For many people, the concept of documentary work conjures images of a filmmaker shouldering a large camera or an archivist poring over transcripts and records, but North Carolina–based artist Saba Taj shows that documentary principles can underpin work in any medium. As a fellow in the Documentary Diversity Project at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies for the 2019–2020 academic year, Taj completed There Are Gardens at the Margins, a series of large-scale portraits on canvas of LGBTQ Muslim people who live in the American South, using paint, glitter, appliqués, embroidery, and other media. Rather than depicting subjects in settings such as their homes or workplaces and using the artifacts around them to suggest the circumstances of their lives or to place them within a certain social milieu, Taj often shows them against richly colored abstract backgrounds or floating in otherworldly atmospheres. In Miraj, a figure reposes amid clouds of fuchsia, rose, and gold, adorned by shisha embroidery, rhinestones, gold leaf, and glitter. In Borders/Portals (Are So Gay), a young man with delicate gold wings protruding from his Converse sneakers prepares to step into an arched portal lined in a rainbow. Through it, galaxies swirl in outer space. Some of Taj’s figures wear gorgeous, flowing garments presented in photographic detail, but the rest of their bodies disappear into pure color, in a refusal to be legible to viewers who might wonder what it means to live as racial, religious, and sexual minorities in a region where Christianity occupies such a prominent role in both private and public life. The full truth of their experience is not on display for consumption or classification, even if it could be understood from the outside.
Taj, who uses the pronoun they, uses surrealism and fantasy and draws on symbolism from religion and mythology to convey the beauty and complexity of the people they paint, most of whom are friends from the Durham community, which Taj calls home. While developing the series, Taj interviewed subjects and invited them to participate in the creative process, encouraging them to gaze back while they were being photographed or painted. Even in the paintings where all other of the subjects’ features are obscured, their eyes look back at the viewer, emphasizing the subjects’ dignity and agency. The portraits expand the traditional boundaries of documentary conventions, as the subjects’ lives transcend simplistic understandings of Muslim or Southern or LGBTQ identity.
Saba Taj holds a BA in art education from North Carolina Central University and an MFA from University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. Before beginning the fellowship at Duke University, Taj served as executive director of The Carrack Modern Art, a community art space in Durham. Their work has appeared in galleries and museums throughout North Carolina and in solo exhibitions at Philadelphia’s Twelve Gates Arts and Blacksburg, Virginia’s MOSS Arts Center. In our email correspondence in January 2022, they discussed There Are Gardens at the Margins and coming of age as an artist in North Carolina.
C. J. Bartunek
C. J. Bartunek (CJB): Would you tell me more about this series, perhaps about your subjects and your process? In what ways does this work extend or depart from the concerns of your earlier projects?
Saba Taj (ST): There Are Gardens at the Margins is a series of portraits of queer Muslims in the American South. I had plans to include subjects from across the nation, but my focus narrowed with the travel restrictions of the pandemic. As a result, the people I painted were almost entirely part of my immediate community in Durham, North Carolina, and are comrades, friends, and chosen family. As queer Muslims in a U.S. context, they are a group widely judged as “impossible” or paradoxical. I painted them emerging from dreamscapes, cloaked with color and glitter, partial concealments which serve to maintain, rather than rectify, the mystery of their identities in mainstream American discourse. With these strategies, I aim to interrupt the lacerating gaze and as Trinh Minh-Ha describes, “speak nearby, in proximity . . . suspend meaning, preventing it from merely closing and hence leaving a gap in the formation process.”
Into this gap, I interject beauty as a language for devotion, an antidote for harm, and an alternative to the public leveraging of trauma in exchange for humanity. I render subjects and their environments lavishly, shimmering with rhinestones, appliqués, and beads, objects and imagery that are drawn from our queer and diasporic heritages. Sewing in items like bridal tulle, golden thread, and brocaded trims, I approached each artwork as a love letter, employing embellishment as a ritual of care. Ultimately I am bearing witness to my friends at the intersections, in the lush and liberatory liminal spaces they create and reside in.
My process begins with intimacy. I conversed with the people I painted about pleasure, their relationships to Islam, and their stories of themselves. Then I photographed them, encouraging them to observe me, as I wanted to capture them engaged in the act of looking, as opposed to receiving the gaze. This redirection may be subtle, but I find it important in the consideration of power between subject and viewer.
My practice has always focused on the power and complexity of minoritized peoples, particularly those who flourish in the chasms and intersections between essentialist categories of identity. I illustrate hybridity by combining references to Islam, queerness, and varied histories of Muslim diaspora. These combinations manifest into garments, performance, mixed-media collage, and portraits.
There is conceptual and material overlap between my collage works and portraiture, namely in the illustrations of hybridity and tedious application of adornments. The processes are related in their focus on the figure, the combinations and layering of imagery, but collage is a more intuitive and playful process, while portraiture tends to be a bit more structured and planned in advance. My collage works illustrate monsters, heroes in an imagined future, an apocalypse and its aftermath, and balance beauty and the grotesque. I consider my recent portraits to exist in a liminal present, with a more primary focus on beauty.
CJB: I’ d be interested to hear more about your experience with the Center for Documentary Studies. In what ways do the values of the discipline of documentary work inform your practice? In what ways does your work question or push back against that field’s traditional boundaries?
