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 “…”



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.

Sophia – Completed painting and process

So I just finished another painting in the An-Noor series.  The subject is my friend Sophia, whom I love.  ❤

Her pose is a bit of a departure from the rest of the paintings I have done thus far, in that she is looking down, away from the camera.  Her strength, her light, shines brightly, but she illustrates a quieter strength than some of the other images.  I am really enjoying the way that the paintings in this project clearly fit together as a collection, share imagery and ideas, yet each individual painting is its own entity, and is born out of a conversation with the subject.

There are some pretty obvious symbols in this image – her white coat, the American flag, and the stenciled pattern radiating out from her head.

Halo.  I’ve used halos in previous paintings, and will do so in future ones… Sophia’s halo was created with a design that suggests her Pakistani heritage.  It is pretty amazing how 2-D shapes can communicate this so effectively.  I looked at images of Pakistani and Indian textiles in order to create the stencil.  The halo, of course, is a representation of her inner light, her Noor.

American Flag.  The other symbol worth discussing is the American flag.  I went back and forth in my mind about using this… It’s an image that is everywhere.  Aesthetically, I love the way the flag looks…but what does it mean?  Does it represent an unquestioning patriotism?  A (blind?) devotion to the “American way,” to western values and culture, its wars?  Is it an image that is exclusive, that can only belong to those who conform to a narrow idea of what it means to be American?  Does it mean getting wasted on the Fourth of July while eating fried chicken and spitting watermelon seeds?  I never thought about the American flag that much, until September 11th.  In the days and weeks that followed, the flag was everywhere.  Painted on cars, on faces.  Plastered on t-shirts.  Waving in the wind, attached to cheap plastic sticks, or flagpoles reaching into the sky.  And when I saw these flags, I felt afraid.  Not defiant, or angry, or patriotic, just afraid.  I was young (15 years old), sure, but the stories I was hearing, of people, my friends, being told by strangers to “go back to your own country,” being spit on, shoved into lockers, the bomb threats at our mosque… that’s part of what that flag suddenly came to mean in those days.  But I love this country, I always have.  It is because I was born here, raised here, that I can make art the way that I do, that I have been able to find a unique path.  I guess I could talk about this for a while, what the flag means to me, but I’d rather not.  Alls I mean is, the American flag is not a one-dimensional or static symbol, but one that shifts, evolves, and is as dynamic as the peoples of this country.
So I decided to use it.  And it will show up again in another painting in the series.

Once again I used acrylic paint and gold leaf.

I created a stencil out of cardstock.  I used it to put down the pattern in yellow paint.

Picstitch of stencil

Picstitch of stencil

IMG_5881          IMG_5886

Next, I painted on adhesive on top of the yellow paint, and applied the gold leaf.
IMG_5954         IMG_5950

I fixed up the edges of the gold-leafed designs by really thinly tracing it with paint.  The innermost circle is the brightest yellow, and the outermost circle is the least saturated yellow.
IMG_6001       DSC_0016
Finally I added a thin layer of gold paint around the pattern to kind of tie everything together a bit more and give it some more ambient light.

American Flag/Background.
Painting bricks = lots of layers.  I love bricks (painted some in Dina’s painting) because while it seems like it would be so simple, each brick is unique, and textured.  So I can add all sorts of colors into it.  Even with all the colors, when I had finished the bricks, I felt like it needed some roughing up… it was too flat and clean looking.  I considered using a crackle medium, but didn’t go that route.  Sooooo… I did a little experiment!!  I mixed the gold leaf adhesive with dish soap and water, and applied it to the background.  Basically, I figured that the dish soap would counteract the adhesive, so the gold leaf wouldn’t stick to every area… and give it a more random effect.  And it worked!!  I did a couple layers of this mixture around the blue area so I could have a greater concentration of gold there (to suggest the stars of the American flag).  It was a little bit distracting though, and was calling attention away from the focal points, so I painted over the gold leaf with thin layers so it shines through intermittently and is not quite so bright/reflective.  The result reminds me of distressed blue jeans.

Nushmia – Completed Painting

About a month ago I wrote a post with images and info on a painting I was working on, particularly the inspiration behind the imagery.  And now, it’s done!!  Here are some pics of the completed painting, titled “Nushmia (Light upon light).”

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There were a number of different elements in this painting, and I tried lots of new things.

I found a great tool in the Sketchbook App for iPad, and was able to try out a bunch of different compositions, and using “Save As” to try lots of variations and then compare them.  Works much better than erasing holes into paper as I try different things, or redrawing the whole thing from scratch each time.  You can even sketch (or paint) by hand, take a picture of it, then manipulate it in different ways in the program.  AMAZING.  Saved me sooo much time, and allowed me to do a lot more pre-planning, which is essential when working in this size (and which is why I was actually able to meet a deadline this time!).  I use a stylus… and it’s not exactly like drawing by hand, but a great option.

