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A journal for storytelling, arguments, and discovery through tangential conversations.
Poetic Activism and Muslim Faith: in conversation with Tazeen Qayyum
Thursday, May 16, 2024 | Lauren Fournier

Tazeen Qayyum is a Pakistani-Canadian artist based in Toronto. She was trained in the South Asian and Persian traditions of miniaturist painting before she began the mixed-media practice which she sustains today. During the month of Ramadan, I wanted to speak with her about what it is like to be a practicing Muslim as well as a contemporary artist working in Canada. I was also interested in her experience making work that is conceptually driven and shaped by culture and faith. For example, in her iconic archival ink on paper works, Qayyum repeats a word written in Urdu script to form concentric circles, which the artist inscribes through a repetitive movement that is prayer-like. The artist chooses words stemming from concepts found in her Muslim faith. Words like khayaal (care), sakoon (calm/peace), sabr (patience), zameer (conscience), yaqeen (certainty/belief), and fikr (concern/thought) have featured in her work, as well as more explicitly political words like brabri/bartri (equality/privilege), which the artist made in direct response to the 2020 resurgence of Black Lives Matter. Each word serves as a salve for present-day social issues facing our nations and communities. In her past work, she has memorialized the under-told histories of the India-Pakistan partition, a history in which she finds parallels with the current situation unfolding in the Middle East. As the war in Gaza rages on, Tazeen is working to find ways to take care of herself and her communities while continuing her commitment to making work that is reparative.  In this conversation, we speak about working in a multilingual way and discuss what is lost in translation. The artist shares her preference for the term “Art of the Islamic World” over “Muslim Art” and “Islamic Art,” and reflects on her recent experience showing time-based media artwork in a Sufist context. She discusses how she has positioned herself in the art world when it comes to faith and culture, and why she was resistant to identifying herself as a “Muslim artist” or showing in faith-focused exhibitions. We also spoke about some of the unique challenges that artists who are Muslim face in Toronto and Canada, and how Canada might better support its Muslim artists and dismantle the myths of Islamophobia by putting into practice all of the rhetoric of “equity and inclusion.” I learned a lot from this conversation, and I hope you will too! Please note that the honorarium paid by the journal for this interview will be donated in full to the Muslim Food Bank, a registered Canadian charity that supports food security for Muslims in Canada. I encourage readers to donate too.



My art became my voice and my poetic activism. I believe in most societies; artists are already marginalized by default; we do not occupy central positions of power by design or by choice. Instead, we operate at the peripheries and margin which I think are the best positions for anyone who wants to be creative. We are free, observant, willing to ask the difficult questions and find creative ways to challenge the dominant narratives.




Lauren Fournier: As-salaamu Alaykum, Tazeen! Ramadan Mubarak. My first question for you is: do you identify as a Muslim artist? I know this question might come across as charged, because Islamophobia continues to be a systemic problem in Canada, and, with recent global events, it is getting worse. Thus, I understand it can be risky to publicly identify as Muslim.

At the same time, I believe that increasing the representation of the diversity of Muslim artists in Canada, and bolstering their voices and perspectives, can help promote more positive and accurate perceptions of Islam and Muslims amongst Canadians. 

Tazeen Qayyum: Wa-alaykumu s-salaam Lauren, may the blessings of this month shine upon all of us. 

I identify as a contemporary artist in the Canadian Pakistani diaspora who practices Islam by faith. I find the terms Muslim Artist and Islamic Art conceptually myopic and theoretically problematic—such terms are now being challenged by many contemporary art historians and theorists who believe these are part of the Western construct of categorization, viewership, and labelling of the culture and art of the regions where Islam was predominant from a very limited and exotic viewpoint. I prefer the term Art of the Islamic World as it acknowledges that Islam is not monolithic, and it embraces and connects many different practicing cultures across the globe.

My lived experiences of diverse cultures, their languages, customs, and faiths inform my art practice. I was raised in a family where rational thinking, political discourse, and spiritual practices were intertwined, encouraged, and accessible to me. The underlying common thread has been the lesson of tolerance and acceptance of others, which I feel aligns with my faith. 

As a practicing artist, I have gradually arrived at a point where I see my art as free from labels, including Islamic, Pakistani, or Traditional Art. However, I admit it has been a difficult position to hold. This struggle is a hidden strategic power that made me who I am and how I make art. Of course, other aspects/roles play an essential part in my identity construct, including being a woman, a daughter, a wife, and a mother, which often overlap and intersect with my above-described belief system and how I navigate my everyday art and life dealing.

