A + D ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: KULSUM TASNIF

Kulsum TasnifAn Interview with artist Kulsum Tasnif

by Art + Dialogue intern Maddie Fritz

M: How has your style developed through the years and how did you, as an artist, arrive at the works that are featured in the show?

K: The Chapel Hill shootings are what brought me here, they’re what inspired me to create pieces like the hate sign and “New Paint, Old Scars.” I feel like I’ve come full circle since my college years, which when I began exploring conceptual art and melding it with specific themes of social justice and activism. My college professor at the time, Professor Atkinson, has been my lifelong mentor and a special inspiration for me, always encouraging me to push the boundaries. He taught me to see the importance of the process. This would especially come into play when I began studying Islamic art, which is what I’ve dedicated myself to for the past ten years. You may look at my paintings, versus these pieces on social justice, and think that they come from an entirely different artist, but they actually both stem from this need to connect, whether it’s spiritually or otherwise.

The hate sign was a huge revelation for me. You know, when the Chapel Hill shootings happened, the community knew that it was a hate crime and there was a lot of frustration towards the initial media coverage portraying it as just a parking dispute. I was so immersed in my own emotions while creating this piece that it never occurred to me how someone else would feel about creating this sign. I had several rejections [from sign printing companies], and, you know, with each one, I felt like this burden was being lifted off my shoulders. It really changed my perception and the direction that the project would take. Just as I had given up, the owner of a small sign making shop, she agreed to make the sign and, telling me that she understood, I was so grateful, and she told me that she was so sorry for my loss. Probably one of the most uncomfortable moments of my life was dealing with the tension in the moment that I was actually picking up the sign. The lady and I, you know, we didn’t make eye contact and right before I left she just shook my hand and handed me this piece of paper and told me that this poem gave her comfort when she was searching for answers, and so, you know, that’s how it all came together. And this poem became a part of the project, along with the emails and the sign.

The whole process really reiterated the important stuff regarding the shootings.

M: How did you become an artist and are there specific life events that have impacted your work and/or contributed to your evolution as an artist?

K: Most definitely. Beginning with how I became an artist, in Pakistani culture, that’s my culture, and when I was growing up academics were pushed and the arts weren’t really emphasized. My mother was ahead of her time in that she saw this talent in me and she really nurtured it. She believed in my work, but more importantly, she believed in the decision that I made for myself. And I came to college on an arts scholarship and several events occurred during that period that really had a huge impact on my work and on my life. Number one being that I started wearing the hijab, which is the head scarf, and then, at the time, in the 90s, there was the Bosnian genocide at that time, and I was working in Bosnian refugee camps in Croatia. I was surrounded by stories of rape survivors, masses of orphans, and my art at the time was really charged with emotions. By the time I graduated and came to live at home with my parents, I felt like I had PTSD just trying to block out those images and voices, and feelings of guilt for leaving those children behind. That’s when I turned to painting and Islamic art, it provided the spiritual calm that I needed.

Another event was September 11th, you know, when it happened, showing the beauty of Islam as peace in art became more important than ever. My identity as a hijab-wearing Muslim woman more often than not gained more attention than my actual art. So I felt a responsibility to dispel those serious lies about Muslim women by taking on this active charge. Now I’ve taken the concept a step further by, actually, just interjecting myself in my art, like in my understanding of beauty.

M: The theme being racial tension in America, and the Art + Dialogue goal of uniting the arts and community in an exchange of ideas, do you have anything to say about connecting with the other featured artists?

K: I’m really looking forward to getting feedback from other artists and just learning from them. I consider the work I do, you know, they’re all works in progress where changing roles occur as dialogue is initiated. And this dialogue is just imperative and turning the tables on this uncomfortable subject that tends to segregate us and keep us from connecting with one another despite all our differences.

I’m really interested to see what the feedback is for “New Paint, Old Scars,” and see how people view my work.

M: Is there anything you want to tell young people who are growing up with and facing this level of racial tension in their country?

K: Well, I grew up in England where I got used to hearing “Paki, go home,” people would spit at me and curse at me on my way to school. I was a teenager during desert storm so you can imagine. Once that was over, I was expecting my first child around the time 9/11 occurred. And now Islamophobia is so rampant. And all of these events, you know, they just really have an impact, especially now that I’m a mother of three children. “Muslim, go home” is not an alien term to me. My art has given me a voice that I just didn’t have as a child. And I feel this responsibility to provide this voice to young people, immigrants, really anyone that feels like they don’t belong. In “New Paint, Old Scars” I translated a quote by Martin Luther King into Urdu, which is the Pakistani language, “We may have all come in different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” I just feel like that quote is so poignant in this day and age, in particular to the themes that I’m dealing with and the message that my work seeks to convey, which is ‘despite discrimination, racism, sexism, and all the devastations that the hate brings, the resilience to overcome will allow us to really understand each other.’ And what I would tell them is, you know, this is what I tell my daughter and she’s thirteen, that we share the world, and it’s our differences that make us beautiful.

You know, I just feel like I’ve been through so many experiences and there was a time where I used to be so scared and so afraid of facing people, just standing up for myself, and now that I have kids, I’ve felt a change, I’m just feel like I have this friend because of my art, like I have this voice and I can use it.

M: Do you have any words on creative confidence (what never fails to inspire you, etc.) and how that comes into play with the works you submitted?

K: What inspires my work is raw emotion. Whether it’s grief from viewing the death of my parents, or anger for innocence I’ve lost, or the deep love and peace that I feel in my connection to God, my work is about tapping into these emotions and seeing what’s conveyed to bridge these gaps. And, these gaps, once they’re filled, I believe have the potential to change lives.


Kulsum Tasnif signs, including the note and poem she received from the parking sign maker, are featured in the Art + Dialogue show in the Cowan Humanities Building at Greensboro College.

For more information about Kulsum and her work, please visit www.kulsumtasnif.com.


Art + Dialogue:  Responding to Racial Tension in America

Sept. 24 – Oct. 11  @  Greensboro College

Art + Dialogue (A + D) is a collaborative project bringing community together using visual art as the catalyst for dialogues around racial tension in America. A + D aspires to make the issue of race and racial tensions more tangible to its audiences and participants and promote greater understanding of different perspectives and experiences.

For a full calendar of events, click HERE.

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