The Olive Tree is a complex form.  Instead of just creating a simple tree trunk, there are different layers/limbs that are woven together to create the trunk of the tree, then spread out into branches.  In my original sketch for this painting, somehow I didn’t realize that a 6 foot tall canvas, while tall, is not tall enough for a full sized olive tree.

original sketch

So I had to scrap that and come up with a new composition.  To create the bark in the tree, I did a lot of layering.  I painted on base colors, then added “bark,” then painted over the “bark” to show 3-dimensionality, then painted the space between the bark… then realized that it was all very tedious and I wasn’t getting the results I was looking for.  So I did some research and decided to try a Crackle medium, often used on furniture or frames to give it an antique look.  Basically you paint a basecoat, put on the medium, wait a bit, then when you paint the top coat, it crackles and the base color shows through the cracks.

Looks a lot like bark, right?!  Except that it didn’t work at all.  So I messed around with it and found that if I painted over the crackle medium before it was dry, it would make the paint kind of mushy and peely… like nailpolish before it’s completely dry.  Tacky.  So I used crumpled up paper and roughed it up.  I think it turned out pretty good.  It didn’t save me time or effort like I was hoping, but it was nice to try something new.  It’s kind of hard to see exactly… but it adds some actual texture to the simulated texture.


The leaves are just layered, somewhat translucent, flat forms, with silver glazed on top of the brightest layer.  I was thinking about adding more dimension into the leaves to make them more realistic, but I liked their flatness – they kind of provide a transition between the geometric patterned background and the organic form of the tree.



For the Background, I created a stencil for the first time.  I looked into geometric designs, trying to find something that utilized stars (as opposed to florals).  The stars are yet another reference to “light,” and this image is also meant to be at night, so it works for that reason as well.  I used cardstock and an exacto blade to create the stencil (the picture is kind of crap, sorry), and would scotch tape it to whatever area I was working on.  I had to adjust it somewhat, because the symmetry was a bit off… and then had to do some touch-ups when it was on canvas.  The color of the stenciling is just a bit lighter than the background, and I squeezed in some metallic silver, so it is subtly reflective, as well.

Nushmia (Light upon light) IMG_5041

I had originally planned to do some fireflies in this painting, and use gold leaf for them.  But I tried it and it looked pretty dumb.  It was too sweet, if that makes sense.  I’m all for some magic in a painting, but it was kind of like I had painted in a unicorn.  Too much. I ended up just using the gold leaf in the olives.

Around this time, I realized I liked the painting better in the dark… so I painted over the gold leaf fireflies (easier said than done), and made a “shadow glaze” (basically a dark purple) and painted over the tree and the figure to make it darker.  Which worked remarkably well over the entire tree.  BUT THEN I RUINED HER FACE WITH IT OMG.  It was awful.  I mean, RUINED.  I had to white out the entire face and slowly layer it back.  It’s much more difficult to fix a face than it is to paint it right the first time.  Jeez.  I was convinced that I could never truly fix it.  In the past, whenever I’ve had to agonize over an area, particularly a face, even if I got it back to where it looked like the person again, the texture and colors would always look kind of… muddied.  The opposite of radiant.  Oy.  So I was worried.  It took a while to fix it, and I did weird things to the proportions of her face in the process, but eventually, finally, it came together.  I actually think it turned out better than it was before.

The Frame. So then I finished the whole thing… and I felt like something was really missing.  Some of that magic.  I knew the fireflies weren’t going to work, so I busted out my art history books and skimmed through it.  I decided to add the gold leafed archway/frame… it is reminiscent of some old christian frescoes, and even some renaissance paintings that would paint in arches/architectural forms.  Plus it connects this image to Amna Noor, the first painting in the An-Noor series:


I designed the patterns with an Art Nouveau/filigree feel to them.  I drew it on in chalk, then painted over it, and cleaned up the chalk residue with q-tips.  I wanted to get a perfect mirror image of the pattern on the other corner of the frame, so I got some computer paper, traced the pattern, and went over it in sharpie (so that it would be visible when I flipped it over).  I flipped over the traced pattern on the other corner (a perfect mirror image!), and then traced over it again in pencil, putting enough pressure on it so that it created an indentation in the gold leaf underneath.  Here is a picstitch image of the stencil (on the left) and the mirrored pattern on the right.


