March 11, 2008

Abdul-Musawwir takes art, experiences to Turkey

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Najjar Abdul-Musawwir, assistant professor of drawing, painting and core curriculum classes at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, returned home recently after a trip to Turkey.

As a well-known African-American artist, he sometimes finds himself with a busy February schedule of back-to-back exhibitions, lectures and symposiums for Black History Month.

While on the one hand he says he is pleased to see art and lectures about art included in such observations, it can be a little frustrating, too. He found his frustration was shared, he said, when he was part of a panel discussion at the G. R. NíNamdi Gallery in New York City, which hosted the lecture series held in conjunction with the National Black Fine Arts Show.

"We had some heavy dialogue," he said. "The sense of it is that (black American artists) don't want just to be looked at as artists just during Black History Month. We are impressionists, realists, primitives and so on. We want to be looked at with our artistic peers – not out of context of them."

Still, when an invitation came from a history professor at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, for Abdul-Musawwir to bring his art and his experience to that university's African American/Africana Studies Symposium, he readily agreed. He returned to the SIUC last week.

"I think there is an interest because I am an Islamic African American making art in America – that's kind of intriguing to them," he said. "They want to know how I go about having a dialogue about the African-American experience along with being an Islamic American."

So, what did he tell them?

"I use the Koran to develop my composition and my African-American heritage for context," he said. For example, he said, a geometric shape in a painting may represent a doorway in reference to a verse from the Koran, and the use of burlap in a mixed media work may suggest the role of African Americans in American agriculture. Together, the painting may suggest a spiritual harvest, he said.

Other American visitors to Bilkent University for the symposium included faculty from Western Kentucky University, which co-sponsored the event.

Online examples of Abdul-Musawir's work are at under wttwarts.