As part of this belief system, I recognize and feel motivated to increase the visibility and representation of artists in Canada who are marginalized because of gender, race, caste, cultural background, and faith. I feel my voice can only be amplified by other voices, and such collective experiences will help in the mobilization of the diversity message, challenge stereotypes and negative perceptions such as Islamophobia, inculcate acceptance of others, and encourage positive discourse. 

LF: I really appreciate that distinction—“Art of the Islamic World”—as a way of recognizing the great plurality held within that term. With the diversity of Islam in mind, I saw recently on Instagram that you had a time-based media work that screened in a context of Sufism. Could you tell me more about this—both the work and the nature of the gathering? I am so curious.

TQ: The work you are referring to is a documentary film called Songs of the Sufi, which explores the roots, etiquette, locational, and spiritual aspects of Qawwali, a 13th-century musical genre of the Indian Subcontinent. The film was presented at literary and film festivals in South Asia; it was not a spiritual gathering. A gathering is often not required for my works as I often make my artworks in solitude. I create live performances that are not specific to traditions such as Sufism. I neither practice nor am part of any Sufi silsila in which a student receives guidance from a teacher in every aspect of their lives. Such training is part of other cultures as well, such as in Vedic Hinduism and Buddhist teachings. 

My interest lies in finding my center and having a dialogue with myself, in essence, dialogue with my creator, who also resides in me. This condition is a hallmark of today’s contemporary art-making, and I find it illuminating. This is why I do not claim that my performance is a Sama movement of a whirling dervish nor the resulting drawing is a mandala. It is a contemporary performance with its own language, hidden meaning, and unknown potential—potential that sprouts from a center and grows towards an undefined margin, which I believe is the edge of something new. This act of making and experience is unique to me. 

My drawing practice is deeply rooted in ideas of self-reflection and shared vulnerabilities. The repetitive motion of my hand and contemplating the drawn words put me in a state of mind where I do not think of the future or the past but focus on the movement of my thoughts. Such concepts are attributed to Sufism and they developed organically in my work. When drawing, I listen to qawwali singing. Its kalaam (poetry) is about divine love, its sur (notes), repetitive rhythm, and the familiarity of the language helps me to slow down, focus, and create a bubble for me in which I reside and block off the audience to create solitude for me. 

The careful selection of meaningful words in Urdu that resonate with me in a personal and poetic context of time and place further brings focus to my gestures. What others see, read, feel, or experience comes from their center and margins—their desire to feel what I am doing guides them towards a meaning or perhaps a rejection. Moreover, when these margins overlap, connections are made like a harmonious echo that reverberates and nourishes us repeatedly. 


Amal (act) - II: Tauba (repentance) 2018 Still from single channel video
60 min. 24hrs durational performance culminating in the drawing 'Tauba'Caption



Brabri /Bartri (equality/privilege), 2020, Archival ink on acid-free paper, 30 x 22  inches Photo credit: Artist

LF:  In what ways was your experience exhibiting in that space different from your experience showing in spaces like artist-run centers and museums—whether in Canada or elsewhere?

TQ: Exhibiting and performing in spaces such as artist-run centers and museums is different from commercial galleries. In commercial settings, such live performances are often not possible, so a video or a recorded process is displayed alongside the works. I find this exciting within the conceptual art vocabulary as it is not the work but the process that becomes the key action/creative output.

I have experienced much more freedom and room for expression, mediums, and scale at institutional public galleries and artist-run centers in Canada. The diversity in audiences in such spaces allows for much dialogue.

When immigrating to Canada two decades ago, one of the most demanding challenges was introducing my practice to new audiences unfamiliar with me and the context of my artistic production (e.g. its aesthetics, history, vocabulary and contemporary authenticity). Simultaneously avoiding the risk of being pigeonholed and remaining on a sideline as a tokenistic artist of a specific demographic or visual representation, I often felt lost and invisible here. I want to see if and how I can be a part of the mainstream art history timeline, which is often closed to artists from my background. 

Two decades later, I feel a shift in the reception of my work at galleries and museums, more so with my text-based works. The work, even with the apparent language barrier, is experiential on a personal level. Transcending cultural norms, the works compel an inward gaze, creating bridges between people, worlds, traditions, and faiths, as they reveal shared vulnerabilities, as we are all infinitely connected through thoughts, words, and actions.

For me, Pakistan may be the exception in this equation as many commercial galleries play the role of a museum or a custodian of culture and often organize events where such actions take place. Also, audiences there are naturally exposed to strong connections with traditions, written and oral learning, and religious understanding without necessarily overthinking those practices.  

