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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 na