Sanya Makhdumi is an abstract artist known for her contrasting use of texture and three-dimensional calligraphy. Her work explores Islamic narratives and architecture through the use of colours and the balance of light and depth. Sanya has introduced unique ways to incorporate texture in her paintings, especially through Quranic verses. Although she is based in the United Kingdom, Sanya began her journey in Vancouver, Canada, where she was born and raised. Moving halfway across the world and experiencing the sudden loss of a parent gave her the courage to create fearlessly without any boundaries. Her unconventional style of ‘sculpting on canvas’ combined with her portrayal of Islamic heritage has caught the attention of many. Her paintings hang in homes throughout the world today as she continues to make a mark within the community of Islamic art.
We talk to Sanya about her unique style, finding inspiration and her creative process.
How did you develop an interest in Islamic Art? Did you always want to be an artist?
Creating art has always been a part of me, however, becoming an artist was a dream I never allowed myself to have. Despite receiving a scholarship to a renowned art university in Vancouver, I declined and studied sciences. My heart was ready to break societal barriers, but my mind wouldn’t let me. I never thought my work would be good enough and there was no self -belief. At this moment, as I’m answering this question, it feels surreal to say “Yes, I am an artist”. Everyone around me saw my potential except for myself. It was only until I got rid of the self-doubt and began creating unapologetically, that I was able to fully grow as an artist and as an individual. We all go through spiritual highs and lows where our level of faith fluctuates. I began painting the words of Allah during my greatest tribulations. The solace it gave me and the way it strengthened my faith is indescribable. Since then, I have been chasing after these emotions and continue to do so. Being able to create for my clients and watching them also connect with Allah and strengthen their faith through my paintings is the most amazing feeling.
How did you train to become an artist?
Becoming an artist was never a plan so there was no official training. I had no knowledge of the art world, but the passion and determination were there. I created and continued creating until I saw my work improve. I experimented, took risks, and there was a lot of trial and error. I worked with various mediums and techniques until I was able to find my style using the channels which best allowed me to express myself. I lost count of how many times I painted over the same canvas. I used supplies from the dollar store to save money and when the paintbrushes began to wear away, I turned to sponges, cloth and my hands which I still use today – in fact, a tea towel has become a crucial tool in each of my paintings. In my opinion, you need to step away from your comfort zone and put yourself in a position of vulnerability. When you have the best supplies around you, you’re no longer resourceful and your mind stops making deeper connections. The long nights and days where I failed again and again taught me more than any art class could have. In a way I’m still training. You never really stop as an artist because there’s no end to creativity and one’s imagination. There are endless roadblocks, but you just keep on going.
Where do you find inspiration to create your works?
Inspiration is like the sun in London, it comes as unexpectedly as it goes. I always try to limit my use of social media as it clouds my mind and can get very overwhelming. For me, inspiration can come from a few words in a book I’m reading, the colours of nature when I’m out for a walk, the calmness of the sea, from the architecture of a building or even from someone’s outfit. Most of my inspiration is fuelled by sadness as that is when we truly are in need of Allah. When I’m vulnerable, feeling alone, and in pain – this is when I create my best work. The way my hands move while working on the canvas directly relates to my emotions. I also take a lot of inspiration from my clients. Some share their trials with me, some share a personal story, and some share a dream or inspiration. The trust they have in me is truly humbling. I soak it all in and allow my emotions to take over and visualize the art in my mind. Whatever colours, images, shapes, or verses appear, I jot down and continue expanding from there. The energy they give off, their space, their stories, their sentiments behind the painting – this all inspires me greatly. Every individual is different so the work I create for them should reflect that.
How do you create your colour compositions?
When I’m working on commissioned art, the colour composition begins with my client’s space. I ask for photos of every little detail (cushions, décor, walls, flooring etc.) I also ask them to send me mood boards and any other source of inspiration they have. I study these photos and from there create a colour palette. I play around with different values of the colours until I’m happy with the swatches which I send over for approval. A balanced colour composition is essential for a successful painting. After I choose the colours, I decide which temperature I want the undertones to be. Colour temperature significantly effects the overall palette and the aesthetic you are going for. I then create different values and hues of the colours and incorporate them to proportionately add depth to the palette. During this process, I usually have the photos which my clients have sent me taped onto my easel. When the painting is not commissioned and the colour palette is completely up to me, I allow my emotions to take charge of the palette. I’m somehow always drawn towards earthy tones and blues. They feel familiar and provide a sense of comfort. I would like to play around with bolder colours soon. Creating a colour composition is a fine balance between technicality and emotion.
Which artists inspire you?