Here’s a gallery with images of sketches/the planning process, and the painting in different stages of completion.  I left out the whole “face is ruined” and firefly stages because I was too upset to even take pictures of it when it was like that.  So just use your imagination.  Maybe imagine some unicorns in there, too.


Getting rejected sucks.  After putting hours and hours of work into such a strange thing as art, we scramble to win one of the few opportunities to get our work shown, or to get some funding.  So we dole out the $35+ it costs to get someone to look at a picture of our art and tell us “no.”  Again, and again.

Rejection triggers self-reflection.  Why am I doing this?  Is it worth it?  Does it really matter?  I could just be focusing all of my energies on raising my son, instead of splitting time between him and scrambling to find time to paint, to write (to shower).  Do people even care to see paintings of American Muslim women, women who are diverse, who live here, and work alongside the rest of us; who are empowered, and passionate, and beautiful, and don’t all look the same or have the same story?  I mean, if I knew a bunch of sad women in burqas, that’s what I’d be painting.  But I don’t.  These are the women I know, and they are smart as hell, and they inspire me, and they clearly don’t need a bunch of entitled jerks to save them, or show them what being civilized looks like…and clearly, I think they are awesome.  Do we want to also hear of the women who flourish?  Do they matter?  If they aren’t “exotic”?  Do we care about them, since they don’t need us, since we can’t feel sorry for them (and as a result, somehow better about ourselves)?  I’m not trying to deny that many women struggle, and that these paintings do not represent every woman’s story, every American Muslim woman’s story, but there is space for multiple truths.

Isn’t there?

I’m fairly new at all this, at putting myself out there, at applying for grants and juried exhibitions.  And, really, I don’t think that I need to take these rejections personally, or think that it means I should change.  I think we’ve all heard that story, of a creative person who is rejected over and over again in their life.  And then they finally get that break, something finally works out, and we can’t even imagine why, how, anyone could have ever told them no.  But sometimes believing in myself is exhausting, and it all feels selfish and narcissistic.  Like I must be totally detached from reality, and really full of myself, to keep trying to make this work.

But I do… I keep trying.  And the bottom line, the absolute bottom line, is that I love what I do.  I love what I make.  And even if not one other person wanted to see my art, even if I don’t ever get grants, or into galleries… I want to look at it.  And I am terrible at, or hate, just about everything else anyway.  hahaha

On a lighter note, check out this photorrealistic sketch of my husband’s mutant feet.

And yes, that says “green boa?” on the top left…
serious decisions.

The Evolution of Dina


This is the largest painting I have completed to date (the third painting of the “An-Noor” series). It is six feet tall and four feet wide. I learned a lot through the process. In my sketches, I left a number of details unplanned (how exactly to deal with the negative space in the background, what is she sitting on?, what is that book in her lap?)… which would have been fine, except that it takes a lot of time (and paint) to try to figure these details out on the canvas. It took me three months to paint, and repaint, and repaint, this portrait.

If you scroll through the gallery, it is clear that I started out thinking that the painting would have a red background. This painting almost broke me in two. I remember looking at the layers of red in the around the sun and finally allowing myself to admit, “It’s beautiful, but it’s not right.” And I knew for sure that I had to paint over all those hours of work, that I had to redo the mess that I had made of the gold leaf. I may or may not have cried. Of course, immediately after doing so, I wondered if I was making a huge mistake. But it wasn’t a mistake. I had to trust my instincts, and push through it, and I love the final image. She is life-size-ish, and the gold leaf (my first time using this material) is f@*king brilliant. When I photographed it, it reflected the sunlight so strongly it hurt my eyes.

Dina is posed as Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter. I don’t want to go into great detail describing the imagery/symbolism in the spine of the book, or the sunflower… because I feel that it comes across? I would encourage you, however, to look closely at the spine of the book for some symbols of this woman and her power. Dina is a wonderful and inspiring woman. She grew up in North Carolina, and identifies with both her Southern and Egyptian roots. Who says collared greens and grape leaves don’t belong on the same plate? ❤

She will be hanging at the Carrack Modern Art this weekend for their last community show of 2012! Reception is this Friday.

Here is a gallery of pictures that shows the process (most are cellphone pics).

Light upon Light

Well hello, The Internet! I’ve created this blog to chronicle the process behind my paintings and other art-ventures.
   Right now, I’m preparing for my next exhibit at Ravenscroft School. I’m installing on January 7th (almost exactly a month from now). I went to Ravenscroft from kindergarten through 12th grade (what’s known as a “lifer,” you know, like jail) , so I look forward to showing my art in a place that was such a big part of my life.
   I will be showing “Technicolor Muslimah,” a series of 12 portraits of Muslim women. You can see them here: www.artbysaba.com/technicolormuslimah
    I’m also working on a new series called “An-Noor” (in Arabic) or “The Light.” (completed paintings are also on my site, on the homepage). I have three paintings completed so far and am working on the 4th one. I’m trying to get the 4th one done in time for the Ravenscroft show.
Here is a picture of the 6′ x 4′ (72″ x 48″) painting I am currently working on:

The imagery is derived from Ayat An-Noor, or the Verse of Light, from the Quran.