Another challenge I want to highlight is that I draw and contemplate words in Urdu that do not have singular meanings. I continually struggle with transcribing and translating from one language to the other. When translated into English, the poetic words I draw do not have the same depth or multitude of attached emotions that they have in Urdu. When read and contemplated in Urdu and Farsi, the meaning is not singular or fixed. Instead, it flows in concepts and emotions, especially in repetition. 

For example, in the Urdu word zarf—the English translation would be a vessel or a container, while in Urdu, it is used poetically to describe the depth of a person's character through the capacity of how much they are able to "contain" emotionally. 

LF: Wow, that is incredible. It is true that so much nuance and meaning is lost through the process of translation. With perhaps problematic or limited translation in mind, I have been thinking a lot about Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rumi (often referred to simply as Rumi) lately. The 13th-century Persian poet is the best-known Sufist poet today, and one of the top-selling poets period in the US. But when his work is sold in the West, it is almost always separated from Islam. This is wild to me, because not only is Islam integral to Rumi’s poetry, Rumi was also an Islamic scholar and Muslim theologian in his own right! He was a Muslim. He was writing poetry of the Islamic World. And yet, the words “Muslim,” “Islam,” and “Islamic” are not found near his work. Sometimes “Sufism” appears, but is used in a way that falsely creates a distance between Sufism as the mystical branch of Islam and Islam more broadly.

TQ: Well, there are plentiful examples throughout documented history where religious identifiers of prominent people face erasure and do not sit well with the hegemonic views of the Western world, may it be scientists, mathematicians, or scholars. I recently came across a very insightful lecture by Dr. Glen M. Cooper titled "Memory and Erasure in the Story of the West: Or, Where have All the Muslims Gone?", explaining how systematically in the pursuit to claim the classical heritage as the exclusive heritage of the West, the legacy of the Islamic World is still largely unknown or misunderstood.  

Similarly, artistic discourse is not devoid of past and present-day biases. There is a societal bias against "the Others," their cultures, languages, and beliefs, which have a long and well-documented history rooted in systems of hegemony and oppression like imperialism. Edward Said's seminal work "Culture and Imperialism" has spotlighted how many of these biases persist in the postcolonial era, and in today's time of open conflict, its message and language have become more powerful. 

Also, Rumi's poetry in the West has the same issue that I face in my work—translation, as it is impossible to translate Rumi's poetry into English with all its nuances and imaginative use of language.



To achieve, or perhaps in more practical terms to visually channel this transcendence, I often find myself exhausted with the inherent tendencies to understand and define art through strict categorizing, labelling, and putting everything in defined boxes; I would instead let artistic expressions and concepts flow, without boundaries, experienced for what they do than where they fit.



LF: When it comes to language, English has a hegemonic hold on the contemporary art world. And English is such a limited language, in many ways. Take your example of the Urdu word Zarf, for example, and the impossibility of finding a single-word equivalent in English. Indeed, even though it is global, the contemporary art world is arguably an output of the West (I think of Alix Rule and David Levine’s “International Art English”). And from this point of view, it has been and continues to be highly conceptual. Ever since Duchamp, conceptual or idea-based art has reigned as the prevailing mode that artists in the West are encouraged to work in, especially in art school, often at the expense of other concerns like “beauty.” Something I admire about your work is your integration of the conceptual with culture and faith, and the way that you still prioritize an aesthetics of beauty. Is there anything you’d like to say, with regards to this?

For example, I could be wrong, but I imagine that there might be tensions between being a conceptually-driven contemporary artist working in the West, which sees itself as “secular,” and being an artist with sincerely-held religious beliefs. For all of its claims to inclusivity, I have found that the limit point or blind spot of inclusion for many art and academic institutions in the West is religion and faith. Many of these institutions continue to be Islamophobic or see Islam as somehow antithetical to their views, at least from what I have witnessed, implicitly or explicitly.

Have you encountered any particular challenge when it comes to working in the way that you do? Have you experienced any challenges with regard to production or reception?

TQ: I am glad that you mentioned Duchamp, as I have recently discovered his interviews and was delightfully surprised how he rejects the art of the past as "retinal" art that is pleasing to the eye and nothing more—further suggesting to focus on the notion of play as a way to unveil what is hidden to us and consider chance a crucial element in this discovery. For him, chance is something that is close to faith as it is the unknown. 

