People 29 October 2018
Sobia Ahmad, a 25-year-old Muslim artist, is gaining some recognition in the art world for her nuanced exploration of Muslim-American life. She recently won a fellowship with the Vermont Studio Center and held a solo show at the VisArts Gallery in Rockville, Maryland in late February. Her body of work touches on a myriad of themes that mirror both personal narrative and the adversities Muslims face while living in America.
“There was a time when the headscarf was considered a symbol of oppression. Now it's become a symbol of resistance, of empowerment almost.
“I'm not trying to communicate just one idea of Muslim identity," says Ahmad, who moved to America from a town called Gujranwala with her family at the age of 14. “It's about how identities are in constant flux, and how socio-political ideologies affect it."
For a lot of her work, Ahmad draws from her past, while also channeling immigration, treatment of minority women and muslim identity in the Trump era.
In an ongoing project, “Home is just a Memory Palace" artifacts of her past life in Pakistan, including family photographic, Islamic tiles, hand-written calligraphy, and an oriental rug, are digitally copies onto a white, chiffon scarf.
“When I think of home in Pakistan, I think of the adhan – the Islamic call to prayer on the rooftops. The nostalgic feeling of being in a place where there's this melodious echo in the air. As an immigrant, you begin carrying home within you through memory."
When Ahmad first came to Maryland as a teenager, she found herself caught between two conflicting cultures.
“Nothing was familiar," Ahmad recalled. “Not the language, clothing, or the food. It was interesting because I was labeled as foreign, but, actually, everything was foreign to me. I felt like I didn't belong and people weren't very inclusive."
She believes it was important for her to keep to her religious and cultural values. She stayed away from things teens her age were interested in, like drinking and partying. It was easier for Ahmad to keep herself than push in an unfamiliar society. When she did try to socialize outside of school, she was often not allowed to.
“It was very difficult to convince my parents to let me go out to the movies or hang out. “You go to school and that's one world. And you come home and that's another world."
Ahmad didn't have art classes in Pakistan. She was unaware of the power that art could give her. Once she had discovered the power behind art, she knew this was the way to call attention to her beliefs. She went on to double major in art and behavioral health in college.
“I didn't realize art had potential to raise awareness about issues of social justice or be cathartic."
While much of Ahmad's work is specific and autobiographical, it also represents something larger.
In a series of 40 by 60 black and white paintings, Ahmad cut out images of Muslim women from magazines and laid them on top of each other until past the point of recognition. She then coated the canvas with black and white paint, symbolizing the erasure of Muslim identity in America.
“I've seen identities reduced to symbols and soundbites," she says referring to how Muslim women are represented in the media. “As Muslims, we're not seen as full individuals."
The headscarf is also prominently featured in her paintings. She believes it has many connotations in today's political climate.
“There was a time when the headscarf was considered a symbol of oppression. Now it's become a symbol of resistance, of empowerment almost."
Ahmad used to wear the headscarf herself, but decided to take it off a couple of years ago. She notes that what Muslim women wear is unfairly obsessed over by “both cultures." It wasn't a political statement, but rather a part of her spiritual quest.
Since the 2016 presidential election, Ahmad's art has taken a political bent. Trump's travel ban spurred one of her most evocative installments – “Small Identities," – a collection of real life ID photos of Muslim immigrants transferred onto ceramic tiles, that she plants to grow into a larger series.
“Art is inherently political and using it to raise awareness in issues that are affecting a certain community is a form of activism," Ahmad says. “I deeply believe in the catalytic power of art for social change. It can touch people emotionally."
Susan Main, gallery director and curator of the VisArts Gallery, was impressed with Ahmad's commitment to creating dialogue through her art.
“She's articulate about what she's doing as an artist. Just starting in her career, it's really rare to see that level of maturity. I see her moving forward and developing as an artist who has consequential impact in the field."
While much of Ahmad's work is specific and autobiographical, it also represents something larger.
Her art is an act of defiance in and of itself, as if to say, Muslim identity is fluid, complex and vivid, and doesn't need to fit anyone's expectations of it.
