Saba Taj: Muslims Are Awesome! & William Paul Thomas: Loved Ones

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Saba Taj is a queer, Muslim mixed-media visual artist and activist whose work centers around identity and challenging Islamophobia and sexism. Taj has struggled with her Muslim identity and its seeming contradictions with the other parts of her persona, but have come to wholly embrace this contradiction as an essential part of who she is, by rejecting monolithic interpretations of what it means to be Muslim. Her brightly colored portraits of mostly Muslim women in hijabs, smiling and enjoying quintessentially American things, makes a statement, imbued with humor, about how a hijab/head dress does not exclude Muslims from everyday “American” activities nor make them any less American. Over the years, her explorations of identity have grown increasingly intersectional, confronting Islamophobia’s connections to systemic oppression rooted in anti-black racism and imperialism. Her entire life as an American has been marked by Islamophobia and it is something that she confronts in her work. Taj believes that to be creating anything at all, even without the clear-cut themes of identity, is an act of resistance in a world that silences so many. The most important thing for folks to take away from her work is that identity does not operate on binaries — it is fluid and hybrid. For Taj, art as a way to have a voice in our representation and define ourselves, but most of all, as an act of resistance in a world that threatens to diminish us because of fear and hatred. Taj and her partner are founding members of Durham Artists Movement and along with her partner is a part of an active resistance movement against Islamophobia and Homophobia in NC.

Taj was recently interviewed in The Guardian in an article about Muslims in the South: “It’s been especially challenging to be a Muslim this past week. While Americans of all creeds and faiths were rallying across the country opposing Trump’s immigration ban on travelers and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, news broke about a mosque shooting in Quebec. I think right now, like many folks in America, I am balancing a lot of different feelings. There is fear for what this administration is going to do, and how that will impact me and people I love. Our safety, our survival, is routinely threatened in the name of some hypothetical greater safety that does not include us. What they are trying to keep safe is white supremacy, what they are trying to protect is their own power. I’m scared about hate crimes, about healthcare, about same-sex marriage and reproductive rights being negatively impacted, about Muslim registries, and deportations. It is a really sobering time, seeing how power is operating in this country and how important it is that we get organized so we can take that power. I’ve been in North Carolina my entire life. There are a lot of challenges and fears, but I love that I am born and raised in the south. As I’ve gotten older, I feel more deeply that this is my state, and that makes me dedicated to stay here and make it better.”

William Paul Thomas chooses specific people as models as a way of recognizing their significance in his life and honoring everyday people who often move through this world unnoticed. We regularly celebrate women and men of prominence in mass media – celebrities, politicians, but Thomas highlights the working people that impact him in a more personal and direct way. The work begins as an intimate acknowledgement of an individual and is subsequently transformed into a larger statement of universality. Thomas’s work reiterates the notion that we are more alike that we are different.

Thomas’s current series, “Cyanosis” which will be part of the Sumter Gallery exhibition, explores being deprived of basic human rights, being marginalized, or victimized by painting parts of the subjects’ faces blue. Cyanosis is a way to describe the bluish tone of the skin that results from the lack of oxygen in the blood. The most recent witnessing of deprivation of oxygen was the strangulation death of Eric Garner by NYPD police officers. Although the blue represents something somber, some people see different things. One viewer was reminded of the haint blue painted on the porches and ceilings of some Southern homes to keep evil spirits from entering. The human face, whether in a painting or photograph, has a powerful effect on the viewer. Many people have an immediate psychological connection and/or identification to faces. As people are drawn to look closer at the portraits, questions about the subject’s state of mind arise. Are they sad, reflective, angry? If the expression is ambiguous enough, we might begin to project our own emotions onto them to interpret the painting’s meaning. Thomas notes that, “Some people don’t see the humanity in Black men.” He wanted to show a broader range of how Black men are represented. He feels strongly that there is real value to showing a side of a group of people that are not fully represented in mainstream media. Thomas’ background would not seem to predict him becoming an artist. He was raised by a single mother in a working class neighborhood in Chicago. In 2009 he earned a BFA with an emphasis in painting and drawing from the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater. He went on to receive a Master in Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 2013.

Thomas’s Artist Statement – “Many of us have immediate psychological connections to representations of the human face. We look for similarities between ourselves and those represented; note key differences between “us” and “them.” Assumptions or questions about the subject’s state of mind usually follow. If the expression that the subject wears is ambiguous enough, we might begin to project our own emotions onto them to interpret the painting’s message.
I choose specific models as a way of recognizing their significance in my life’s path. I relish being able to honor everyday people through making images. I integrate text and other symbols that reflect the vernacular of the community into the portrait to narrow the subject matter to a certain degree and complicate the viewer’s understanding of the subject’s identity. The work begins as an intimate acknowledgement of an individual and is subsequently transformed into a set of symbols poised for the viewer’s investigation.”

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