Habiba El-Sayed is an upcoming Torontonian ceramic artist whose work focuses on exploring her identity as a biracial Guyanese-Egyptian and a Muslim womyn living in a post 9/11 world. She has secured a coveted residency at Harbourfront Craft Studios, has had her work exhibited at the Gardiner Museum and most recently (Mus)Interpreted, a group exhibition showcasing work by emerging and established young Muslim womyn artists in the Greater Toronto Area.
I caught up with Habiba to discuss her decision to pursue art as a career, reconciling with her identity and her hope for the Muslim community regarding art. Excerpts from our discussion are below.
Why did you choose this as a career?
I didn’t know art could be a career (laughs). When I was in Islamic school [we] didn’t have real art classes, we would have a small art project maybe once a week. When I went to public school, I joined a special arts program. I was really into it, it felt right! In high school, I was chosen by one of my art teachers to do a program at Harbourfront and try out different craft mediums. I saw people working in the field and it was the first time I viewed art as a viable career opportunity.
How would you describe your work?
It falls between art and craft. I use a craft medium but I approach my work more conceptually versus functionally. My art is sculptural and preformative instead of usable, like mugs and bowls. Early on, I didn’t know I would lean on a craft material.
You mentioned preformative, what do you mean by that?
Approaching art from a less static point of view. My experience as a Muslim womyn living in a post 9/11 society almost felt like a heavy physical burden or weight. I was exhausted defending and explaining myself. Before when I was doing a lot of sculptures with clay and metal, it would crack and break, which reflected what I was feeling and experiencing.
I wanted to involve myself more in my work, performance art puts you in the art piece, the artist is more present in that work. “Weight of apology”, was my first performance piece and it was a physical representation of that feeling, constant rebuilding.
Would you say your work is even more relevant and important considering the current political situation?
After 9/11, it’s been shitty. There have been terrorist attacks, one after another with some lulls in between. But generally, it has been really difficult for Muslims. We already didn’t have hope and then Trump came along. People clearly still hate us. In some ways, people make art from what they know and this is our reality.
I don’t mind that my work has been depressing. People say “your work has no positivity, no glimmer of hope, all sad and doom gloom right now”. If things were getting better, I would talk about it in my work. People need to understand that this is a serious issue; it sucks for us. Things are not getting better. People get so annoyed that I’m down all the time but it is what it is. I find it very important to stay angry, I don’t want to become complacent.
How have you differentiated your art from Islamic Art and Middle Eastern art, or is it all the same?
There is a distinction between Middle Eastern cultures, which are not related to Islam at all. These cultures were all very different stylistically but “Islamic culture” homogenized it.
I know this may contradict my earlier point but when I first started, I didn’t want to be one of those clichéd Muslim artists who only do calligraphy. I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself but the Islamic influence in my art organically grew from my exploration of identity. However, I do question what defines Islamic art. I’m a Muslim and this is Islamic art, even if it doesn’t have geometric patterns.
Finally, what is your hope for the Muslim community in regards to art?
We should have art classes in Islamic school. The Muslim community needs to reevaluate how we look at art.
The rest of the world knew us by our art. The Muslim world was revered for its architecture and designs. We are only known for violence now. Muslims are obsessed with being doctors and scientists. I get it, because they want to make something of themselves and their children, and that’s great!
[However,] Artists change people’s perception. Everything we use is designed by somebody. Art is such an important part of us and our culture. It is something that bridges the gap with the Western world and us. If Muslims wants to see change they need to embrace artists in our community. I just feel they need be more open minded about it. I feel like their needs to be an Islamic art renaissance.
Editor’s note: Use of “womyn” is intentionally used by the writer, which represents a feminist literature approach where you remove male possession from the word woman.