Why Safwat Saleem Is "Concerned But Powerless"

Safwat Saleem in the studio.
Safwat Saleem in the studio. Courtesy of Safwat Saleem
Safwat Saleem isn't sure what he has to do to earn the title of artist.

“I call myself a graphic designer without hesitation because I am confident about my work,” he says. “I can get away with being a graphic designer who sometimes makes art as opposed to being an artist.”

But the TED Senior Fellow’s feelings on choosing a creative label (he's also an animator and director) are less complicated than his reaction the 2016 presidential election. The Pakistani-American says he felt worried, helpless, and disheartened over what was taking place. He created art to cope.

“Art is nothing at all, but it’s all I can do right now,” he says.

Saleem's exhibition “Concerned But Powerless” combines found imagery from vintage advertisements, Urdu typography, and acerbic phrases to create a distinctive and satirical work that touches on the social issues magnified by the election of Donald Trump.
The show is on view at Vision Gallery in downtown Chandler until March 2. Saleem talked by phone with Phoenix New Times about how his feelings of desperation led to inspiration. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

click to enlarge The artist's reaction to the 2016 Presidential Election results - SAFWAT SALEEM
The artist's reaction to the 2016 Presidential Election results
Safwat Saleem
New Times: You write in the description for "Concerned But Powerless" that the exhibit began as a way for you to process the 2016 election. At what moment did you realize you needed to react to what was happening?
Safwat Saleem: I wrote some phrases down, almost like a journal. As the election was happening, it felt like I was not being represented in any way. I just kept writing more of these phrases down and making the images to go with them. As you go through them, you might detect an increasing sense of desperation. My level of reaction kept ramping up.

Do you think there was a change in tone from before the election to after the results came in?
Absolutely. There is one piece that contains the phrase “(silent screams).” That was made on election night after the results came in. There was a break for a few months. I don’t remember taking down any notes at that time. Then post-election, I have had a moment to think about what has happened. It felt like I gave up.

What were some other thoughts you had when the results of the election came in?
I think it was the weekend after the election when Saturday Night Live did a skit with Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock. They were at a party and were the only black people in the room watching as the results come in. Everyone else was in complete disbelief and saying, “Wait, this state’s results have not come in yet. Let’s just keep waiting.” But Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle already knew how it was going to go.

That’s how I felt. I wanted America to prove me wrong, but I knew how it would go.

Do you think things are going to change?
I hope I am wrong again, but I already feel like we know how this [next] election is going to go. Let’s be honest. The economy is doing well. I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel because we have not hit bottom yet.

Where did you find the imagery you used for the artwork?
I was looking for images from the '50s and '60s. This was supposedly when America was great. There was a lot of really good advertisements from magazines available from that time. I scanned them in and I worked with those.

click to enlarge Part of Safwat Saleem's exhibition "Concerned But Powerless." - PETER BUGG
Part of Safwat Saleem's exhibition "Concerned But Powerless."
Peter Bugg
You also use Urdu in those images.
Last year was a year of transition for me in many ways. I became a father. My daughter was born here. This is the only home she will know. I don’t even know if she will speak Urdu or will know about her father’s Pakistani heritage.

This was also the year I became a naturalized citizen. It felt like this was the end of Urdu. Using the language in my work was part of my origin story and give me a chance to use Urdu as a graphic designer. It is a beautiful-looking language and I was able to work with it in a way that felt very satisfying.

On the wall of the gallery, you ask two questions: What makes you feel concerned? What makes you feel powerless? How would you answer those questions?
What makes me feel concerned is the idea that you just have to say the right thing at the right time to a group of people and they will elect another crook. It scares me a lot how easy that is. What makes me feel powerless is that I don’t know what I can do about it.

I hope that my daughter feels that this is her home and is never made to feel that she does not belong here. I hope that she does not have to go through the time that I am going through.

“Concerned But Powerless” is on view until Friday, March 2, at Vision Gallery, 10 East Chicago Street in downtown Chandler. For more information, visit the Vision Gallery website.
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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil