In the article series “Inspiring Muslim artist” you will be introduced to artists that are a source of inspiration to me. Hoping that they will provoke your senses and perhaps make you appreciate art a little bit more.
Meet the artist
This time I finally got hold of a female artist Azzah Sultan, a Malaysian artist, currently based in New York. She grew up moving from country to country but Malaysia is still considered her home. She came to NYC because she always saw it as the place to be if you would want make it in the artistic world. She arrived in New York with the American dream in her mind but she said it definitely changed her, because being away from her family and diving into a world that is constantly fast paced she became stronger in practicing her faith and developing her creativity. She realized that her faith was the only thing that she could hold on to, to feel secure. This is why she finds it important to highlight aspects of religion in her art. She uses her art to express her feelings and frustrations towards the society she’s living in.
Her passion for art started as a kind of cliché, she was always interested in art ever since she was a kid. She first started of by creating her own short stories accompanied by illustrations. Then she got into drawing realistically and painting. She used to only focus on painting, thinking that to prove herself as an artist she had to master this skill. But then she realised there’s more to it, she started experimenting with other arts like embroidery and mixed media to illustrate her ideas. Currently she’s very focused on videos and creating environments and spaces that speak to the content of her work. New York definitely challenged her to start thinking more conceptually with her art, by using art as a tool to create dialogue rather than painting something that is aesthetically pleasing.
Her collection ‘we are not the same’ was the first thing that caught my attention. It is her first collection about Muslim women, being in an environment where you are the only Muslim woman and where people have many questions and misunderstanding about Islam. These artworks were a medium to show the diversity of the Muslim women. “Sharing the same faith does not make Muslim women the same person, we are all completely different and complex”, she said.
Am I modern now? I’m sure most of us have once asked this question to mock people who think that because we wear a hijab we have medieval thoughts. Muslim women are often labeled as oppressed, naive, traditional, backward thinking and so on. This is why Azzah decided to use her art to prove otherwise, with the help of humor and satire in this collection. She consulted the work of Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper John and Andy Warhol and adopted their style. By painting the Muslim woman in this modern style she is asking the world the question: Am I modern now? To provoke the audience and make them realize how absurd it is to tell a Muslim woman that she is only modern if she adopts the Western way of life.
With the piece ‘home sweet home’ she wanted to show the world what it means to be an American Muslim woman. So she collected blue, white and red scarves from Muslim women all over the United States. With the scarves she received from women who were born and raised in the USA, she handstitched an American flag. Stitching the scarves together brought the different background stories of these women into one piece. “Muslims are at a crossroad where they must hide their faith and show how American they are by not outwardly showing how religious there are. In order to be an American or to fit in they are taught Muslims have to be completely secular and that Islamic values don’t coincide with American values” said Azzah. ‘Home Sweet Home’ is a testimony of coming from various backgrounds but still sharing the common idea of being a Muslim but also an American. By creating this flag she reinforced her view namely that being a Muslim does not make one any less American, in other words faith and ethnicity are two different things.
The factor that plays an important role in her creative life is her coming from an immigrant family, Azzah says that it can shape and mold the way you live your life. She finds herself struggling with identifying herself, being a part of the society she lives in and also still being considered an outsider. Traditions that come from your homeland may not be ‘normal’ in the country you’re currently living in. This leaves many young immigrants to abandon their traditional apparel, cuisine and so on. Because they feel that this is the only way to adjust to the social norm of the country they live in. Azzah tries to use this idea of culture and ethnic background and how that correlates with being Muslim within her art.
Her dream is to break through as an artist and to use her knowledge of art to get into the academic field. The mantra Azzah lives by is: ‘In Shaa Allaah’.