ON THE EVE OF HIS EXHIBIT VOICE FROM A CREATIVE SOUL AT THE AFRICA INTERNATIONAL HOUSE USA/CENTER FOR CONTEMPORARY AFRICAN ART & CULTURE IN CHICAGO, ARTIST/EDUCATOR NAJJAR ABDUL-MUSAWWIR SPOKE CANDIDLY ABOUT ART, LIFE AND GOOD TIMES.
Najjar Abdul-Musawwir. Courtesy of the artist.
When internationally acclaimed artist, teacher and self-described “community cultural worker” Najjar Abdul-Musawwir speaks, he does so with jazzed dexterity. He rhythmically riffs off a question with perfect pitch and studied precision; his tone gracefully responds to the moment by either accelerating in excitement or softening in seriousness. And even though his words, at times, expanded the perimeters of a question – not in a bad or confusing way – what the listener ultimately realizes is the artist’s unflinching devotion to his creative and spiritual practices.
BlackArtistNews: I recently came across a book by Debra N. Mancoff titled 50 American Artists You Should Know. Five of the artists listed in this book are African American. Would you like to take a stab at naming who they are?
Abdul-Musawwir: Are they contemporary or historical?
I would say Romy Bearden. Jacob Lawrence. They probably even have Aaron Douglas. Augusta Savage. Probably Jean-Michel Basquiat. I don’t know how many contemporaries they would have. They probably have Carrie Mae Weems or Howardina Pindell in there. Maybe even Kerry James Marshall.
I'll tell you who they are. Let me know if you agree with the choices.
Henry Ossawa Tanner.
Okay. Definitely. Tanner.Yeah.
Romy Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kara Walker.
Ah, Kara Walker. I wrote an essay on Kara Walker.
Yes, I know. And there’s a YouTube clip of you reading an excerpt from that essay and you eloquently discuss why you find her work problematic.
Yeah. I appreciate her technique and approach. I love her father and his work. But in all due respects the work she was creating at that time and the people who were celebrating it—those individuals – if you look at their background – always reported [on] our work that empowered them and their agenda and their interpretation of history. Those are the ones who are putting the money behind it and showing it and so forth. I know saying that will prevent me from having opportunities with these individuals but that’s not my concern. My concern is as an artist and in our world we’re supposed to have this freedom to critique and assess each another. If the real world says those who are backing it up have a financial investment and you tamper with that financial investment [then] don’t get involved. So it’s very much problematic. Henry Ossawa Tanner is my favorite – in terms of the historical. Of contemporary artists – he just passed – was Al Loving. He was my favorite.
When did he die?
Al Loving passed away in 2005.
It seems like I should know that. But I didn’t.
They had a nice write up – a small write up in the New York Times. But not a lot of people are aware that he passed.
I just recently discovered that Ernie Barnes died [in 2009.]
Yeah, Ernie Barnes passed. In fact I was on the highway travelling and my wife called me and said “Listen, Ernie Barnes, passed today.” And I said, “What?” Ernie Barnes was definitely one of my favorites as well.
I’m sure there is a generation of artists that – whether they realize it or not – were influenced by the work of Ernie Barnes. Most people know his work indirectly as he was the true creator of the paintings attributed to the J.J. Evans character on the TV show Good Times. Did that show have any influence on your interest in art?
Ah, well see, I liked J.J. – he was a kid who was tapped into his passion – but actually my interest in art happened as a result of watching my father and cousin sit at the table drawing all the time. My father used to draw these cowboys and horses and I thought that was the coolest thing since Kool-Aid. And then my cousin would create grid drawings from photographs. When he was finished, I would go “How you do that?” That kind of stirred my energy and I found myself trying to imitate [their work]. Also, like most kids I [loved] to draw cartoon characters. I was so engaged in art as a child [it would] get me in trouble. I would be in the library reading art books instead of going to class. It’s just something that’s been stirred within me since I was a child.
I know you teach but have you mentored any artists?
Yeah, I’ve mentored a few artists. Actually I was thinking about one the other day by the name of Esteban. Matter of fact his father just ran for mayor of the city of Chicago. I’ve been very impressed with the things he’s involved in.
Was he a student of yours?
He was student of mine at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC) and then they’re some others that I’ve mentored like Najee Dorsey, the founder of [web site] Black Art In America, who I’ve known a number of years. I met him like in the early ‘90’s and I’ve mentored him in terms of painting and drawing.
How long has Black Art in America been online?
Black Art in America – it’s been close to a year or so. And it has grown so fast that I don’t know exactly how to phrase it – they have articles on there for artists, curators, collectors, museum directors and commercial art galleries. It’s a who’s who of black [visual artists] and [it’s a] very active [site.] In fact one of their strong points is that they encourage and engage dialogue and group discussion. It’s really impressive.
