectedness.”  http://www.reverbnation.com/lailanur  Check. her. out.

I met Laila at the Carrack Modern Art in January of this year.  I saw her perform while my series “An-Noor” was being shown.  In the following months, she has become a very dear friend of mine.

Though this painting is clearly reminiscent of the halo imagery and Islamic patterning that was present throughout the “An-Noor” series, this piece is not a part of that series.  It stands alone.  And unlike the golden halos of An-Noor, Laila’s is silver – full of curved lines and the phases of the moon, flowering behind her head.  She looks directly at the viewer, and I hope the viewer feels that they are laying in the grass with her, sharing a warm and intimate moment.

In much of my work, I aim to demonstrate layered identities through layered imagery – moving between symbolic design and realism.  In this piece, an Islamic pattern is integrated over a rainbow flag.  The straightforward nature of the symbolism is present (in part) because I made this painting for the “Truth to Power” show at Pleiades Gallery, a show centered around communicating messages of social justice through art.  To me, that partly means foregoing abstraction (not that I make abstract work anyway) in favor of accessible imagery.  This painting is meant to demonstrate one facet of the beautiful diversity of the LGBTQ community and the Muslim community, intersecting in a bed of clovers.  The message – a love that persists across the sometimes messy boundaries of identity.

There is a permeating notion that we must curate our identities to tell a story that is linear, and “makes sense” within a world that defines everything through contrasts – a person is defined not only by who they are, but who they aren’t.  It seems that every positive assertion of identity – “I am a woman” – can only be understood through a boundaried negative assumption – “I am not a man.”  These are ideas that I have been exploring through much of my work, most often dealing with the assumed contradiction of “Muslim” and “American.”  How can we define ourselves in a way that is positive and expansive, that is additive?  Can we do this without being contradictory?  And must contradiction equal dishonesty?  Perhaps it is in these moments – where ideas collide and break apart – that truth lives.

To see the painting in person:
Truth to Power 2
July 15 – August 2

Third Friday Reception and Open Mic on the Plaza: July 18th, 6-9 pm
Artists’ Talk and “People’s Choice Award”: July 24th, 6-9 pm
Pleiades Gallery
109 E Chapel Hill Street, Durham NC

Call for Subjects: Only a few days left to Submit!

In a recent blog post, I shared that I’m opening up the 2011 “Technicolor Muslimah” series.
I am seeking volunteers who self-identify as American Muslim women, with or without hijab (and anywhere in between), who can help make this project more diverse.  Please read the original “Call for Subjects” for more of what I mean. 
To Submit, please send:

1. A selfie (a picture of you!):
– high quality (It’s difficult to paint from blurry or low-res pictures)
– head and shoulders only (or can be cropped)
– BIG PERSONALITY!  I’m looking for images that are more communicative than just “looking at the camera and smiling,” whether through use of props or through expression. 

2. A brief description of how you feel you could make this series more diverse.

Send to artbysaba@yahoo.com or facebook.com/artbysaba by MAY 1st!!  I will choose a few that will become paintings in the first couple of weeks of May.

I was almost in the Honor Diaries – Why I Backed Out

In April of 2012 I got an email from a woman who said she was a friend of a friend of mine – she had gone to school with one of the women that I painted in Technicolor Muslimah.   From her personal gmail account, she wrote that my paintings “capture a unique expression which is often lost through mainstream media.”  She was in the early stages of a documentary film focused on women’s rights and women’s activism “mainly focusing on Muslim-majority countries” and wanted to maybe include me.   I was thrilled at the prospect of being in any kind of film to talk about my art, especially so early in my career.