To me, this unknown is the idea of transcendence. To achieve or perhaps in more practical terms, to visually channel this transcendence, I often find myself exhausted with the inherent tendency to understand and define art through strict categorizing, labelling, and putting everything in defined boxes; I would instead let artistic expressions and concepts flow, without boundaries, experienced for what they do than where they fit.

My creative impulse is fuelled by my subjective everyday experiences, which I continuously incorporate into my vocabulary—sometimes I use them as raw emotions and other times as systematic research, almost like scientific analysisbut all start with the notions of play and chance. I find this to be contemporary, as subjective and objective play aligns with what the "contemporary" is. This further amplifies and aligns with my interests, cultural heritage, and values. 

Incidentally, I feel fortunate that my art-making methodology is nurtured through rigorous training in the tradition of miniature painting of South Asia and Persia. Following a set of rules of painting, I am part of the early group of the Neo-Miniature movement who broke free from the set rules and incorporated the element of play and chance more prominently. This, I feel, made my work contemporary with the visual appeal of the traditional miniature painting.

In essence, I consider what I am creating now would pass Duchamp's "Retinal art" critique. I believe my work is conceptually critical, unveils many hidden truths and is relevant to our times.  This is what it is to be contemporarythe time we live in. One of the challenges is to explain my work and read about my work. Often, my words are published by writers who rely entirely on my artistic statement or what I would say to them in a discussion. I find this cumbersome. Despite having communicated in English all my life, it is still a second language to me.

Furthermore, at times, there is a certain hesitation in unpacking my work in the context of conceptual art as I am not a theorist and fully aware of Western art theories. The writers/curators can see the formal qualities of works; but there is much to be desired regarding my artworks' analysis and critical discourse. I suspect their limited understanding of my heritage, language, art history, and even the cultural baggage I often carry provide insufficient input data, allowing them to read my work in a broader context and give unique insights. 


Patterns of Resilience, 2022. Site specific installation at the Museum Siam, Bangkok. As part of Bangkok Art Biennial 2022


A Holding Pattern, 2013, Site-Specific, Mixed Media Installation at the Toronto Pearson Airport, Terminal 1
 Photo credit: Faisal Anwar


LF: You have been working as a professional artist in Canada for twenty-one years now. Has there ever been a time that you have experienced Islamophobia, either directly or indirectly, while you were working as an artist in Toronto? If so, are you comfortable sharing? Or, was there ever a moment where you felt your identity as a Muslim specifically presented a barrier for you?

TQ: ​​In my artistic practice, I have not experienced Islamophobia overtly, thankfullybut there were instances of hidden and veiled comments, more treatment I suppose. If it has come into play while receiving my work, or if it has discouraged galleries, institutions or collectors from embracing my work, then I am oblivious to it. Having said that, I am not at all dismissing that Islamophobia does exist in Canada. I feel artists who are more religious vocally or visually in their “appearance” or in their work might have very different experiences than mine. 

Acts of discrimination and censorship have surfaced more recently with the ongoing war in Gaza. Also, I acknowledge and appreciate how in recent years, art institutions and galleries came under scrutiny for systematic dismissal of differences and marginalization of representation. 

I think here it is also noteworthy that I came to Canada at a mature age from a country still recovering from its colonial past and military dictatorship. Therefore, I did not grow up with the privileges of openly questioning authority and voicing dissent. There is a lack of understanding, I suppose, how to discern from what is discrimination and what is simply “my error” as the default disposition of people from my generation is fear of rejection and compromise.

To get out of this vicious cycle of self-deprecation is why I think I became an artist in the first place. My art became my voice and my poetic activism. I believe in most societies; artists are already marginalized by default; we do not occupy central positions of power by design or by choice. Instead, we operate at the peripheries and margin which I think are the best positions for anyone who wants to be creative. We are free, observant, willing to ask the difficult questions and find creative ways to challenge the dominant narratives.

LF: Has being a contemporary artist who is also Muslim opened up any unique opportunities that are positive for you as an artist working in the GTA? Are there any spaces or communities you have found particularly encouraging or supportive?

TQ: Over the many years here, I have cautiously made efforts so that my work is not seen through the lens of my religious or cultural identity only, as these categories and labels feed into further marginalizing our voices and experiences. There have been times when I respectfully declined my participation in exhibitions that were interested in my work because of my faith only. 

At the same time, I have encouraged and enjoyed opportunities where my work amplified the collective voice of artists of my heritage or exhibitions that challenged and expanded the limited readings. One such example is the recent exhibition at the ROM, titled Being and Belonging: Contemporary Women Artists from the Islamic World and Beyond, curated by Fahmida Suleman. The exhibition is the first of its kind in a mainstream public institution to focus on bringing forward the voices of twenty-five contemporary women artists from the Islamic world. 