So what can viewers expect to see in Chicago between April 15th and May 15th ?
Aw man. (laughs) They are going to see the “Muhammad Ali of the Art World.” The “Muhammad Ali of the Art World.” They gonna be [exposed to] what I call a “formal aesthetic” and [viewing it] from the black experience. And I say that because my work is abstract; not representational. I’m looking at African Art [which] and even though [I am] I’m still bringing me to the table. And so on the 15th there will be some paintings, mixed media art and two pieces that I’m hoping people will enjoy are African stools. Back in 1999 I went to Ghana and had an exhibition [in conjunction] with a conference. I submitted some paintings that I did using African stools as symbols. For instance you have one stool that only a chief can sit on, or only a woman can sit on or only just a grieving person can sit on and I [took] these three dimensional objects and used the idea of them symbolically as inspiration. I’ve always [felt] that abstract painting is the most profound way to approach painting because in the real world we live in the abstract – we don’t really know everything. We only know part of everything. A woman can lie next to a man for fifty years and still not know him. It’s all an abstract: she doesn’t know about him and he doesn’t know about her. That’s why I love Al Loving – God rest his soul – he said its right there in front of our face. [People are] gonna see it’s the idea of preserving a particular part of the black experience. I consider myself as much a part of the African American community in bringing progressive ideas and progressive activities to the black experience as many members of my community who businesses I support. I [also] support their political and social economic interests you know what I’m sayin’? As long as they’re supporting us as a whole as a community, you know? I want my artwork to have a voice [that] hopefully reflects that of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz better known as Malcolm X. And I hope that it has the energy and the power and the craftsmanship that Muhammad Ali had. When I’m looking for African American Muslim artists there's not many of us in the art community. There are some out there but there aren’t many of us. There’s not a vertical movement. When I say vertical movement, I [mean] targeting universities, contemporary art galleries, museums, and more high-end institutions. Trying to extend [beyond] the commercial gallery and looking at a bigger audience. The show I’m having now at the African International House? That’s not a place you go shopping for art. (laughs) Okay? You go there to be what? Informed.
Informed and enlightened.
You go there to have an experience that you wouldn’t normally have anywhere else. It’s a place to be educated. It’s to be broadened. To enhance. Vertical artists who go after those particular venues wind up getting recognized or acknowledged by the historians, the critics and so forth and find themselves in museum collections and also in art history books. And so the reason I’m targeting this I know that’s the audience that’s going to be able to stand the test. Those individuals allow us [and] our artwork to stand the test of time. Meaning that other generations will be exposed to it.
|Najjar Abdul-Musawwir, Door of Return Series, 2010. Acrylic, drawing ink and burlap.|
|Najjar Abdul-Musawwir, African Stool Symbol (Wisdom Knot), 2001. Acrylic and charcoal on linen.|
You have some works overseas now. Where?
Not right now. I've been negotiating with a museum over in Malaysia which headed by Hasnul Jamal Saidon. He’s the director of the museum.
What’s the name of the museum?
Muzium dan Galeri Tuanku Fauziah at the Universiti Sains Malaysia.
How did that come about?
It’s very interesting. I’ve been very active in terms of trying to have more international exhibitions. I had the one in 1999 in Ghana, one in 2008 in Turkey – at their fine art gallery in the capital. I was sending stuff out and Hasnul [saw it] and was like “Wow, it’d be great to have you come over and talk about the African American Muslim artist experience.” He noted that in Japan and Germany there’s an interest in this Muslim African American artist experience and he thought the timing was right and so I said I would love to have a show but he…we’ve been planning this show for two and half, three years because he wants me to do a residency. So [the plan is] to do a residency at the museum, have an exhibition [of my work] and [present] a lecture. I’m also – and this hasn’t been confirmed to my knowledge – looking forward to doing a lecture at the National Art Gallery there which some say is the equivalent to the Smithsonian here in the States.
Right, right, wow. So you just mentioned being Muslim, were you born Muslim or did you convert?
Actually, I re-verted.
What does that mean?
Well simply said: a Muslim who submits to the creator. And that’s how I was when I was born into this world and other people’s ideas took me away from that. And I returned back to that from which I was created in. So it’s one of those things where [I’ve turned] back to the natural order of things. The natural order of things in terms of who I am…I don’t submit to political leaders, I don’t submit to religious leaders, I don’t submit to anything, not even my parents, or anyone else and the only thing I submit to is the natural order of things. I adjust and [maintain] balance in my life in [hope] that it will benefit others.
Wow. So it's safe to assume that your spiritual practice definitely informs your art practice.
Without doubt or contradiction.
