Safwat Saleem

Mixed media

Behind a faint smile, Safwat Saleem says he's giving up.

The graphic designer and filmmaker will be the first to say he's not an optimist. He's Pakistani but grew up in Abu Dhabi before moving to Mississippi for computer programming school in the late '90s. He says he doesn't remember sticking out too much or feeling uncomfortable.

That all changed on September 11, 2001.

Saleem remembers walking home from class at night and being yelled at from a passing car. "At the time, I was too young to understand what was really happening . . . all of the sudden I was the bad guy," he says. "It was the first time I realized that being of a certain color and religious affiliation may have its drawbacks."

He eventually left Mississippi and came to Phoenix to live with his brother and study design at ASU. While he's worked on countless projects for school and various clients (and friends), Saleem says his latest collection of work began that night in Mississippi.

The bookshelves in Saleem's studio are lined with vintage advertisements. He estimates he went through thousands of images to match with statistics and manipulative political campaign messages about the war in Iraq and throughout the more recent immigration conflict in Arizona.

The result was a series of posters, video clips, and bumper stickers he put up for a show in December at Bragg's Pie Factory in downtown Phoenix. It was a gag reflex, he says, a gut response to "politicians and pundits portraying minorities as villains to appeal to the lowest common denominator."

And the show did well. He was able to raise all of the funding through, a fundraising site, and kept his artwork in the gallery for longer than expected. He says he was afraid the public would think he was "just another liberal brown guy talking political bullshit." But hundreds of people came to see the posters, he says, and a few left with bumper stickers.

Then he smiles; a number of people walked out within minutes of arriving.

"My goal with the exhibit was just to show how ridiculous these arguments are," he says. "And in using humor, satire, I hope that people came in to see something outlandish, that they laughed or were offended, and that maybe in a few weeks, when they heard similar statements being made on the television or in the paper — that they thought about it again."

Since the show, Saleem's been busy with side projects and a few films. He says he might take a break from the political scene because he hasn't seen much change. (Like he said, not an optimist.)

"I don't have the answers; I don't know what works," he says. But he might be on to something.

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Claire Lawton
Contact: Claire Lawton