“It started with the arrival of a boat”
Safwat Saleem’s art balances sugar and pain
Having spent his life as a “professional immigrant”, the politically-charged Pakistani-American artist focuses on the idea of belonging, fatherhood – and pin badges
This interview is part of a TOPIA series in partnership with Fine Acts, a global creative studio for social impact. Read the interviews.
His aim? Saleem wants to get people talking – and laughing – about subjects that tend to otherwise make people feel uncomfortable, like cultural loss and immigrant narratives that tend to get obscured in an effort to belong.
Utilising a multidisciplinary practice that ranges from graphic design, sculpture, illustration and writing to film and sound, the Phoenix-based artist creates multimedia storytelling experiences that get conversations happening.
In 7,103, the artist depicted the number of days he spent in the US immigration system before becoming a naturalised citizen. After being presented an American flag at his naturalisation ceremony – thanks to enduring a 19-year-long immigration process – Saleem decided to confront the audience with the uncomfortable truth that “this is immigration in our great country”.
Look closely and you’ll note the tally marks go from neat to increasingly more anxious and desperate, while the unused portion of the paper roll signifies that that process could’ve been indefinitely longer. He wants to invite us to reconsider the prevalent belief that immigrating legally to the US is a viable option for most.
In 2022, noticing that over the course of just one generation, Punjabi is a lost language in his family, and that Urdu – along with the culture he grew up with – might not be a part of his daughter’s life, Saleem created Oral History (of us). The audio installation is a letter addressed to his daughter covering a few centuries of the family history: “I speak to my daughter in Urdu but she responds in English. Similarly, my mother speaks to me in Punjabi and I respond in Urdu. My mother and my daughter don’t communicate in any verbal language – just hugs, smiles and food.”
Saleem is a TED Senior Fellow, a Fine Acts Advisory Board Member. was recently a jury member of Artists for Climate, and is a recipient of the Rocky Mountain Emmy and the American Advertising Awards.
In a past life, Safwat was also the founder of Bandbaja, a Pakistani music magazine “with bite” that promoted the use of modern popular music as a socio-political tool. He also has a penchant for doing voiceovers in his videos for all kinds of silly characters like a bear, sheep, greeting card and a whale – and loves an enamel pin badge with a message that can serve as daily reminders that we’re not alone in facing this darkness.
TOPIA asked the artist about creativity, catharsis, cassettes and cake.
And what has cake got to do with anything?
The past few years have been challenging and slowly took away my will to create art. When I was at a very low point in late 2020, I started baking cakes – not because I thought I would enjoy baking but because I was convinced that eating cake would make me feel better. In that process I started experimenting with making Pakistani versions of cake recipes I came across – partly because I wanted to show my then four-year-old daughter that those flavours can be incredible but also because it was nice to be creative again. It felt like making art just for me and my daughter in a way that also honours where we come from.
My daughter now insists on helping when I bake. Having made and eaten copious amounts of cakes over the past 18 months or so, I am making art again. It’s a delicate balance between sugar and pain.
These illustrations are from a series called Art for Dark Times. The series was born out of a desire to make art that offered a glimmer of hope at a particularly dark time. The print versions of these illustrations were made with glow-in-the-dark ink so it is art that was literally meant to be seen in the dark.
I’m the kind of person who can easily begin to wallow in self pity when things get challenging so I was looking to work on art that could serve as a reminder of helpful things to do when I’m feeling that way. Simple but powerful words like fight, rise, hope and persist are all reminders I need more often than I want to admit.
The enamel pins and stickers to serve as daily reminders, for anyone who could use such a reminder, that we’re not alone in facing this darkness. It started off as something personal just for me but thanks to getting the project funded via Kickstarter, I was able to produce a limited run of each of the items.
Take us into your creative cosmos. Who are your biggest influences and who do you find exciting and innovative today?
For the past several years I’ve been looking at artists who are also mothers and the work they make after becoming a parent. More than anything, I’ve been searching for effective answers for how to balance being a productive artist with being a caregiver to a tiny human. 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.
Then I came across the artist Lenka Clayton and I credit her with completely changing the way I look at art now. Her work A Residency in Motherhood and in particular 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 male artists who openly talk about being a caregiver and the impact it has had on their art so I feel I don’t have much to learn from artist fathers. But thank goodness for artist mothers, though.
It is surprisingly difficult to find examples of male artists who openly talk about being a caregiver and the impact it has had on their art.Safwat Saleem
If you had to look at one artwork only until the end of days, what would it be – and why?
Any drawing that my daughter makes for me and leaves at my desk just so I can look at it when I miss her.
I made more art in 2022 than I have in several years prior combined. I took all my heartbreak and pain, and poured it into work that felt truly meaningful. At the beginning of the year I had no desire to make anything ever again, but ideas sneak up on you when you expect them the least.
Among the bigger projects is The Self-Help Library. It is about oddly specific and entirely imaginary self-help books that I wish had existed to guide me through parts of my life. I’ve been coming up with titles and then designing covers for those books. Then I get the books printed and bound. It launched in March and you can follow the project on Instagram at @selfhelp.library.
Lastly, we are creating a playlist for TOPIA. What is the last song you’d want to hear during your time here on Earth?
Safwat Saleem’s tips of Good people to follow
Sam Fresquez – an artist based in Phoenix, Arizona who makes incredibly thought provoking work.
Shehzil Malik – a Pakistani illustrator and visual artist who consistently makes bold and powerful work.
Sindha Agha – American filmmaker and storyteller. Everything she has ever made leaves me in awe and I think about it for days after.
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