In many ways I am a shining example of the American Dream. I was born in Hungary during the Communist era, and my family fled to Israel before coming to the U.S. in pursuit of freedom and safety. When we arrived, I was just a young, shy girl who couldn't speak English. After my childhood in Hungary, New York City was a marvel; I couldn't believe that such a lively, rich place existed. Even a simple thing like going to the market and seeing all the bright, colorful produce and having so many choices was new to me. I'll never take that for granted. I think it's where my love affair with color truly began.
One thing I had was a strong work ethic. I worked hard in school, to learn English, and at jobs including my first job at Dairy Queen -- which I loved! Ice cream is easily my favorite food. From there, I moved into the garment district where my brother-in-law's family had a business. During this time, I was able to see how a business was run and began to hone in on my eye for aesthetics and willingness to work hard at any task I was given.
Eventually, my brother-in-law bought a dental supply company in Los Angeles and asked me to join him. LA, a place with 365-days of sunshine. How could I say no? The company started as Odontorium Products Inc. During the acrylic movement of the 1980s, we realized that nail technicians were buying our product, and that the same components used for dentures were used for artificial nails. We saw a potential opening in the market, and we seized it. OPI began dropping off the "rubber band special" at every salon on Ventura Blvd. in Los Angeles. A jar of powder, liquid and primer – rubber-banded together – became the OPI Traditional Acrylic System and was a huge hit, giving OPI its start in the professional nail industry. It was 1981 when OPI first opened its doors. I couldn't have predicted our success, but I knew that hard work and faith in myself would be key in transforming a new business into a company with global reach.
When we started OPI, what we were doing was something new. Before OPI came on the scene, the generic, utilitarian nail polish names already on the market – like Red No. 4, Pink No. 2 – were completely forgettable. We rebranded the category with catchy names that we knew women could relate to and would remember. The industry was stale and boring, so we made it more fun and sexy. We started creating color collections. I carefully developed 30 groundbreaking colors for the debut collection -- many of which are still beloved bestsellers today, including Malaga Wine, Alpine Snow and Kyoto Pearl.
There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does.
With deep roots in Tinseltown, we eventually started collaborating with Hollywood. Our decision to collaborate with the entertainment industry also propelled OPI forward in another way, ultimately leading us to finding a way to connect with women beyond the world of beauty, relating our products to the beverages they drink, the cars they drive, the movies they watch, the clothes they wear – even the shade they use to paint their living room walls! There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does. It also propelled my growth as a businessperson forward. I found myself sitting in meetings with executives from some of the top companies in the world. I didn't have a fancy presentation. I didn't have a Harvard business degree. I realized that what I had was passion. I had a passion for what we were doing, and I had my own unique story that no one else could replicate.
Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today
Bit by bit, I grew up with the business. Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today -- an author, public speaker, and co-founder of OPI, the world's #1 professional nail brand.
I learned quickly that one can be an expert at many things, but not everything. Running a business is very hard work. Luckily, I had someone I could collaborate with who brought something new to the table and complemented my talents, my brother-in-law George Schaeffer. My business "superpower," or the ability to make decisions quickly and confidently, kept me ahead of trends and competition.
Another key to my success in building this brand and in growing in business was being authentic. Authenticity is so important to brands and maybe even more so now in the time of social media when you can speak directly to your consumers. I realized even then that I could only be me. I was a woman who knew what I wanted. I looked at my mother and daughter and wanted to create products that would excite and empower them.
There's often an expectation placed on women in charge that they need to be cutthroat to be competitive, but that's not true. Rather than focusing on my gender or any implied limitations I might bring to the job as a female and a mother, I always focused instead on my vision. I deliberately fostered an environment at OPI filled with warmth. After all, at the end of the day, your organization is only as good as its people. I've always found that being nice, being humble, and listening to others has served me well. Instead of pushing others down to get to the top, inspire them and bring them along on the journey.
You can read more about my personal and professional journey in my new memoir out now, I'm Not Really a Waitress: How One Woman Took Over the Beauty Industry One Color at a Time.