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Safwat Saleem: In His Own Words
May, 30, 2023
Safwat Saleem: In His Own Words
As a Pakistani-American artist, Safwat Saleem’s path to finding art was not a traditional one. After majoring in computer science, he broke away to pursue graphic design and the arts. In the process, he found his voice by creating art that focuses on the desire to belong.
Safwat’s multidisciplinary practice ranges from graphic design and illustration to writing, film, and sound, centering on immigrant narratives and particularly the cultural loss that results from assimilation. His works and public installations have been on view across Arizona, including in Avondale, at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, and at Tucson Museum of Art
We spoke with Safwat to learn about the inspiration behind his work, what it’s like to create while in the depths of parenthood, and more. Here he is, in his own words.
“My work weaves together themes of preservation, resistance, desire to belong, and joy as an immigrant father raising a multiracial child in the American Southwest.”
Safwat Saleem, Portrait. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: Deanna Dent.
PhxArt: Tell us about who you are and when you knew you wanted to be an artist.
Safwat Saleem: I’m a multidisciplinary Pakistani-American artist. My path to becoming an artist has been somewhat slow and unconventional. I am not the product of a liberal arts college. I picked the very practical and safe major of computer science and was happily coasting along until I made friends with someone who was studying graphic design. Up until then I didn’t even realize that graphic design or art was something you could go to school for.
Although I continued to study computer science, I couldn’t get the idea of making art for a living out of my head. So, ultimately, I decided to take a risk. I went to graduate school for design and digital art because I felt that perhaps art could be a way to amplify my voice. Since then, I’ve been juggling working as a graphic designer and advancing my artistic practice simultaneously.
Safwat Saleem, 7,103, 2023. Charcoal on paper roll, American flag from naturalization ceremony. 156 x 38 inches. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: Lisa Olson.
PhxArt: What do you typically explore through your work?
SS: My work generally focuses on the desire to belong. Art is how I process the world around me, and it is a form of catharsis. I tend to create the type of art that I wish had existed for me in particular moments of time when I felt alone. Arizona has been my home for over two decades, and my work, subconsciously at first but very intentionally now, is an attempt to make this place feel like home for myself and for others like me.
PhxArt: What are the media that you prefer to work in, and what are the topics or subjects that you most focus on?
SS: My practice is multidisciplinary and ranges from graphic design, illustration and writing, to film and sound. My work centers on giving visibility to immigrant narratives and often focuses on cultural loss resulting from assimilation. My body of work weaves together themes of preservation, resistance, desire to belong, and joy as an immigrant father raising a multiracial child in the American Southwest.
Humor is a critical element of my work. I use satire to challenge perceptions and bring to the foreground points of view that have been obscured historically by hegemonic power. For example, my work 7,103 uses my own experience enduring a 19-year-long immigration process, depicting the number of days I spent in the U.S. immigration system before becoming a naturalized citizen.
My mixed-media series Concerned but Powerless is based on notes I wrote for my daughter beginning in 2017, the year she was born and the year I reached the conclusion of my naturalization process to become an American citizen. The artworks in the series make use of Urdu typography and explore themes like cultural loss, assimilation, democracy, misinformation and rising anti-immigrant sentiment.
Another work, Oral History (of us), is an audio installation that invites viewers to listen to a cassette tape and then discard it in the trash. The audio on the tapes is a letter addressed to my daughter, covering a few centuries of our ancestral history. The installation aims to make visible the idea of cultural loss and immigrant narratives that tend to become obscured in an effort to assimilate.
Safwat Saleem, The Self Help Library, 2022. Hardbound books. 8 x 10 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: How has your practice evolved over the years?
SS: Becoming a parent forced me to evolve how I work, as well as what I work on. For the past several years, I’ve followed artists who are also mothers and the work they’ve made after becoming a parent. More than anything, I’ve been searching for answers on how to balance being a productive artist while not just caring for a tiny human, but also navigating the complexities of raising her in an inter-racial, inter-faith and dual-language household.
When I first became a parent, I spent a lot of time thinking that perhaps I would no longer be able to make art. Being a parent is a full-time job, and I also work as a graphic designer. Trying to find a place for art between being a designer and a parent was proving to be quite a challenge.
When I came across the artist Lenka Clayton, that completely changed the way I look at art. Her work A Residency in Motherhood and The Distance I Can Be From My Son helped me find a process and direction with my art that I feel good about. Being a parent is now an important part of my art practice, and I’ve also been exploring ways to make works that are collaborations with my daughter.
It is surprisingly difficult to find examples of men who openly talk about being a caregiver and the impact it has on their art, so I feel I haven’t learned much from artist fathers. But thank goodness for artist mothers.
Safwat Saleem, A New Home, 2023. Steel, paint, concrete, and LED lights. 18 x 12 feet. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: Who are your greatest artistic influences?
SS: There are so many artists and designers who create work that sticks with me, including Zineb Sedira, Deborah Roberts, Mona Chalabi, Christine Sun Kim, Sindha Agha, Jerome Ellis, Axel Kacoutié, Kelli Anderson, and Salman Toor, to name a few.
Local artists who constantly inspire me are Gloria Martinez-Granados, Christopher Jagmin, Ann Morton, Sam Frésquez, Laura Spalding Best, Joshua Rhodes, Janel Garza, Shela Yu, Danny Upshaw, and so many more!
PhxArt: What’s something you’re currently working on or have recently exhibited?
SS: I recently completed a permanent, outdoor sculpture called A New Home. This sculpture has been nearly two years of heartbreak and learning process. It depicts a woman and child sitting in an oversized rowboat run aground in a patch of land. The woman and child look away from the viewer no matter which side the sculpture is viewed from.
My series Concerned but Powerless is on view at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the exhibition Language in Times of Miscommunication. Oral History of Us, an audio installation, is currently part of the Arizona Biennial at the Tucson Museum of Art.
Safwat Saleem, Concerned but Powerless #11, 2018; 2020. Mixed media, charcoal, and color pencil on illustration board. 18 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What is some advice you’d give to aspiring artists just beginning to build their professional practice?
SS: My advice is to never attach your self-worth to something that is judged by others. Don’t be too hard on yourself, especially if you don’t come from privilege. A lot of success in the art world comes down to one’s ability to attend an elite liberal arts college, be able to afford residencies that don’t pay a living wage, or have access to networks that are only possible when you come from privilege. So, what does one do when you don’t have those kinds of resources? You just have to try to be kind to yourself, work at your own pace, and come up with your own measures of success. This is advice mostly for my younger self and something I still have to remind myself of on a regular basis.
PhxArt: What can our community expect to see next from you? Anything on the horizon?
SS: I’m currently working on The Self-Help Library, a collection of oddly specific books that I wish had existed to guide me through certain parts of my life. With book titles like Random Check: Coping with TSA screenings and other humiliations that are not so random at all when you’re Muslim and Stories of strong women of color protagonists for your daughter so she doesn’t grow up thinking women of color don’t matter, The Self Help Library uses book covers as the canvas to give visibility to themes like the immigrant experience, the joy of fatherhood, and resistance as a brown person in America in the face of rising xenophobia.
The first version of the project was commissioned by Tempe Arts and was showcased at Tempe Public Library in 2022. The collection currently consists of 24 books, and my goal is to expand it to 50 books by the end of 2023. You can follow the project on Instagram at @selfhelp.library.