That amazing opportunity turned out to be “The Honor Diaries.”  *gag*

We did a phone interview, then a skype interview with her and the director.  Throughout the two-month process, we exchanged a number of emails, and the Clarion Fund was never mentioned.  We spoke about the controversy around Mona El-Tahawy’s “Why They Hate Us” article, and I felt like we were on the same page.  I sent her some links and quotes like “I struggle with the fine balance of condemning violations of human rights without accidentally submitting to contemporary extensions of Orientalism” (link).  Her words seemed to speak to a respect and admiration for Muslim women, and an interest in understanding the nuance of this subject matter.

My flight was booked to go film in NY with the other women.  The very last email I received was from a different email address, one that said “clarionfund.org” at the end of it instead of “gmail.com.”  They had sent along a pdf with information on filming, contracts to sign, and official info about the film and the group.  Right at first, I remember feeling really intimidated at the credentials of the other women going, and nervous about traveling.  There was “yoga” on the schedule which seemed pretty fancy to me.  I thought about what I could wear during filming that would camouflage my baby weight.  At the top it said “National Security through Education, Clarion Fund.”


National security?  What does National Security have to do with any of this?  

Who are these people?  I looked back to the front page. There was a graphic of a film reel with images from past blockbuster hits like “The Third Jihad: Radical Islam’s Vision for America,” and “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West.” Their graphic designers had done things like incorporated an Islamic crescent moon and a gun into the typography.  Wowzas.  I had not heard of the Clarion Fund, so I googled them and perused their website, which was “radicalislam.org” at the time.  I felt like I was going to throw up.  This group wasn’t about women’s rights.  If they were, they wouldn’t have confined their conversation to Muslim countries (duh), and I’m pretty sure they would have been able to find more than 9 women to participate.   I was really struck by the fact that this group’s was defined not by what they were fighting for, but what they were against, and everything they do relates back to that.

The same day I got the pdf, I sent them an email backing out.

“I had assumed, for some reason, that you were working on this documentary as kind of an independent project.  Up until the last email, we had been corresponding from your personal account, which upheld my assumption that this was an independent film.  To be sure, I should have been more vigilant about finding out about the particulars involved in making this film.

I have some issues with the Clarion Fund, with some of their affiliations, and with the messages in their past films.  My artwork has a spirit of inclusion, acceptance, respect, and education.  I feel that, in general, the picture painted of Muslims is very narrow and monolithic, and I try to create art that helps to expand the definitions people have of Muslims.  I am sorry to say that I feel that the Clarion Fund’s past films and some of its prominent members have helped contribute to the perception of Muslims as “others” and, to be frank, I am uncomfortable working with the group. 

In addition, I feel that my artwork does not have anything to do with the “threats of political extremism.”  As an American-born woman, I really do not have insight into the challenges of women living overseas in the countries you plan to focus on, and have not “experienced firsthand the trials women regularly endure.”

I will need to respectfully back out of participating in this documentary. 

…I apologize for telling you this so last-minute.  If I had known, or had asked, I would have let you know sooner or declined participation initially.  Thank you for your kindness and for being so accommodating.  I look forward to seeing the film when it is completed, and hope that my reservations in participating prove to be unfounded.”

I spoke to the woman later, and she apologized and said she had not deliberately withheld the name of the organization.  We briefly spoke about the issues I had with the group and the framing of this story.  I did get the sense that she very strongly believes that what she is doing is right, and that she believes that she is helping Muslim women.  But I don’t think that makes it better,  just more frightening.

at MOCAfest London, photo taken by Noor Iskandar

Call for Subjects

I was included in a list of beautiful photographs of American Muslim women: here
If you scroll down to the comments section, there is a pretty clear and legitimate concern with this list – the women who have been left out.

I spent 16 years in predominately white private schools that were dripping with privilege.  But as one of few Muslim females in these environments, I very deeply felt the consistent ache and insecurity of being an “other,” of my lack of privilege.
A few years ago while I was at North Carolina Central University studying Art Education, I took a course called “Diversity and Pedagogy.”  We took a “calculate your privilege” quiz, and I remember feeling really angry.  Because as I was taking the quiz, as I was learning about the results, I felt that it took away something that had defined me, and suddenly, I was one of them – one of the privileged.  I thought that I knew everything about racism, about feeling “othered” and less than… so eventually I stopped talking in class, stopped contributing my self-assumed expertise in the subject, and listened.

