Brushstrokes of diversity: Safia Latif’s ‘Islamicate impressionism’

ISTANBUL: Impressionism, an art movement that emerged in the late 19th century in France, is familiar to any ordinary art enthusiast. Yet, Islamic impressionism, a more recent variation of this movement, which emerged in the 20th century in the Islamic world, is a new art school that has blossomed. The technique mainly seeks to capture the effects of light and atmosphere within the context of Islamic art, using traditional techniques and motifs in the movement strives to create a fusion of the old and new.

Similarly, Safia Latif, a self-taught artist, incorporates her knowledge of Islamic history into her art. She is influenced by impressionist painters such as Zorn and Sargent, as well as baroque painters like Velazquez and Rembrandt, using oil paints in her paintings.

Latif’s work differs from traditional Islamic art, known for its detailed miniature paintings, calligraphy and arabesque designs, as she focuses on the visual sensations of Islamic themes. She is also open to faith and culture as the daughter of a Russian American Jewish father and a Pakistani Muslim immigrant mother. Latif aims to say something about the fundamental reality of human conditions through her art.

Although always drawn to the discipline of painting from a young age, she did not seriously consider pursuing art as a profession until later in life. After completing a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies and beginning a Ph.D. in religion, she ultimately decided that academia was not the right path for her. Instead, Latif chose to use her knowledge of Islamic history to inform her creative work and embarked on a career as an artist. Her background in Middle Eastern Studies and religion continues to influence and inspire her artistic practice, resulting in a unique and thought-provoking body of work that bridges the gap between scholarship and art.

Coming from a mixed background, Latif has always had an open and accepting attitude toward different faiths and cultures. However, growing up, she was exposed to various religious viewpoints, which influenced her perspective and artistic style. In her words, as someone whose experience does not fit in with any one group, she believes that this feeling is a common experience among people of interracial backgrounds, and it is a theme often reflected in her artwork.

 “My identity as a Muslim plays a significant role in my work. I used to differentiate my religious paintings from secular ones, but now I see all of my work belonging to the same spiritual feeling that says there is a deep reality beyond the here and now. Through my art, I hope to say something about the fundamental truth of the human condition without actually saying it,” she said.

On the other hand, her art school slightly differs from Islamic impressionism but shifts more to “Islamicate impressionism.”

As the movement’s pioneer, she explained: “I use the term ‘Islamicate impressionism’ to denote my subject matter and technique concerning Western painting styles. My work invokes many subjects that have not been broached by Muslim artists before, and so I see my work as a departure from traditional Islamic art. I have also come to acknowledge a degree of magical realism present within my paintings, and by realism, I mean the representation of the quotidian in Muslim devotional life. I think the magical elements in my work convey a sense of enchantment and mystery that is perhaps lost in modern formulations of religious identity.”

Within the boundaries of her movement, she strongly prefers painting with oils over other mediums due to their versatility and slow drying time. However, she does not anticipate switching to another medium anytime soon, as she feels there is still much to be learned and mastered with oils. When painting, she prefers to work with high-key colors and use organic paints to create vibrant and eye-catching scenes. While Latif acknowledges the beauty of more muted palettes, she finds that bold colors have a powerful effect in immediately drawing the viewer’s attention. Once engaged, the viewer can begin to appreciate the subtle nuances and details of the painting.

In some of her paintings, she was also inspired by Türkiye. “The process of drawing inspiration is an elusive one. Some ideas come to me in dreams, while others come from meditating on a particular concept. I have done many paintings that reflect my time in Turkey. I find the rich history and culture of the country to be a great source of inspiration, especially as it relates to depicting the everyday religious life of Muslims,” she said.

Among her paintings, some received backlash as well as praise. One of her controversial works, “Khidr killing baby Hitler” was one of the debated groups.

“A lot of my followers try to hunt down the meaning of my paintings and often expect an explanation from me, but I don’t like to limit the possible interpretations of a piece. As Marcel Duchamp once said, the artist only does 50% of the work in creating the art, whereas the viewer does the other 50% by deciphering its meaning. It was interesting to see the response to my painting, ‘The Judgment,’ or ‘Khidr killing baby Hitler.’ Many were angered or shocked, others amazed or amused,” she explained the feelings she strives to evoke in the audience.

 “In my view, while the clear image of a brown man holding a knife to a white baby may be disturbing to some, it is precisely this disruptive image that forces one to meditate more deeply on the relationship between God and violence – and the Quran is full of this. I aimed to capture this unsettled feeling (perhaps the same one which confronted Moses) and to ask the viewer: ‘How would you have reacted?.’”

Courtesy: (Dailysabah)