Interview of Artist Hafeez

December 28, 2006 by  


Courtesy Jawad Ali, Muslim Wakeup

This is an interview of the artist Hafeez, taken from the website Muslim Wakeup, an excellent website. The interview has been adapted by TMO.

Hafeez is a painter and a graphic artist who lives in New York. He recently completed a series of 99 paintings depicting the names of Allah. This is his contribution to making this a better world after 9-11. All the paintings are oil on 16 X 16 inches canvas. MWU has been featuring his art on our site from time to time. We spoke over the phone.

There is a story in our Ramadan blog where a total stranger offers all of his food to sister Sherien. Hafeez comes across as one such person. He does not like to draw attention to himself, but the size of his loving heart soon becomes obvious. By the end of our first conversation he was inviting me to come and stay at his house on the other side or the continent.

What made you decide to take on this project?

Hafeez: Oh, I have so many reasons. On Sept 11 I was standing in my office building not too far from World Trade Center I was watching the most horrible thing in my life, with some of my Jewish employers who had been like a family to me over the last 15 years. One of the younger men put his hand on my shoulder and said, “aren’t those your people who did this?” It was shocking and painful to realize that people saw this as a religious issue. My friend apologized later but I kept wondering if others in America felt that way. I felt I had to do something. I felt that Islam had been betrayed.

This is my contribution to the post 9-11 world. I want to share the divine names of Almighty. I want the world to experience Islamic arts. I felt that there is a great need for Islamic fine arts. I went to art school in Pakistan, and we studied art that was mostly inspired by the West. I have a great deal of love for Western art, but it is not my heritage. A lot of what passes off as an art in the Islamic world tends to be crafty and repetitive in nature. We have drifted off from our rich artistic heritage in many ways.

You said you have many reasons. What are some of your other ones?

Hafeez: When I traveled Cordoba and Alhambra in Spain I could not believe the beauty carved in stone, hundreds of years ago. My mother brought some Islamic art from Pakistan, and I refuse to display in my house because of the low quality and the fact that it was nothing but an imitation of the past. It made me sad to think of the decline and stagnation in Islamic arts. I felt an urge to move things forward.

This led me to paint 99 names of Allah. To me these names are sacred and holy. I wish I could share these names with all Muslims, and especially with young artists, and perhaps breathe a new spirit into Islamic Art.

Other things happened over the years that lead me towards this project. I read a quote from Iqbal, the great Indian poet and thinker, about the spiritual dimensions of art. I was inspired by it. The quote was in a book of Mirza Ghalib’s poetry that had been illustrated by Chugtai the great Pakistani painter. You can see the exact quote on my website. Iqbal was almost telling me that it was my sacred duty to make this art.

You know that the 99 names of Allah are big source of love for the Sufis. I read a sufi book on this subject, and it contained artwork to accompany each name, but the reproduction was of very poor quality. The illustrations were black and white plates that were not even one inch in size, and one of them was repeated. I imagined how beautiful large color art might have looked.

A few years ago I also took time to travel in the Islamic lands; Iran, Morocco, Turkey etc. This is where I got reintroduced to our Sufi heritage. I visited the shrine of Rumi, and he has entered my heart in a special way. In many ways I had drifted away from Islam and my faith, and this brought me closer God.

I became a follower of the Mevelvi sufi order, but I have love and respect for all spiritual traditions. A friend once took me to see Shaikha Fariha al Jerrahi in New York. I felt compelled to tell this woman about my art project. She sat down and prayed with me about art that I had only described in words. This was a very moving experience.

I had already started my project but I was getting frustrated and thinking of giving it up. The colors and styles were not coming out right. That meeting with the Sufi Sheikha changed the artistic direction of the project. People could see a new style emerge in the stuff that I painted after that day.

Did you have any formal training in fine arts?