I also appreciate that several art institutions and spaces have taken substantial measures to better represent artists of colour, and there is room for more. 

I also want to note how government funding for arts, especially in Ontario, recognizes that diverse artists have faced disadvantages; therefore, they are becoming more and more supportive of the practices of such artists through their granting priorities. There are also a growing number of community arts organizations and festivals that provide a platform, funding, and promotion of the works of contemporary artists, bringing visibility and critical engagement. 


Photo courtesy of the artist.



LF: I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the context of the War on Gaza that continues to devastate Palestine and its people. You have made work that engages with historical issues like the Partition in India that led to the formation of Pakistan in 1947. That was around the period of the Nakba, which saw a forced displacement of Palestinians by Israel in 1948. Are you making work that engages with what is happening in Israel-Palestine right now? I also want to acknowledge that there are concerns around surveillance culture and censorship happening right now when artists or academics express pro-Palestinian or Palestinian-sympathetic views.

TQ: My art has always been about what I observe and my critical response to the socio-political concerns of the time. 

Twenty years ago, in the wake of the War on Terror and the heightened Islamophobia around the globe, I created a large body of work, continuing and evolving to date, of the condition of "the Other," where I repeatedly use an image of a cockroach, to carry the narrative of fear, racism, dehumanization, distortion of a belief system and destruction of cultures, and dismissal of identities that do not fall in the Western hegemonic identity of civilized culture. 

In an extensive series of works, I mimic entomological museum language, elements, and display style and use war-related facts to draw parallels between archiving practices, political propaganda, and their role in documenting histories. The scientific facts referenced subtly and sarcastically convey my political concerns. 

The cockroach motif evolved over the years, from intricately painted dead bodies to silhouettes of systematically placed marching cockroaches, from paintings to large-scale installations occupying entire buildings. This inquiry continues with drawings created as worksheets for learning to draw a dead cockroach, breaking it down into fictional letters and language. The key to decoding this knowledge is embedded in today's growing atmosphere of religious and political intolerance, where the fear is no longer a mute condition but has translated into acts of bigotry and brutality under the disguise of misrepresented and misquoted socio-political and religious ideologies. In terms of formal qualities, my text-based drawings are an extension of the cockroach motif replaced by words drawn in repetition for hours, where self-reflexivity has become essential to my practice. 

Witnessing the scale of the human tragedy unfolding in Gaza in the past few months, I realized that it is one thing to witness the pain and suffering of so many, but it is unbelievably frustrating to see how the powerful bias shifts and often rewrites the narrative. The feeling of helplessness turned my attention back to my art and supplication to cope. I started drawing the word 'Rehm', which translates to a passionate and sorrowful plea for mercy. With every word drawn, I pray for the innocent and helpless suffering. I wished this drawing would end and prayers would be answered months ago, but unfortunately, the paper ended. I added another paper to continue my prayer and then another, and so on, like a makeshift shelter of prayers. I do not know when this drawing will end, but I am hopeful that the time will come soon when I can put down my pen.

LF: Is there one thing you think art communities here in Toronto or Canada more broadly could do (or know, or understand) in order to be more inclusive of artists who are part of Muslim communities—including artists who might identify as a “Muslim artist”?

TQ: There is definitely much room for actions to follow words of equity and inclusion. There is a need for open dialogue and communication that goes beyond the tokenism of checking the diversity box. More than ever, there is a need for openness and education rather than continually dismissing the experiences of people of colour and their respective cultures. Sharing personal experiences has the power to strengthen our connection with each other; they inspire us and help us understand perspectives that differ from ours. 

I believe the onus lies with each of us to step out of our own concerns about identity, which exclude others and their point of view, and learn to practice empathy.  

LF: I really appreciate your profound generosity and thoughtfulness in answering my questions, Tazeen. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me and share. I have learned a lot! I wish you and your family a nourishing and transformative month of Ramadan.

TQ: It is my pleasure speaking to you. Thank you for your thoughtful care.


The above conversation was conducted by Lauren Fournier. Fournier is a queer, white/Ashkenazi settler writer, artist, and curator who is passionate about social and economic justice.

Editorial support by Emily Doucet

Special thank you to Tazeen Qayyum for engaging so generously in the above conversation. 

Cover image: 'We Do Not Know Who We Are Where We Go', 2016. Drawing Performance at Royal Conservatory of Music Toronto Duration: 3 hrs Photo credit: Yuula Benivolski.