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Painting Narratives, Safia Latif

Safia Latif is a painter based in California. Her work is largely inspired by Near Eastern history and culture and examines themes of spirituality, melancholia, and the inexplicable depth of the quotidian in religious life.

In many of Safia's works you will encounter complex Islamic architectural elements and vivid colors reminiscent of orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. At the same time, her paintings are distinguished by her loose and textured brush strokes, as she is heavily influenced by impressionist painters.

Prayer on a Plantation


We talk to Safia about exploring religion through art, the depiction of Islamic narratives, and how her heritage and identity has influenced her creative practice.

Can you tell us about your journey as an artists and why you decided to leave academia?

I completed my MA in Middle Eastern Studies and began a PhD in religion, focusing on the concept of piety as a form of social capital for Muslim women in the medieval world. I had many excellent mentors, and enjoyed the research aspects, but ultimately decided a life in academia was not for me. I was always drawn to art, and decided instead to use my knowledge of Islamic history to inform a creative body of work.

Your work is heavily influenced by Islam and your identity as a Muslim, why is this important to you?

In one of my favorite novels, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, one of the main characters, an artist, states that he will not exhibit his latest painting. When asked for the reason behind this, he explains that he feels he has put too much of himself in his work, arguing that it is not the sitter, but rather the “painter who, on the colored canvas, reveals himself.” If a painting can reveal one’s drama and neuroses, what more their identity and religious convictions? That’s my long way of saying that yes my identity as a Muslim – a cosmopolitan Muslim - plays a significant role in my work, though I also explore secular themes if not altogether secular paintings. I don’t think I’m unique in exploring religion through art since many artists in the past did the same. Take, for example, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” by Rembrandt or “The Blind Leading the Blind,” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. That said, I like to think that the messages found in my work are universal and for everyone, Muslim or not.

The Last Prayer, oil on linen panel, 9 x 12 inches


Where do you draw inspiration for your paintings from?

Much of my inspiration comes from having studied the Middle East and Islam in particular academically. Broadly speaking, I’m influenced by themes of spirituality, melancholia, and the inexplicable depth of the quotidian in religious life.

Detachment, oil on cradled wood panel, 9 x 12 inches


Your work is heavily influenced by impressionist painters, which in particular and what drew you to this style of painting?

I’ve always loved for the beauty of the paint itself to show through in a painting so it only makes sense that I would gravitate towards a “painterly” style. I use a wet-on-wet technique to lay down loose and textured brushstrokes. I take my inspiration from many artists, especially the masters like Richard Schmid, John Singer Sargent, and Rembrandt.

Field of Poppies, oil on linen panel, 9 x 12 inches


our paintings tell stories, how do you select the narratives you want to tell and what do you hope the viewer gains from this?

My process for choosing a subject is dynamic. Sometimes I’ll read or see something and it’ll spark an idea. Other times I follow an impulse and see where it leads. I like to group my work into series. This also helps in deciding what to paint. For instance, I have a “cat series,” “death series,” and am currently working on a “Qur’an series.” The latter project breaks new ground by bringing exegetical narratives to life using impressionism. My hope is that these sorts of paintings will convey a sense of truth and meaning to the viewer.

When They Saw Joseph, oil on linen panel, 9 x 12 inches


Can you tell us about “Prayer on a Plantation". What inspired you to paint this scene and did you expect to have such a response on social media this painting in particular?

I wanted to do a painting that portrayed the tale of slavery in antebellum America, but one that could shine light on the untold historical reality of the first Muslims in the United States. The image came to me after reading some of the narrative account as a fugitive slave by Charles Ball. I was living in New Haven, Connecticut at the time and happened to live in a black neighborhood. One of my neighbors agreed to model for me and with his help, my own imagination and research, and a bit of luck, I was able to depict a moment in time that was tragic no doubt, but also empowering! It was one of my first pieces to sell and I excitedly gave half of the proceeds to my wonderful model. I never dreamed it would garner the response it did but I am happy and very humbled to have created something that others have found moving and beautiful.

Prayer on a Plantation, acrylic on canvas, 8 x 10 inches


How do you select your subjects for portraiture, for example your portraits of Allama Iqbal and Al Ghazali?

Though I love painting complex compositions that tell stories, I also enjoy portraiture and believe that a facial expression, if captured correctly, can tell its own story. I like to paint well-known historical figures of Islam, but also ordinary people from all walks of life.

Al-Ghazali and the Fly, oil on cradled wood panel, 16 x 16 inches


When I pray has a sense of Muslim Futurism, was this intentional?

Yes and no. I knew wanted to do another painting of Malcolm X and decided to depict him in an ideal meditative state. The futuristic element came in to play unconsciously perhaps since I currently live a few minutes from Silicon Valley, home to Meta and other big tech companies. When I first moved to the Bay, Ali Yaycıoğlu, a Stanford historian and fellow artist, informed me that the culture and ethos of the area would likely impact my work. I wasn’t sure what he meant then, but now I can see myself exploring more futuristic themes down the line.

When I Pray, oil on canvas paper, 8 x 10 inches


Cats are a key theme within your work, why cats?

Well if one is either a dog or cat person, I fall on the side of the feline. But I’d also like to think that in figuring them into my paintings, I’m following a prophetic model and precedent, for who loved cats better than the Prophet Muhammed? Beyond that, many famous artists enjoyed portraying cats including Leonardo da Vinci who said, “The smallest feline is a masterpiece.” I can’t help but think the same with their nimble poses and myriad colored fur.

Revelations, oil on wood panel, 6 x 6 inches


Your works are incredibly detailed, especially your architectural forms, how long does it take for you to create a painting from start to finish?

I generally paint slow. Sometimes I spend nearly an hour just pre-mixing my colors. My painting, “The People of the Cave,” inspired by the tale of the cave in the Qur’an was only 6 x 8 inches yet it took me 20 hours to complete. Another painting of mine, “Atonement,” which features Moroccan architectural elements, took so long, I lost count of the hours. Still, in order to keep a clear headspace when I work, I try not to think so much about how long a piece will take and instead just go with the flow.

Atonement, oil on cradled wood panel, 11 x 14 inches


Which painting are you most proud of and why?

I am probably most proud of “Prayer on a Plantation,” but I’m also happy with one of my recent works, “The Devil Behind Me.” It was inspired by the words of Rabia Al-Basri, an 8th century Sufi mystic, who said “O God, Take away the words of the devil that mix with my prayer—if not, then take my prayer as it is, devil and all.” I’m very happy with the looseness of the painting and the fact that I was able to creatively communicate an abstract idea.

The Devil Behind Me, oil on canvas paper, 7 x 9 inches


What does the future of Islamic art look like to you?

I think Islamic art is ever growing, thanks to social media, which has democratized the art market. I see my work right at the heart of a burgeoning field of experimentation, using both past and present art techniques.

Cat on Tile, oil on linen panel, 8 x 10 inches


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