I took that quiz again, earlier this week.
I have lots of privilege.  Yes, I am a Muslim woman of color with immigrant parents, but I have privilege.  So now, what do I do with that?  Do I deny it? Try to destroy it?  No.  But I do think it means that I need to be responsible for myself, and own up to it when my own good intentions fall short.  Just because I have felt excluded, it does not give me a free pass to do the same to others.

The largest group of American-born Muslims are African American Muslims – 40%.  I have completed 26 paintings of American Muslim women – and only one has been African American.
I am embarrassed and ashamed of this.  As I find more opportunities to talk about this work and share it, those feelings have only grown stronger.  Maybe I’ve been waiting for someone to call me out on it, but if anyone has, I’m not aware of it.  So I guess I’m calling myself out.

I often describe my work as “portraits of American Muslim women,” and I need to be responsible to that.  So, obviously, just one African American woman out of 26 is not adequate.  Representing diversity has always been important to me, but I don’t know that I have really followed through.  I made the excuse that I found my subjects through my personal networks, and in most cases, I had known my subject for many years.  And because of that, Pakistanis are a bit over-represented throughout the work, everyone is cis and heterosexual.  So yeah, that’s authentic to what I was most familiar with growing up, but truly, I just felt uncomfortable reaching out to communities outside of my own.  Because I’m a little shy, and I’m scared someone might tell me “No, you suck.”  Or “no, you’re not allowed to do this.”

It’s just not okay to be like “I was uncomfortable” and then be guilty of exactly the thing that is motivating me to make art in the first place.

Alright so besides saying “my bad” (which doesn’t feel like enough)…  I’m opening up the “Technicolor Muslimah” series – I’m looking for volunteers to be included in this series, who can help it become a more diverse body of work.  If you self-identify as an American Muslim woman, and are left out of these kinds of lists, please send me a message through my Facebook page: facebook.com/artbysaba or email: artbysaba@yahoo.com.

Click here to see the work.  Each painting is also accompanied by a written statement from the subject where she describes herself in her own words.

20" x 60"
acrylic and mixed media on canvas 
gold leaf, glitter, glass beads, rhinestones

Sweet Noor

I had said that the painting “Rebel” was the last painting in the An-Noor series.  When I found out I would get to show the series at the Carrack Modern Art in January, I felt strongly compelled to make another painting.  So I added this piece, which also turned out to be many people’s favorite in the series.

This painting is of one of my dearest friends.  In the image she is carrying her first child, a daughter that she named “Noor.”  The photograph I worked from was taken just a few days before Noor was born.

A few notes about the piece:
I wanted the background to feel as though it was inside of a womb.  It’s this safe space where she can connect to her child, imagine the future.
The green dress brings to mind the Arnolfini portrait, one of the most recognizable renderings of a pregnant woman.

by Jan Van Eyck

by Jan Van Eyck

I’m not sure that the An-Noor series is “finished.”  I see that this is a big conversation, and that the portraits in this project only scratch the surface of the diversity of American Muslim women.  There is much that is left unexplored here, so I’m open to expanding this series as I meet more women who inspire me.  But for now, I guess I punctuate An-Noor with a “…”

24" x 24" 
Acrylic on Canvas

QaRt Codes

We have an exciting group show coming to Pleiades Gallery this January called “transFORM.”  The show will be up from January 7th – February 15th, with an opening reception on January 17th from 6-9pm.

I focused specifically on transformation through technology.  I made five paintings.  Four of the pieces each explore about what is lost, or diminished, when experienced through technology.  To emphasize this message, the original painting was photographed, then completed painted over with a QR code.  The original painting can now only be accessed through scanning the QR code, each one “transFORMed” by technology, and now only existing in a virtual format.

