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The Art of Everything: Contemporary Muslim Artists on the Meaning of Art

Scrolling through my Instagram account, I see a stream of nauseatingly perfect images. These pictures aren’t expressions of an inner self; they’re not raw images of both beautiful and chaotic moments in time. Instead, they’re moments stolen from serendipitous existence, manufactured to perfection. In the process, they rob us of a natural opportunity to experience our own existence for ourselves. A theft of experience, if you will. We’re so busy taking photos like these that we often fail to experience the life they’re meant to depict.

The question is “why.” How did we become a population that values creativity and innovation, but yet are further removed from art than at any other period in recent history?

It’s difficult to identify an exact reason. One argument holds that an overabundance of selfies, for example, is a desperate attempt to grasp ‘the self’. In vain, we hope that capturing ourselves on camera with flawless perfection will help us to create a more unified sense of self.

Or could we blame how easy it is to live a secondhand life, an empty echo of reality spread across social media pages whose filtered images purport to express ourselves and our experiences?

Perhaps the increased demands on our attention so overwhelm us that visual “sound bytes” are simply an easier way to catalog modern life…

As a mother and a writer, I confess to understanding these demands. Just last night my husband and son were watching a spectacular show of Disneyland fireworks from our front yard, while a not-so-little voice in my head kept hammering, “Stop working. Go enjoy this.”

So I did. But I didn’t watch the fireworks. I watched the kaleidoscope of expressions that danced across my three-year-old’s face. I watched my husband struggle to adjust and readjust the burgeoning weight of an excited toddler on his shoulders…
…and for a moment I was at peace.

Art is a universal medium for quieting the mind – but art is about more than a pretty picture. Art is about life, about how we interpret that life and how we choose to live it.

That night, in the front yard, was a moment of living art.

Muslim Artists artisans
Qahani: My Crafty Outlet

Art comes in many forms. Writing a beautiful piece of prose that interprets the world is a form of art. At times that form suffices. Other times, I turn to photography, crafting, or I appreciate the art of others and I enjoy watching my little one joyfully express himself with pain. I find peace in creating an artistic environment at home that fosters moments of inspiration and proudly displays them.

For Lubna Kabir, a young Columbia-bound artist, art is about finding beauty. In a conversation about her haunting self-portrait titled Tears of a Profound Nature, Lubna shares:

Muslim artists _ Qudosi Chronicles
Lubna Kabir

“I believe that an eye for beauty is one of the best skills that a person can develop. To be able to find the beauty in all things is not easy, however. Often, in difficult situations we must strain our eyes to see the beauty of what has occurred; we must let tears fall from our eyes and wash away everything that obstructs our view of this beauty. We may cry tears of sadness, tears of anger, tears of joy, and tears of pain. No matter what emotion colors our lives and our tears at any specific moment, we learn something from each one of them. Our tears wash away the dirt on the surface of the lens that helps us see life. Tears of a Profound Nature underlines the importance and equality of all emotions in a person’s life.”

Tears of a Profound Nature completely captivated me. It playfully yet ambiguously pairs tears with the hint of a smile. Yet what draws me to that piece is how Lubna, an effortlessly stunning beauty, depicts herself with complex layers of paint and colors that step between darkness and light. It’s not how I see her, but it’s how she sees herself – there’s beauty in that fragility.

The heart of an artist is never in what they paint so much as why they paint it. Visual artist Zaineb Zeb Khan finds art as a bridge between art and activism. Her oil on canvas painting, titled Mother Theresa, was used to help raise funds for Afghan Women’s Writing Project. Drawing on Mother Theresa’s symbolic representation of humility and generosity, Zaineb draws from the iconic figure’s words for both artistic inspiration and as a personal mantra:

“Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” – Mother Theresa

Muslim Artists _ Qudosi Chronicles
“Mother Theresa” by Zaineb Zeb Khan

A delicate figure with picturesque features, Zaineb defines strength in everything she takes on. Immersed in the art world for over 15 years, her pieces are raw depictions of strong enduring women, women who struggle but bear on – who with quiet grace endure what others could not imagine. For Zaineb, these images are about self-expression. “My life is one devoted to self-expression – it is the theme that underlies my passions and my struggles as an artist, an activist, and a humanitarian.”

As Zaineb summarizes, “art is a metaphorical representation of what cannot be seen.” For Zaineb, art is about activism; for Lubna, it is about beauty; and for me, it is about love.

You cannot see love, but when you see the photographs I’ve taken, the pieces I have written, or the paintings I help my son create, what you see is overflowing love. That’s the goal of artists: to interpret life as they see it.

Muslim Reformer Shireen Qudosi

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