“An-Noor” (The Light), a portrait series in progress by Saba Barnard.
Saba Barnard likes to paint Muslim women. Her first series of portraits, “Technicolor Muslimah,” explores the humor, joy and kindness of its subjects with color and fun. Historic icons and religious imagery inspire her current series in progress, “An-Noor,” with its heroic, dynamic portrayal of women from the artist’s personal network.
Barnard, 26, also blogs about the process of creating the portraits on her website, sharing details about inspiration along the way and offering insights into how using an iPad changed the way she works with composition and colors on canvas.
Her artistic perspective draws from her experiences growing up Pakistani and Muslim in the United States, and her artist’s statement speaks to those experiences: “A first generation Pakistani-American woman, I was confronted by my ‘otherness’ from a very young age. As a brown-skinned, big-haired, mosque-going, curry-eating, mustached girl who couldn’t date, eat bacon, or wear shorts, I was the token of diversity at my WASP dominated private school in Raleigh, North Carolina. I envied my blue-eyed, blonde-haired, pop-collared, seer-suckered, church-going peers who vacationed on islands, had boyfriends, and definitely did not have to squat over a hole to use the bathroom when they visited their grandmother.”
Saba Barnard took some time out from painting to reply to questions by email from The Aerogram.
What was it like growing up Pakistani and Muslim in Raleigh, North Carolina?
There is a fairly large Pakistani Muslim community in Raleigh. The families get together for dinner parties all the time on weekends. There is also a great mosque where Muslims from all sorts of cultural backgrounds would go for prayers and youth groups and Sunday school, so I met quite a diverse crowd there.
In addition, I had the more unique experience to go to a school from K-12 that was very predominately white and Christian, and I felt that by being the only Muslim girl there, that my ethnicity and religion set me apart from my peers. On the one hand, I enjoyed being different, and felt proud of it, but I also found it to be somewhat difficult. I had to learn to communicate about my ethnic background and about Islam to people who were very unfamiliar with it.
I was pretty sensitive to the fact that I was different from my peers at school, and most of the time I would have been happy to just blend in and be “normal.” I suppose these contrasts between these worlds made me more aware of constructs like race and religion and gender, and the role that they play in how others see us and how we see ourselves.
Tell us about “An-Noor,” your series of portraits in progress.
Working on it is really exciting. I am about halfway done. The title An-Noor means “The Light” in Arabic. The portraits are of American Muslim women, and though there are clear unifying elements, the paintings themselves are quite diverse.The title An-Noor means “The Light” in Arabic.I am drawing inspiration from all over the place — church ceilings, popular culture, mehndi patterns — and painting canvases that are up to 6 feet tall and 8 feet wide. I just want this series to embody how dynamic, beautiful and strong these women are, and how these qualities manifest in so many different ways. Every single painting has challenged me.
I hope that the paintings reflect more of a fluid identity, one that includes elements from Eastern and Western cultures, the old and the new, the masculine and the feminine all in one image.
How did you choose the subjects to paint for your current series?
I choose my subjects mostly from my personal network. Facebook certainly helps. Some women I have known since childhood, some I may have only met once before asking them to participate.
Sometimes, I’ll have vague ideas of what I want to do in a painting, and then I will find the perfect subject to help me bring these ideas to life. Other times, I will want to paint a certain person and create the imagery afterwards.
How long did it take to make the portraits you’ve completed?
These portraits have taken between five and twelve weeks to paint, but longer than that if all of the planning and sketching is included.
What kinds of discussions do you hope to start with your art?
Basically when people hear “Muslim,” there are a number of words, ideas, and images that they associate with that title. These words, ideas, and images come straight from the world around them, and if not their own personal experiences, then what they have seen and heard from television, movies, advertisements, and their institutions.I hope that my art might challenge the narrow perceptions of Muslims.So I want to create truthful images that are underscored not by how Muslims are in contrast to the mainstream, but how they are people, and add that into the pile of images that people can draw from when they think of a Muslim. I hope that my art might challenge the narrow perceptions of Muslims, Muslim women, and women in general, by creating imagery that is clearly different from the images that dominate our media.
As far as starting discussions, if my art can start any kind of conversation, I think that’s awesome. Even if it’s just someone saying “This is crap because _______.”
I think that there is a tendency to be afraid of people who seem different from us, to steer clear of them. I try to make images that are not scary, but accessible and inviting, that hopefully provide a safe opportunity for people to start thinking and talking about what they think about Muslims and why, to question where those ideas have come from and if they are accurate.
Selected works from “Technicolor Muslimah” and “An-Noor” are on display at Litmus Gallery and Studios in Raleigh, North Carolina, through May 2013.