Do you listen to music while you work?
Man. You ain’t said nothin’ but a word. I dance while I work.
Okay (laughs) what do you dance to then?
Man, that’s a loaded question because it could be Wynton Marsalis or it could be Snoop Doggy Dog. It could be Jazmine Sullivan or Anita Baker; it [depends on] what mood I’m in. I’m a Jazz person, I’m a Blues person, I love music. It depends…if I’m thinking about a particular painting the ideas in my head about what colors I lay out on my palette and I look at those colors and I think about what I’m gonna do and I’m feeling like I need a lot of energy and a lot of marks and [fluency] then I’m gonna put on [some] hype music. I think it was Wynton Marsalis’s brother Branford. He did something that’s rarely seen and that’s a musical artist looking at the work of a visual artist and creating new music.
Oh, you’re talking about “Romare Bearden Revealed.”
Yeah. I play that in my class [and] in my studio.
Don Byron did a beautiful musical epitaph for Jean-Michel Basquiat and when you see it – when you hear it – you’re like…wow. (laughs)
And you know what? It’s funny that you said that because I was in my studio one day and we were talking about that Bearden project and [a] student asked me “If you had one musician to respond to your work and [set it to music] who would it be?” and the first person I thought of was Khari Lemuel in Chicago.
Khari Lemuel. Chicago. Okay.
Yeah, he sings and plays the cello like a bass. I had an opportunity to sit in on his music and his name just [flew] out my mouth.
I’m upset that I didn’t ask you that question! (laughs)
What’s the most important lesson you want [to teach] your students even though they might not understand it now?
You know what? I’m going to have to tell you a story for people to get the meaning of what I’m trying to say.
Okay, the floor is yours.
[What] I want my students to get from me… is [to] have a better perspective [of] the visual world as it relates to people of color. When I say “people of color” I mean African American, Asian American, Native American and so forth and so on. I’ll give you an example: There was a student in my class who was white who cussed me out. He cussed me out in [my] class because he [felt what I was teaching was]”a bunch of bullshit.” He said, “I shouldn’t have to be made to feel guilty because I’m white and you dah, dah, dah-dah”…He’s going off…and so I told him to come back later and talk to me which he never did. Two years after he graduated he calls me from St. Louis and says “You know what? I want to apologize.” Now, I don’t even know who this guy is or was – at first. (laughs) ‘Cause I’ve had quite a few students go off on me like that so I wasn’t sure…so after he explained to me who he was I said “oh, I remember you” and then he said [again] “I want to apologize. Because I took your class and since I’ve been dealing with the art world and I started listening to the way white people talked around me ‘cause I’m white – everything you said [in class] was [actually] happening. [I’m] seeing that it’s true.”
He said, “I couldn’t believe that this has been going on.” I said, “don’t worry about it. I appreciate your call and hope you do well in your endeavors.” He called me a year later and told me he left St. Louis to move to Illinois to work at a museum. And he [invited] me to come to that museum and give a talk on African American artists.
Now, check this out: when I got there he showed me a painting done by the [museum’s] founder, Eleanor Mitchell. And it was a painting of an Arab [person] I assume – he was pretty dark and he was holding the Koran – and on the back of the painting it had a first place award that she received from the Corn State Fair in 1963.
Okay? And so here it is this young man [who] cussed me out in my class. He called [again] invited me to be a part of the museum’s anniversary. He asked me to create a piece of art work inspired by something from their collection. Well, before the anniversary exhibit [got off the ground] he left and went to New York. His replacement called and asked what painting I would like to do from their collection. I mentioned the piece by Eleanor Mitchell. He looked for it on his records and told me it didn’t exist. I said “yes, it exists. It’s in your vault behind some stuff.” He went back there and he found it. He said “wow.” He made the painting an [official] part of their collection.
So I created my own version of the painting and they took both paintings and put them on [display.]
How cool is that?
Now, the story’s about to end.
I get [contacted by] the same student to come to Niagara University in Buffalo, New York to give a talk, a lecture in [conjunction with] a [Basquiat exhibit].
So I told him “yes, I would do it” but my talk will be about Basquiat [being] lost in his own backyard.
(Laughs) So he said “cool” and so [this] young man put me up in a hotel suite with beautiful French doors on the bedroom – I wish my wife was with me. I wasn’t expecting – I was expecting something pretty humble. But mind you, this is the same young man who cussed me out in my class. I didn’t kick him out, didn’t write him up, you see what I’m saying?
Because my job – what I say to myself – is that I’m an educator. It’s my job to educate somebody and plant the right information within them like seeds and hopefully they will blossom during the course of their life, and he’s a perfect example of that. So that’s how I can answer that question. You feel me?