One artist who never ceases to inspire me, not just as an artist but also as a Muslim, is Saleha Art. The way she incorporates Islam into each canvas almost feels like you’re time travelling back to the times of the Prophets and Sahabas whose stories she depicts. Her creativity and ability to narrate such important stories of Islam through her work is brilliant. Her work is sincere, genuine, and provides a sense of calmness. It would be a dream to own an original Saleha Art painting one day.
Of all your works to date, which has been the most challenging to create?
I lost my dad very suddenly in the summer of 2020. I can’t begin to describe the pain and emptiness inside me. At the time, I was working on a commission for a family friend for which I was given full creative freedom. My instincts told me to paint. Every brush stroke on this painting was driven by grief. Channelling all my raw emotions and letting them pour onto this canvas was one of the most challenging things I’ve done but it enabled me to create a different kind of art - art which was pure heart and soul. Symbolism was introduced into my work. Every colour now meant something. The light in the painting was the peace and solace Allah was giving me as I turned to him. I used iridescent golds to show the divinity, power, and magnificence of Ar Rahman - the most merciful. The way the whirling dervish reached for the mercy of Allah, for His love, His compassion, His protection – I truly felt that it was me asking for all these things. This painting was my greatest challenge and my greatest blessing all in one. I was taught what art really was supposed to be and how greatly it could impact myself and others. This painting received a lot of love when I shared it online and is one of my most recreated pieces. Some of the most memorable conversations with my clients are based on this painting.
Can you share your creative process?
As an artist, I am frequently alone when working on my art which has taught me to spend a lot of time in my own head. This is the only time when my mind connects all my thoughts and processes all my unconscious and conscious ideas from previous and current inspirations in unusual ways. In these moments of solitude, I battle between dreaming and doing. My creative process can be chaotic and non-linear; I can go back and forth in my own mind when coming up with ideas, almost as if I’m having a conversation with someone else inside my head. I block out whatever is going on around me as if it fails to exist. One aspect of this process is internal where I dream, imagine, reflect, and connect. Another aspect which is equally important is external in which I sketch, write, plan, and research. Islamic lectures such as the Seerah of the Prophet Muhammad SAW by Yasir Qadhi, have influenced me greatly. After this initial stage, I step away from it all. I may work on another project or take a break from my canvases altogether. This gives my mind a chance to rest, and I unconsciously further develop these ideas by adding layers to them from my surroundings. It is at this stage where I usually have my ‘Aha’ moment and then execute these thoughts. Execution itself is a chaotic process. I never stop developing my ideas as I’m working. Sometimes, I can be on the final stages of a painting and still be brainstorming. There is no formula to the creative process but that is where the magic happens. Its lengthy, exhausting but fulfilling at the same time.
What advice would you give to an aspiring artist?
Art isn’t a trend or a gimmick. Art is a reflection of the artist. It is a piece of them, of their soul and what they stand for. Until you understand this, you won’t be able to create your best work. You have to spend time with yourself and know who you are to be able to translate that into your work. You are unique and your art should be too. I understand how difficult it is to create original art, but you have to keep going. Create every little idea you have – you don’t know what it can become as you develop it. There is no shortage of art on the internet so you need to create something which will stand out. It’s easy for your work to be influenced by other artists’ work, however, you should be recognized by the originality of your art, your own personal style, and techniques. There will be endless failures and testing moments but that is where growth occurs. You will see your work develop in front of you. A passion for something is great but when you pair that with consistency, you will create magic. Keep on going while staying true to yourself, your values, and your morals. Create fearlessly and unapologetically. Life is too short to play it safe. Allow yourself to take breaks – they are crucial for the creative process. Don’t feel disheartened if you don’t have any new ideas. Step away from it all and I promise you will come back with something brilliant. Learn to value yourself, your art, and your time because if you don’t, no one else will. Most importantly, enjoy every part of the process, don’t dwell on the failures, and learn from each mistake.
What do you think the future of Islamic art looks like and how do you think we can continue to keep the tradition alive?
I don’t think we understand how powerful art can be. It has the ability to ignite inspiration, raise important questions, and reconnect entire generations. As Islam has spread vastly across the globe, so has various forms of Islamic art. It is rich in diversity, representing different techniques, mediums, and cultures. The establishment of symbolism in Islamic art today sparks important conversations as abstract expressionism and contemporary styles are being created. It makes me so happy to see emerging new artists arrive with a fierce passion that pushes boundaries and showcases Islamic art in a new perspective. We need to keep creating and supporting each other in this journey. It’s only by exposing people to different viewpoints and stories through our art, that we can create a sense of unity, understanding and empathy. Islamic art is a brilliant gateway for non-Muslims to also gain perspective of our religion, our culture, and heritage.
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