One of the paintings has a slightly different message.  In this piece, titled “Golden Ticket,” the QR code’s URL will be updated at random intervals.  The person who owns this piece, or one of the 10 limited edition prints, will be given access to a unique “shared experience” through scanning the QR code.  I will be updating the URL will short videos, drawings, handwritten notes, etc.  As the artist, I will challenge myself to create a more intimate experience for this small group, by sharing things that are less guarded than what I post on Facebook, etc.  This piece explores the connections that could not be possible without technology.

I don’t want to say too much about the pieces specifically, because they are best experienced.  When you get to the URL with the image of the painting, look around for small messages and links to help you further experience the piece. It’s best to open this on a desktop or laptop and scan with your smartphone.  All the QR codes are hand-painted.

Completed painting.  "Rebel" 20"x60"  Acrylic paint, gold leaf, rhinestones on canvas


Completed painting.  "Rebel" 20"x60"  Acrylic paint, gold leaf, rhinestones on canvas

Completed painting. “Rebel” 20″x60″ Acrylic paint, gold leaf, rhinestones on canvas

This is the last portrait in An-Noor.  It’s called “Rebel” and is 20″ x 60″ (same size as Inner Sun and American Desi).  I used gold leaf, rhinestones (in the necklace) and acrylic paint.

I crossed paths with the subject of this painting, Amarra, in September 2012.  We were both at an event where I was displaying some art.  Even though we didn’t really talk, we became Facebook and Instagram friends (gotta love social media).  After seeing some of the amazing selfies she posts, I had no choice but to ask if I could photograph her.  I had the opportunity to speak to Amarra at length before I took her picture.  She completely opened up, and the depth of our conversation made painting her feel natural and fluid.

All of us have friends who post selfies, but few actually tap into the potential of the selfie as more than just a form of documentation, but as an art form.  It’s a self-portrait.  It was clear from my conversation with Amarra that she has a natural ability to express her mood, her heritage, even her values, in the way that she presents herself.  To have the outside match the inside.  When this is combined with body language and environment, you can end up with a really dynamic image of a person.

So what I’m really trying to say, is that she showed up in this kick-ass outfit, gave me this powerful pose, and that is a huge part of why this painting turned out the way it did.

Check out the gallery for pictures of the process and detail shots.

Having painted the last subject, I think about how transformative this process has been. I came into this undertaking barely 26 years old, a new mother, with no established “career,” and just having earned a degree in teaching, not painting.

Listening to all these women has been one of the most special parts of this project.  We could skip the small talk and go straight to the real stuff.  All of them are so unique, and with each one, there was something, a quality of hers, a particular thing that she said or way that she said it, that has resonated with me.  With each painting, I was able to see some part of myself more clearly, by connecting to and reflecting the woman that I was painting.  I think we all can sometimes feel that whoever we are, however we are, isn’t good enough.  This healing kind of thing happened while working on this project – in recognizing the love and respect I have for each of these women, I found that I could also love and accept myself a little more.

Thank you to all who have participated in this with me!  You rock.

There is one painting (not a portrait) left to complete this series.  Stay tuned.


American Desi Explosion

I just finished another painting for An-Noor.  It is mixed media on canvas, with gold and silver leaf, acrylic paint, glitter, and rhinestones.  20″ x 60.”


This painting is of my friend Sheeza and her daughter Sarah.  Sheeza was like an older sister to me growing up.  She is a natural leader, who loves to be challenged, and her daughter Sarah (4 at the time) wanted to be a fairy when she grew up so she could “do magic for all of her friends.”   I photographed them over a year ago, and I wanted their painting to emphasize Sheeza’s role as a mother, and a leader…to capture that magical quality of Sarah’s youth… and the connection between the two of them.  They were amazing during the photoshoot.