ST: I have found that conversations about ethics are more at the forefront in documentary as compared with visual art more broadly, likely because of documentary’s concern with truth-telling and its roots in promoting social change. I am concerned with ethical practice in process as well as the impact of what I create, because my work is engaging with representation that is naturally in conversation with systems of power. I am creating representations and ultimately telling stories about minoritized communities, or transforming existing representations through collage. I understand that objectivity is a myth, a story that serves to uphold white supremacy and the status quo. This viewpoint is shared and grappled with by many who are doing documentary work, who invite us to actively question and work to decolonize the stories of truth that have shaped the “normal.” I seek to engage with a version of truth that is consciously subjective, emotional, and connected. I cannot be an objective observer, but am a part of the work that I create. The paintings I made during the fellowship are portraits of people I care for, and I allowed that caring to be present in the paintings. I am unable to tell someone else’s story, or to contain the stories of a dynamic community, so instead of trying to do that, I am telling a story of us that does not answer the question of who we are, and is instead full of feeling and grounded in relationship.
CJB: Beyond documentary studies, who are some of the artists or authors that have most influenced your practice?
ST: As far as artists, Wangechi Mutu, Ebony Patterson, Firelei Báez, Antoine Williams, Lien Truong, and Shahzia Sikander. Theorists that come to mind are Trinh T. Minh-Ha, John Berger, Edward Said, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks. I’m also really into science fiction and Afrofuturism, namely Octavia Butler and N. K. Jemisin. I love the more mystical and magical parts of Islam, and how those pieces are expounded upon by Sufi philosophers like Ibn Arabi.
CJB: This issue of The Georgia Review is devoted to the theme of diasporic communities in the Southeast. You are a lifelong North Carolinian; in one interview you said that “As I’ve gotten older, I feel more deeply that this is my state, and that makes me dedicated to stay here and make it better.” In what ways have you seen North Carolina change over your lifetime? What issues do you feel are currently most pressing in the state? Are there any organizations or initiatives that you would like readers to know about?
ST: I’ve lived in Durham, North Carolina, for almost all of my adult life, and the leadership here has become decidedly more progressive over time. Even with shared progressive values, there is still disagreement about how we put those values into practice. In this period of pandemic, where we see the toxic connections between racialized capitalism, healthcare, housing, and policing, I think we must always look at issues as intersecting. How can we prevent social problems instead of just reacting to them (punitively, inadequately)? How do we protect each other, our communities, instead of hoarding safety for the privileged few? How do we build practices that not only include but center the needs and desires of those who are most impacted? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but am guided by an ethos of care and interdependence. I volunteer with Durham Beyond Policing, “a grassroots coalition to divest from policing and prisons and reinvest municipal resources into supporting the health and wellbeing of Black & Brown communities, benefiting all community members in Durham, NC.”
CJB: Given our theme, I’ d love to hear anything else you’re comfortable sharing about your life in North Carolina. Have you always lived in the Research Triangle? Is your family still in the region? What is unique about the area’s art scene?
ST: I’ve always lived in the Research Triangle. I grew up in Raleigh, and moved to Durham (which is just a half hour away) when I was eighteen. My parents still live in Raleigh. There is a tight-knit community of South Asian Muslims that my family is part of, as well as a large, diverse mosque in Raleigh.
I’ve been creating and exhibiting in Durham since 2009, and through the years have become part of an incredible community of artists and activists. The art scene in Durham is rich in its connections and collaborations amongst artists and movement organizations, with an outspoken and explicit commitment to anti-racism. Artists are engaged with local policy across many issues, including advocating for arts funding from the city, and the rights of artists as workers. I am part of a multi-racial group of cultural organizers called Art Ain’t Innocent that engages with these issues.
CJB: You’ve asserted the importance of your Muslim faith to your identity, and it is a central theme in your art. I hope this question isn’t overly personal, but is a formal or informal worship community part of your life? Do you have any advice for queer people of faith who may still be struggling to reconcile their spirituality with the religious traditions they’ve inherited?
ST: I don’t have a formal worship community, but find belonging through friendships with other queer Muslims. Together, we have been able to create new traditions that build upon our shared and distinct experiences growing up Muslim, and we have also been able to transform them. I think it’s a beautiful thing to lean into the fact that culture is something that is alive, something that we can change and that changes us. And to give ourselves, each other, the agency to participate in being Muslim, to define what that means through our evolving practice.
CJB: Your accomplishments are very impressive for an early-career artist! What are your hopes for the future? What are you working on right now?
ST: Thank you! My hope is to just continue creating. The art world reeks with scarcity, and I think that competitive culture can be quite toxic to the creative process. My intention is to foster more of the humble spirit of a student, driven by curiosity and exploration. The pandemic has been a hard time to be an artist, and it’s sparked some necessary reflection into what drives my artmaking, and how that has transformed over time—in both positive and not-so-positive ways. I sort of think about it as a marriage. How do we stay in love when the demands of living are so draining to the soul? I am seeking a kind of purity and joy that I understand is unattainable, something that can only be glimpsed in moments. It reminds me of this quote by Eduardo Galeano that a dear friend shared with me: “Utopia is on the horizon. I move two steps closer; it moves two steps further away. I walk another ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps further away. As much as I may walk, I’ll never reach it. So what’s the point of utopia? The point is this: to keep walking.”
Images © 2022 Saba Taj