Having grown up in the UAE as an immigrant from Pakistan, before relocating to the US and undergoing a two-decade-long naturalisation process to become an American citizen, visual artist, graphic designer and filmmaker Safwat Saleem’s art focuses on the idea of belonging. His Concerned But Powerless series combines imagery from vintage advertisements, Urdu typography, and acerbic phrases to create satirical work that explores the social issues foregrounded by the election of Donald Trump.
“The series began in early 2016 as a way for me to process the ongoing presidential election,” he recalls. “I had planned to conclude the series on Election Day, but the outcome of the election and events since have implored me to continue the work. Over time, the series has become increasingly desperate.”
In one image, a small boy sleeps next to his puppy underneath the charcoal-scrawled text ‘That night he dreamt of pizza, cupcakes and a general populace that wasn’t so easily manipulated.’ In another, a young girl prays as she says ‘And I’d also like a pony and world peace and for the privileged to quit confusing equality with oppression.’ Elsewhere, a father sits with his children. ‘Everything will be okay, he comforted his kids. In some years, the sun will become a red giant, engulf the earth and wipe out all traces of our existence.’
“I use satire and art to bring to light stories of adversity and feel the most at home when making politically-charged satirical work,” Saleem continues. “Humour has a way of making difficult topics more approachable. And it is also how I process many of the issues that are on my mind. A lot of what we, as a society, are currently experiencing feels so enormously overwhelming that it helps to have a sense of humour about it.”
“My work uses a variety of media, including illustration, writing, animation, audio, film and sculpture. I often combine several media to create multimedia storytelling experiences that get audiences talking – and laughing – about subjects that tend to otherwise make people feel uncomfortable. I gravitate towards art that tells a story, no matter how small. After I’ve experienced an artwork, the story is what stays with me and so I try to do the same with my own work. By creating a multimedia experience, I don’t know if the audience will remember the colours or aesthetics of my work but hopefully they’ll remember how the art made them feel, and that is all I can ask for as an artist. Art can tell the kinds of stories that plant seeds in our minds. These stories can grow everlasting roots and slowly change the way we look at the world. My hope for any art is that it can plant a tiny seed that gets the audience to keep thinking about the issue long after they’ve experienced the work.”
While working on the Concerned But Powerless series, Saleem became a parent, a factor that played into the wider conversation around belonging at the heart of his work. “It made me think a lot about language. My daughter will know America as her only home, making me wonder about the kind of relationship she will have with my place of birth – Pakistan. This past year I also went through the naturalisation process to become an American citizen. Both these events made me feel like Urdu might be a lost language in my family moving forward, and the culture I grew up with might no longer be a part of my daughter’s life, so using Urdu in this series was an attempt to preserve a little bit of my origin story.”
Explore more of Safwat’s work on his website.