I styled this painting like “Inner Sun.”  After having worked with this layering of geometric and organic shapes once before, I felt like I was able to manipulate the design, colors, and materials to a much greater degree.  The most “energetic” part of the design is at the point of connection between Sheeza and Sarah.  Where their gaze meets.  This design is clearly born out of their relationship, expanding into a bright, bedazzled, American desi explosion over their heads.  And of course there is a “halo” of sorts that circles them.

I have been really submerging myself in the South Asian aesthetic, which is obvious in this painting.  My aim was to really push the boldness and the femininity.  I wanted the design to go”Pow!”  Since Maesta, I have been really feeling this pull towards adornment – beading, sequins, rhinestones, mica, pearls.  I want to harness these ultra-feminine materials in work that emphasizes feminine strength.  My heart tells me “more is more” and to “overdo” it.  But then when the painting is complete it doesn’t feel like too much, it even feels restrained.

I still need to come up with a title… will update when it comes to me.

Process and detail pictures in the gallery.

Tree of Life

This month at Pleiades Gallery, our show title is “Surge.”  Starting with this word, I worked to come up with an idea for a painting, but got sidetracked when I saw that a number of my Facebook friends had shared this link (Warning: the videos at the end of the article are extremely upsetting).

I don’t really know how to talk about all this.  I literally screamed when watching that video (I got through only part of one of them).  I still cry when I think about it, weeks later.  And that’s just a fucking video.

I’m still sitting here, with everything I could ever need, and I do not have to fear that someone will try to deliberately harm me, my toddler, or anyone I love.

After I watched that, I turned on the news.  I expected it to be on every news channel, with special reports.  There was nothing.

I went to all the news websites I usually read.  NOTHING.

And then a few days later, everyone was talking about Syria.  Everyone was suddenly an expert on it.   The whole discussion was extremely political.  Whether to invade or not.  Which groups of brown people are tied to which other, very scary, groups of brown people  It just seemed so disconnected, so irrelevant, maybe a deliberate attempt to stir up our partisan passions so that we wouldn’t see what is actually happening in our world.

I get that the US has got to take care of ourselves, that there’s plenty of awful shit to deal with in our own country.  There are children who fear for their lives when they walk to school every day, even here.  I’m not a proponent of bombs or violence as a general rule.  But I’m not talking about any of that.  How privileged are we, that we can discuss the pros and cons of military intervention, that we feel safe enough to say Obama is wrong, and broadcast these opinions on our Facebook pages… without ever once having to consider that this is all about people.  We can live our lives without even being *aware* of anyone else’s situation but our own.  That’s kind of a beautiful thing, I suppose, probably part of why my family came to this country.  But now everything is just about these assholes spitting out crazy hypotheticals on the news.  And when it comes to actual human beings frothing at the mouth and dying en masse, we can just turn a blind eye.  Snooki’s on dancing with the stars this season!  It’s all treated the same.

I also get that we can’t just walk around crying about all the awful stuff going on in the world.  And that it’s also okay to watch Snooki on Dancing with the Stars.  I know that you must take care of your own kids, and hug them tight, and keep them so safe.  But it all made me feel helpless and small, and now I’m writing a blog post about it.  Jeez.
So I say all of this without any kind of conclusion, or lesson, or resolve for how we should live our lives better or differently.  I have no answers.

I made some art about it.  The title of this piece is “Tree of Life” (someone actually came into the gallery before the painting had a title and made the comparison – thank you, whoever you are).  The picture isn’t the best.

mixed media: acrylic paint, gold and silver leaf, sequins, glitter

mixed media: acrylic paint, gold and silver leaf, sequins, glitter

I believe in beauty.  I wanted to make something beautiful.  But to me, this painting is sad.  The heart is frozen and the flowers are wilted, even though they sparkle.

I am donating 50% of this sale to this group, and iA the donation will be enough to provide a tent to shelter a family of 5.  This piece will be up through October 6th at Pleiades Gallery in Durham.  The show opens on Friday.