While most of her high school classmates might have been sneaking short skirts out of the house to wear, Saba Barnard was busy slipping out a hijab to put on before arriving on campus.
Her Pakistani family didn’t want her to stand out, and discouraged Barnard from wearing a hijab. But to her, the garb gave her a sense of belonging, and ever since 9/11, she had begun to feel a responsibility to show a more positive side of Muslims. If it took wearing a hijab to be that good example, she would do it.
Her desire to challenge the way people think about Muslims and Islam would later inform her career as an artist. Her work depicting strong Muslim women has taken her from galleries in her home town of Raleigh, North Carolina to a showing last month at the World Islamic Economic Forum in London.
Her series of paintings titled “Technicolor Muslima” explicitly takes mainstream assumptions to task. In her view, the media portrays Muslim women as submissive and uniform, so she chose to paint colorful, lively portraits of American Muslims who she has known since childhood.
“While creating human portraits showing layers of identity, I try to emphasize [their] Americanness and modernity, without erasing their Muslimness,” she said.
To Barnard, connecting with others through art and culture is the ultimate point.
“Through culture you are giving people a voice,” she said. “When you eliminate people from culture, it is dehumanizing—as if they don’t have a voice. Like they don’t anything to say.”
NOTES FROM THE ARTIST:
"These two paintings are from a series titled "Technicolor Muslimah." It is a series of 15 portraits of American Muslim women wearing the hijab, plus fun props and objects. The women are rendered in bright colors, a departure from how Muslim women are typically portrayed. Each woman is identified as Muslim by her headscarf, but this visual symbol is truly the only mention of her religion, because my perspective here is humanist."
Ayesha K., Educator
"Dina (Lioness)" is posed like Norman Rockwell's "Rosie the Riveter." The worm's eye view and powerful posture help create a regal and confident image of the subject.
Description for Maestà, from body of text: "The subject is surrounded by her children and painted in a manner directly referencing the Madonna Enthroned painted by Giotto (and countless others). The background contains imagery derived from Catholic church ceilings, the American flag, and Islamic patterns. Here I am exploring her layered heritage, and the strength of motherhood."
Saba Barnard is currently showing in Pleaides Gallery in Durham, North Carolina, and just recently showed at the World Islamic Economic Forum in London. She previously has showed her work in the MUSLIMA: a collection of Muslim Women’s Art and Voices at the International Museum for Women in San Francisco. She no longer wears a hijab.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.