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“It started with the arrival of a boat”

Safwat Saleem’s art balances sugar and pain

Multidisciplinary artist and baker of cakes

Having spent his life as a “professional immigrant”, the politically-charged Pakistani-American artist focuses on the idea of belonging, fatherhood – and pin badges

My work gives visibility to immigrant narratives that are lost in an attempt to belong.

Safwat Saleem

Safwat Saleem is a Pakistani-American visual artist, graphic designer, filmmaker and father best known for making politically-charged satirical art that questions narratives around immigration and facing the darkness – together.


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.

Give a F*CK about Midterms, 2022

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”.

Tally marks go from neat to increasing 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 coving 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, Fine Acts Advisory Board Member. was recently jury member of Artists for Climate, and is a recipient of the Rocky Mountain Emmy and the American Advertising Awards.

Safwat Saleem grew up with a stutter – hear how the artist reclaimed his voice

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 and cake.

Q&A: Safwat Saleem

Why art? Why do you do what you do?

I am a visual artist and graphic designer. Having spent my life as a professional immigrant, my art generally focuses on the idea of belonging. Art is how I process things and the world around me so I tend to make the kind of art that I wish had existed for me in that particular moment. I use it as a form of catharsis.

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.

How to make cake: A guide to colonialism, 2022

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.

What’s the story behind your illustrations for Fine Acts’ The Greats series?

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.

Do you have any rituals that get your creativity flowing?

Waking up at 4:45am every morning is a ritual that I’ve forced upon myself even though I’m not a morning person. Being up that early makes me feel like I have a couple of hours to catch up before everyone wakes up and I fall behind again. It is also a time for me to drink a cup of coffee as I listen to a favorite piece of music or two. Other than putting my daughter to bed, this is perhaps my favorite part of the day.

As a reaction the news cycle, Morning Person shows a man sipping his coffee as the room fills with water

What role do you feel art and the artist still have in today’s society?

I think I’m at a somewhat cynical stage of my artistic journey. I think more responsible economic policies and less-fragile male egos can lead to a more just and peaceful world but I’m unsure what role art can play there. My expectations of art are a bit modest these days. If a piece of art can bring a few moments of comfort or make someone feel less alone, then it has done more than enough.

Tell us about one joyous, mind-blowing or totally unexpected outcome in your own journey last year.

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.

What’s next? Share your plans for the coming year – what would be your dream ‘utopia’ scenario for 2023? 

I’m currently in the final stages of finishing my very first permanent outdoor sculpture which has been almost two years of heartbreak and learning. It’s by far the most difficult project I’ve ever done and I’m looking forward to it finally being finished in early 2023. Then I have two gallery shows coming up in March 2023. After that would be my real dream utopia scenario where I get to take a long break, get adequate sleep, not think about art and spend a lot of time with my daughter.

The Future is an ongoing sculpture collaboration that illuminates the state of peace or conflict around the world. Lit bulbs represent sovereign states at peace. It is created with Alicia Eggert and Fine Acts

Lastly, we are creating a playlist for TOPIA. What is the last song you’d want to hear during your time here on Earth?

I think this is the toughest question of all. If I absolutely had to choose just one song, I think I’d pick ‘Keep’ by Nils Frahm. 

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.

What’s so good about this?

Artopia is an ongoing TOPIA series exploring the power of art when it comes to positive social impact. This interview is part of a TOPIA series in partnership with Fine Acts, a global creative studio for social impact. Read all the artist interviews.

safwatsaleem.com
@selfhelp.library

Meet the writer

A wise-cracking detective somewhere in the multiverse, Lisa Goldapple is the brain behind the world of TOPIA, She might not behave as good as gold, but thinks good is golden. To understand how TOPIA came about, read Mind Blown: “If life splinters and you hallucinate triangles, make a kaleidoscope.”

Follow @lisagoldapple/@lisagoldapple.

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