Writer: Aiza Saeed
“Art is a very personal experience, whether that be through the eyes of the artist or the spectator. Each individual has their own perception of a piece, which quite possibly could be unexplainable to another.”
These are the words of Florida based abstract artist Sarah Ali whose personal journey into art is more complicated compared to others. Born to physicians in Lahore, Pakistan, Sarah came to the United States when she was less than a year old. As I sat down with her for the first time, it was clear that Sarah’s entry into the art world was quite unintentional. She told me about her original plan to attend law school after going to Rollins College for her undergraduate degree and then receiving her MBA at the Crummer Graduate School of Business in 1997. She said “being brought up in a Desi home meant your future and career were always in question and education was always expected.” I then asked the obvious question,
“How did you get into art?”
The response was one I was not expecting. She described the day that ultimately changed her life forever. The day she had been diagnosed with Lupus, a systemic autoimmune disease that occurs when one’s body attacks itself and its tissues and organs. The diagnosis had come after numerous doctors appointments, hours of speculation, and months of severe pain. Ali then explained how she fell into a deep state of depression-- art at that moment was her lifesaver. She used art as a means of therapy and meditation that she revealed “brought feelings of joy that I had not experienced in a very long time.” She realized her once painful experience could be turned into tangible works of joy. It was hard to imagine Ali had experienced such a dark moment in her life because her character and persona were quite the opposite. She was very eager and excited to answer all of the questions and have a much needed conversation about art and Desi culture.
“What was it like to pursue a career in the arts as a Female- Paksitani-American-Muslim?”
She said her parents were very supportive throughout the entire process. However, Ali recognized the fact that if her childhood dream was to be an artist, her parents’ reaction would have never been the same. “They were happy that I was feeling more like myself and saw that art was the reason why. They were supportive, they encouraged me, but of course I think a lot of it had to with the fact that it initially started as a form of therapy.” As for the reaction from the Brown community, Ali mentioned comments from Desi aunties and uncles discouraging her from becoming an artist. Remarks including; “I can do that, that looks very easy, what will other people think, it is not too late to become a lawyer you know.” She said she definitely felt disrespected by those comments but all the negative opinions made her more eager to prove them wrong.
As for the art industry Sarah says she is the only Female-Pakistani-American-Muslim artist she knows. I asked her why the arts are not promoted throughout Pakistani and Desi homes in America, and she replied “The talent has always been there, it’s the viability of okay mom and dad I want to be an artist, Desi parents do not see that as being a successful career”. She elaborated on being unique in the industry by saying she has never had to hide her true self. “People enjoy my art. I never have to explain myself or my background to anyone because they simply appreciate what I produce.”
In today’s world
One might ask themselves how a Female-Pakistani-American-Muslim artist is doing within the current administration that has not been shy in denying their opinions on immigrants, Muslims, and minority populations in America overall. I wondered if clients had ever questioned Ali or her background. “I market myself as Sarah the artist, I don’t market myself as the Paksitani-American-Muslim artist, to me it doesn’t matter. Talent shouldn’t be linked to any particular person, race, or religion. Everybody has talent, I don’t think there should be a set of criteria one has to be in order to be successful.” I wondered if she ever had to cater to her clients in order to run a successful business. “I’m very proud of who I am but as for catering, at my events I never serve alcohol and I am perfectly comfortable with that”.
“What does art mean to you?”
Ali began to say if it wasn’t for art she doesn’t know what or how her life would have looked like today. It has been an extremely crucial aspect of her life for over fifteen years. She then talked about the importance of art in society and how impactful it can be. “When complete strangers are put in front of a piece of art, something amazing can happen. Art could be an unintentional form of communication and unity, it transcends through political and religious ideology even if people have radically different opinions. One’s perception in art is never questioned or belittled, everyone is allowed to have their own perspective and take on the piece”.
After interviewing Ali I realized she is a prime example of thinking outside of the box. Her step into the art world was unexpected and her background and the industry she chose might be unconventional to some people. It was great to hear how excited she was for future generations to break certain stigmas and stereotypes when it came to the Desi community’s role in the art world. “You should respect yourself and respect your heritage, culture, and religion because then and only then will people respect you.”