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth.
The parable of His Light is a niche wherein is a lamp—
the lamp is in a glass, 

the glass as it were a glittering star—
lit from a blessed olive tree, 

neither eastern nor western, 
whose oil almost lights up, 
though fire should not touch it. 
 Light upon light.

   As wikipedia describes it, this “verse is renowned for its remarkable beauty and imagery, and perhaps more than any other verse lends itself to mystical or esoteric readings of the Qur’an.” As I looked further into interpretations of this verse, I found some wonderful things that really allowed the imagery to blossom in my mind.
    This guy, Al-Ghazali, wrote a lot about this verse, and said that it is meant to show not only God’s distance and absolute transcendence, but also his proximity and inherent presence. I did not get a sense of this during my Sunday School days. I felt that God’s omnipresence was not a comfort, but kind of a “Big Brother is watching you” and recording all of your sins for the day of judgment kind of thing. Once again, that God was separate from me. To be feared. And also that God is a “he,” of course. And pronouns are somehow even more of a limiting kind of word for such a big idea to be stuck inside. Words like God, and Allah, carry around the baggage of their history, of the politicized and stratified present day, and it can sometimes be difficult to leave that baggage behind when considering the idea of god… I sometimes use the word “Light” in my mind because it has such a vastness to it. It exists in all these different realms as something concrete, but also… not at all concrete. And it thrives in metaphor.  I know others use the word “Source.” Surely, any words we use are inherently limiting and constricting, but we need words to communicate.  Of course, we can always paint pictures, too. 
   Anyway, here is some of what I found, mixed in with my own interpretations.

The Niche: A place, a space, made specifically for the lamp. This represents the human body, the physical body.

The Glass: reflects light, contains light, diffuses light. A transparent medium through which the light passes to illuminate. It is a protective shield. It exists between the external world (the senses) and the internal world (of the spirit). It is the mind, the mental body. The glass can change the nature of the light – if it’s dirty, it can mess it up, misguide. If it is clean and passive, it allows for the light to shine through and diffuse, lighting every dark corner of a room. It is like a brilliant star, which guides the way, creates a pathway.

The Tree/The Oil: The oil that fuels the fire comes from an olive tree that is neither eastern nor western. More literally, this means that it receives an even and constant amount of sunlight. It is a tree that comes from a balanced environment. The oil is so pure that it almost lights on its own. The tree with its roots in the earth, reaches up towards the skies. The oil is the reservoir, is the spiritual body, is the source of knowing. It is most pure when it comes from balance, when it belongs to no particular tribe. 

 The Flame: The flame is truth, is god… burning, purifying, illuminating, warming, transforming So I looked into olive trees, and wow. They can live for thousands of years. Legit – Thousands of years. Carbon dated, ridiculous fact. And as they age, they don’t just keep growing taller, but instead wider, and the trunk becomes more gnarled and complex, all while hollowing out inside! Becoming more and more spacious, internally! What in the symbolism.

   So the nature of an actual olive tree lends itself well to this image – where the oil lamp sits in a niche. The gnarls and knots of an olive tree trunk create plenty of “niches.”

   Referring back to the painting in progress, the figure (her name is Nushmia), sits at the base of the olive tree, and she is clearly a part of the tree… the roots bend and curve around her form.  She’s got her own “niche,” if you will.  I imagined that the space where she sits resembles, also, a womb… that sacred space within a woman.  And all of it, to me, really emphasizes the importance of internal space.  The oil lamp will be attached to the tree, on that knot to the right of Nushmia’s head. 

  I think it’s going well so far… but I can see that there is a lot more work I’ll have to do.  Once I get Nushmia to a level of almost-completion, I’ll have to develop the olive tree.  I need to add some smaller branches, and then a bunch of texture to get the feeling of bark.  I’m nervous about all the work, but excited.  Nushmia’s sitting in a patch of grass and clovers. I will be adding a (hopefully subtle) geometric pattern into the purple of the background (I’ll be making my own stencil for the first time!).  And then I’m going to add the lamp and try to figure out how the lamp’s light will affect all of the objects that are in the painting.  I used gold leaf on my last painting (of Dina, with the big, gold leafed sun)… and it’s a brilliant material (literally).  I’m hoping to use it for some fireflies that’ll be buzzing around.