By Lauren Gilger
Lauren Gilger: Visual artist Safwat Saleem likes to use satire — sometimes dark satire — in his work. He’s a Pakistani-American who became a U.S. citizen last year. And as he watched the 2016 election unfold, his wit came out in a series of soliloquies that he’s put onto paper in his new exhibition at Chandler’s Vision Gallery, “Concerned, but Powerless.”
Safwat Saleem: “And even though he told his children not to lie, he gently tucked them into bed, saying ‘Here it doesn’t matter what you look like, or where your parents are from.’”
“Unable to stay silent, she made a Facebook post about how outraged she was. It received eight likes.”
“Watching the news that night, Abdullah was beginning to feel like maybe he didn’t matter. He was probably right.”
So this one, it doesn’t have much to say other than silent screams in parentheses.
“The cardamom tea was no longer cutting it, and she needed something way stronger to deal with the reality of being an immigrant.”
LG: That’s Saleem reading some of the pieces that are on display in the show. In each piece, those cutting phrases are written above a collage of vintage imagery from the 1950s and ’60s, mixed with Urdu writing and charcoal drawing. They’re like reading entries from his journal, he told me, as he tried to process the feeling that so many of his generation express today.
I met the artist at the Vision Gallery recently, and he gave me a tour of the show. We started standing in front of the first — and largest piece — in the exhibition, one that depicts a burning house and some words written in Urdu.
SS: This is the biggest piece of the exhibit, and for this piece it was not like a planned piece of the show, this kind of came at the end as I was working on the show. I don’t know why, but I kept imagining a burning house over and over again, as I was working on this and it just had to be part of the show, it just somehow happened, because most of the pieces in the show are collages and are much smaller and they’re not of this scale, and they have, like, a different kind of tone to them. So this one kind of stands out but also I feel that it starts off the show. It has something I’ve been thinking a lot about these past few years.
LG: So why start with a burning house, what does that represent here?
SS: So, once I used a lot of Urdu in my work so this one actually … roughly translates to “if I go, where do I go,” and I think that kind of reflects my sentiment for the past two years that there’s a big part of this country who does not see people like me, I’m a Muslim, I’m an immigrant, I’m originally from Pakistan, but I identify as a Pakistani-American. I feel this is the only home I know of, so if I go, where do I go?
LG: So, let’s talk about the themes behind this one. It’s called “Concerned, but Powerless,” and what were you trying to capture here?
SS: I kind of feel like the title gives it away, there’s no mystery with that, right, so I started working on the show at the time when the elections were in full swing, when we knew who the nominees were, and I felt that there wasn’t anybody who was speaking on behalf of people like me, so it kind of started off as, like, here are some of my frustrations and here are some of the issues that I think that nobody is talking about, but then as it went along it just got more and more concerning, how it was going, and I felt that I was kind of powerless to do anything about it. At the time I was also not a citizen, I went through my nationalization process this past year, 2017, also the year that I became a dad, so lots of transitions. It just became then, my levels of concern like being a father in the environment that we are in in America right now- I think it’s reflected in the work. I look at it as basically journaling.
LG: Let’s keep going, what’s next?
SS: This was the very first one that I made. When I made this one I did not have a plan that I would have a series or like I would have a show. I just felt that no matter what kind of concerns you have, sure you can go vote, it just- I felt that at the end of the day it might not make a difference, so this one says “despite the I voted sticker, she felt an emptiness that was difficult to reconcile. Good thing she had Pizza Hut,” because when I feel down I eat pizza and it really helps.
LG: And you use sort of a lot of satire and humor in your work, right? Why that approach?
SS: Because I don’t know what other approach would make me feel better about it at the end of the day, because if I’m concerned about all of these issues which are a lot of issues and it’s a lot of concerns and I essentially feel like there isn’t a whole lot that I can do easily. I feel that what I can do for the short term is just laugh about it a little bit.
LG: What’s next?
SS: So all of the pieces are essentially based on text, so I wrote all of this stuff, so I’m not kidding that these are actual journal entries, that this is kind of like journaling, so that part came first, which is where I worked on the language and then I worked on the visual part of it where I went through old ads, I went through old magazines and advertising books and so this whole idea of making America great again, I went through magazines when America was apparently “great” in the 50’s or 60’s or whenever, and you basically see the similar kind of people over and over again, those were the people prevalent in media at the time.
LG: You mentioned that the citizenship thing plays a role that I think is pretty clear, but how does the fact that you became a dad this year play into this show?
SS: Being a father, especially in this environment, it just makes you feel concerned about so many things that you had never thought you would ever be concerned about. I’m one of those completely cliché fathers – at this point I was like “no, I’m an artist, I’ll be so different from everybody” but no, I’m not at all. I’m one of those people who wasn’t even very sure that I wanted to have kids at one point, but now that I have a child, I feel all of this love in ways that I didn’t even know I was capable – I was like, “I’m capable of loving someone or something so much? I had no idea,” and out of that love comes all kinds of concerns. Sort of the biggest concern is that – so my child is the child of an immigrant, the child of a Muslim father, and she has a Pakistani name, and when she grows up in this kind of environment, what kind of effect does it have on her? Does she ever get to feel like this is her home? Or, like me, will she always feel that I’m still – I’m not sure that the people here accept me as much as I have accepted this place, so I want her to feel at home, because this is the only home she’ll know, because she is growing up over here.
LG: Last question I have for you: “Concerned, but Powerless.” I think that is a really, very common thing you’re hearing from people, probably of this generation right now, especially with the way that the world seems to be. I wonder if you’re trying to tap into that or if you’re trying to further that message, and if you’ve gotten any feedback from people who are saying “that’s how I feel.”
SS: Some of the feedback that I got is that it does give the impression that “oh yeah, I’m concerned about these things” but then it offers no hope and then it’s like “why are you such a downer about it, can you offer us some hope?,” and it is something I have thought a lot about and honestly I don’t think that I’m in a position to offer any hope, because I don’t feel hope at this point. I think I am in that stage where you’re sad and then you listen to sad music for a while, so my sad music-listening phase is not over yet, so once we’re done with that, we’re like “alright, how do we get through this,” but getting through the moment that we’re in is going to be a long hard process and I don’t think that, at least at this point I don’t think that I’m able to wrap my head around what it takes, so it’s a reflection of where I am in my hope to downwards cycle, I suppose.
LG: Safwat Saleem, thanks so much for the time.
SS: Thank you.
LG: You can see Safwat Saleem’s show, “Concerned, but Powerless” at Vision Gallery in downtown Chandler until March 2.
Listen to the whole piece on KJZZ.org