Dania Shoaib started practicing Arabic calligraphy when she was 14 through painting. Back then, she was obsessed with all things Mughal, peacocks, and mandalas! Now, she takes inspiration from her culture, Islamic architecture, and the word of Allah.
We talk to Dania about pop culture, calligraphy and storytelling.
How does your work relate to your heritage?
I have a blended identity: I am a Pakistani-American Muslim. I aim to include all parts of my identity in my artwork. My Pakistani heritage can be seen in my Desi-inspired collections on Redbubble such as my best selling Rooh Afza design or my several Badshahi Mosque designs. Living in the United States, my mother always chose to decorate our home with unique pieces from Pakistan. As such, my greatest lens into my Pakistani heritage has always been art. Pakistani culture is full of art – we even put it on our trucks! The unique South Asian design elements can be found in the architecture and tile work unique to the region. I take great inspiration from the architectural sites created during the Mughal empire.
Above all, however, the Word of Allah inspires my creativity. The powerful verses of their Quran invoke different emotions within those who listen, and those emotions can be connected to visual elements including lines, shapes, and colors. Arabic calligraphy is a centuries old art form that has been customized by time and place. The Ottomans were known for their decorative illuminations combined with unique Diwani scripts while the Mughals were known to ornament their structures with Arabic calligraphy in lieu of human figures. For me, Arabic calligraphy is not only a way I connect to my Muslim heritage, it is also a form of worship through which I glorify the Most High.
Lastly, my American heritage can be seen through the fusion in many of my pieces such as the Hijabi Starbucks Siren or the United States in Mirror Fabric designs.
Through visual arts, how can we reclaim narratives and tell our own stories?
No two artists can or will ever create the same piece – be it a painting, a poem, or a sculpture. Visual art has the added beauty of not requiring words. When we transfer stories through speech, the information is at risk of becoming corrupted as more and more people convey it in their own ways. For the visual artist, he or she can create a piece that no other human can corrupt with their own thoughts. Visual art is open to interpretation, yes, but it allows for the artist to put forth the way they understand the narratives around them. This gives visual artists the unique opportunity to reclaim entire narratives while being safeguarded from the corruption of others.
What was your thought process and inspiration behind your illustrations?
The illustrations on my Redbubble store mostly feature small pieces of Pakistani or Muslim traditions. You will find both designs featuring hijabi women and women modeling Desi style shawls. The thought process behind each piece is how can I deliver the most connection to one’s culture or tradition in the most artistic way while keeping it simple. Most of my illustrations sell as stickers, so there isn’t much space for intricate design. I wanted people to be able to have small tokens that remind them of their cultures.
I also want to create art for people who live in between worlds – those of us with blended identities. I hope my pieces can be appreciate by people of all backgrounds who carry so many unique experiences.
Your work evokes a sense of pop culture – is this something that influences your creativity?
I’ve never thought about it as pop culture, but there is certainly an element of modernity in my work. I try to connect the old and the new, the simple and the ornate. The drive to connect the beautiful and historic elements of Eastern art forms with Western styles certainly influences my creativity. I’m going to run with the idea of “pop culture” for future designs now!
Why did you choose to develop them into a series of stickers?
When I started undergrad, I noticed everyone’s laptops were covered in stickers. I felt this was such an amusing way for people to express themselves. My own laptop is covered in stickers featuring powerful Muslim women to scientific research. In this way, I have been able to collect visual elements and combine them into something unique to me. No two people will have the exact same sticker collection. So, as I learned more about Redbubble, I eagerly joined and uploaded my designs. My original thought was whether or not someone buys my stickers, I am doing it as a way for me to create a portfolio of all my designs. Alhamdulillah, the stickers have become more popular than I could have ever imagined! They are also a great way for people to introduce art into their lives without having to commit to other expensive or large pieces of visual art. My friends and family have even bought them to put in journals!
Do you think art has the potential to impact social change and develop a shared understanding?
Absolutely. “Art” is such a broad word – it encompasses visual and nonvisual art, old and new, simple and ornate. All art is inspired from that which makes up our world and existence, so there is always a way to connect with others through art. Two people with differing political opinions can both be moved by the same painting or poem. Through art, artists have the ability to tap into a different dimension so people may develop a shared understanding through their own or shared interpretations of the work. Art has been used for decades in resistance movements such as the progressive Urdu poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz or the murals born from the Black Lives Matter movement. To say art has the potential to impact social change is an understatement and I would argue it is in fact a driving force.
You are exploring calligraphy and putting your own twist on traditional Arabic calligraphy through digitizing this artform – can you tell us more about your intention behind this?
I began digitizing my art more as the intensity of my studies increased. I was finding it difficult to bring out my paint supplies while managing a busy schedule, so I started doodling on my iPad; it required no more materials than my Apple Pencil. As I learned to navigate Procreate more, I realized digital art is a whole separate medium than any other visual art I had previously dabbled in. Through digitizing Arabic calligraphy, I have been able to combine it with so many color schemes, patterns, decorative elements, and historical markers. I have been able to learn multiple scripts of Arabic calligraphy including Tuluth, Nastaliq, and Diwani because of the freedom that comes from the simple Apple Pencil and Procreate. Digitizing my art has also allowed me to tap into the business side while being a busy student. I am so grateful to be able to explore Arabic calligraphy at this level from the comfort of my desk.
You collaborated with ZUDO, an Islamic inspired brand based in the United States, to create canvas pieces for their ZUDO Home collection. What was this process like and how did you come up with the concepts behind the canvases?
Collaborating with ZUDO was a great honor and opportunity. I reached out to them in January 2021 asking about any opportunities they had for artists to collaborate. They were working on expanding their ZUDO Home collection at that time. I spoke back and forth with a liaison to understand what their target audience was and what kinds of pieces they were looking for. Ultimately, I came up with the concepts behind the canvases by combining traditional Arabic calligraphy with modern American home designs. I spent time researching the most popular color schemes in homes for 2021 and what kinds of art pieces sell the most. I found people were mostly interested in minimalism or block coloring, so those became the basis for my pieces. I also found Muslims were more interested in having non-traditional Arabic calligraphy in their homes, so I explored vertical and abstract designs.
How do you hope your work impacts your audiences?
I hope my audiences are able to see pieces of themselves reflected in my art. I want them to feel my art represents their roots and their futures. Above all, I pray my work helps my audiences form a deep connection with Allah. If even one person is reminded to pray or read Quran after scrolling through my Quranic calligraphy, it means my goal has been achieved. I want people to understand their connection with Allah is multifaceted – once a Muslim fulfils the basics such as praying or fasting, he or she can further connect with Allah through appreciating the beauty He has created in this world. Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said something to the effect of, “Allah is beautiful, and He loves beauty.” So, we can connect to the Most High through the beauty of art and the beauty of His word. And for my non-Muslim audiences, I hope they are able to see the richness of the Islamic tradition which has only been enhanced by time and region.
What are the potential opportunities to develop Islamic art in the future?
More and more companies are working with Muslim artists to feature elements of Islamic art in their products or marketing. Even companies such as Nike have collaborated with up and coming Muslim artists. There are also Islamic based companies creating opportunities for young artists to feature their skills. I believe Islamic art will continue to fuse with modern art styles while maintaining its rich history. InshaAllah, I hope to see Islamic art become even more mainstream!
The views of the interviewees who are featured in Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.