Hafeez: I studied at the Karachi School or Arts. It is a great institution run by famous Pakistani artists like Rabia Zuberi, Mansoor Rahi, Hajira Mansoor and Amanullah Khan. I studied painting there and eventually won a gold medal in paintings. I had no formal training in Arabic calligraphy. My art was displayed at the American Consulate in Karachi, and the American Council General encouraged me to apply to art schools in the US. I went to art school in San Francisco, and midway through the program I changed course to graphic arts. It was a practical and financial decision.

And how do you feel about your career in graphic arts?

Hafeez: Initially it was very gratifying. I moved to New York City and worked for influential advertising firms on Madison Avenue. It was a great boost to my ego to see my work on Billboards and magazine covers.

I have started to question some of this over the years. My work is selling soap and shoes. I sit through company meetings where we brainstorm on such questions as how to get middle-income African American women to consume more alcohol. This has got me turning back to my roots in fine arts.

What are your plans for this series of paintings?

Hafeez: I would love to expose them to a greater audience. Inshallah, I am looking for venues for public displays. I may collaborate with some good cause to sell prints, but the artwork itself is not for sale. That was not my intention. I have had offers to buy it, but I don’t want these paintings to end up in the hallway of some soulless office complex.

Has the local Islamic community embraced or championed your art?

Hafeez: No, I can not say they have, and I can not say that this is entirely their fault. I do not mingle and promote much at all. I still have my day job. The only way to make this kind of art is to put myself in seclusion. My parents live close by, as do my wife’s parents. I enjoy hanging out with them, but that does not leave me any time to hang out with others. It is very important for me to be in the community, but the nature of my work and my tendency to be a loner means that my art has to be out in the community and not my being. I learned this from Edgar Degas.

What is next for you?

Hafeez: I have already started my second project about the names of the prophets. I think Prophet (PBUH)’s names are not that familiar to every Muslim and I think this will bring those names to light. I started with the names of the Prophet’s family. It may seem like a Shia thing to do, I admire their love for Prophets family, and I think there is a lot of misunderstanding between Sunnis and Shias. I started with the name Muhammed, but I quickly switched to Fatima. There is no logical reason, just a hunch. I remembered how much the prophet loved his daughter, and that he would want me to start with her Name.

I have already painted over 70 names, and let us see, with the help of Allah when I can finish this Project. I prefer to finish in 2004. Then I will take most famous lines from Quran and make another series, based on those subjects.

The Islamic world seems to have turned away from the fine arts. How do you feel about being a Muslim artist?

Hafeez: Well, this question is the most interesting and I have lots to say about this. I think there is some misinterpretation about Islam and Art. If we look back in time we see the Persian influence on beautifying the Kufic script. Also it has been an art form to recite the Quran in many styles. All the Islamic civilizations and empires had a heavy component of art and architecture. This is true in Iran, India, Spain, everywhere. It flourished in many different styles and reached to its majestic heights. I have no conflict about being an artist. In fact, we do not realize that art is in everything. It is simply an expression reflecting the love of the Creator.

What advise do you have for young Muslim artists?

Hafeez: Do not let your curiosity die. Always search for answers. Keep that two years old child alive within yourselves. Feed him or her with knowledge and wisdom. Art is not a choice, it is a passion and a love. If your love is true you will survive all the obstacles. Be determined and positive. Do not be too harsh to yourself. Love yourself, then you will be able to love all, and it will reflect on your art.

Thank you so much, Hafeez. Now you get to pick one painting to go with the interview on MuslimWakeup.

Hafeez: Oh, come on. I can not do that. You are going to have to pick one yourself. They are all like children to me. I can not have a favorite. It is much easier to pick from other people’s works. I will give you my favorite quotation, and a favorite verse from Rumi.

“The first step in awakening on the path of enlightenment is to separate awareness from that which it is aware of.”

And from Rumi:

Art as Flirtation and Surrender
In your light I learn how to love.
In your beauty, how to make poems.
You dance inside my chest,
where no one sees you,
but sometimes I do,
and that sight becomes this art.

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