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In their grief over Gaza, an artist found inspiration in painting Palestinian birds

A South Asian person in a yellow beanie and white scarf sits in front of three triangle-shaped paintings of birds and plants at the Anchorlight Gallery in Raleigh.
Josh Sullivan
In a recent exhibition at the Anchorlight Gallery in Raleigh, artist Saba Taj channeled the emotional pain they felt over the violence in Gaza since Oct. 7 into a series of paintings that feature Palestinian birds and plants.

The holy month of Ramadan has taken on a different tone this year for many Muslims, especially with the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas and the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Among those who’ve been fasting and reflecting during the holiday is Saba Taj, a queer South Asian artist, based in Durham.

Taj recently opened an exhibition called “Grief Magic” at the Anchorlight Gallery in Raleigh, which features a number of surreal, shimmering mixed-media paintings they created for Anchorlight’s year-long Brightwork Fellowship. While most of the pieces are self-portraits, a set of five paintings show Palestinian birds soaring over plants, which were painted in the weeks following the Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, which Israel responded to by launching airstrikes into Gaza.

WUNC’s Eli Chen spoke with Taj about what compelled them to paint Palestinian birds and plants, the connection between their activism and work as an artist, and what Ramadan has meant to them this year.

“Grief Magic” runs until April 14, and Taj will be hosting an artist’s talk at Anchorlight on Saturday, April 13 at 3 p.m.

NOTE: This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

We're here at the Anchorlight Gallery, where we are surrounded by these beautiful, supernatural self-portraits as a part of an exhibition called “Grief Magic.” I'm wondering if you could talk to me a little bit about what this exhibition is about?

"I've been painting portraits or doing work that deals with the figure, like the human body of some kind, for many, many years, and have made representations of folks in my community – both, concretely doing portraits of people who I know and love, and also more abstractly, kind of conceptualizing, like femme monsters is one way that that's shown up. This notion of us, and how to create representations that bring a sense of empowerment, and wholeness, and ultimately, are bringing something to the visual vocabulary around Muslims, around queer Muslims, around people of color. So really trying to essentially make the things that I want to see in the world.

"With this body of work, it's my first time doing a series of self-portraits. And I found myself here, in part because I was really going through a lot personally. And so, I felt like the only thing I could do, basically, was to grapple with this internal transformation that was happening in relationship with grief, that painting myself was a route towards understanding or at least just exploring, what I was going through."

A painting depicting a pegasus-like creature with a woman's face on it, with a peacock tail and bright colorful wings.
Josh Sullivan
Artist Saba Taj's "Grief Magic" contains a number of mixed-media self-portraits that she wrote, "depict dreamworlds of pink clouds and miraculous creatures who shimmer and bite."

Why is it important to increase the visibility of Muslims and especially queer Muslims in your art?

"I want folks to be able to see themselves in the world. I think it does something in terms of our sense of belonging, which I think is really critical to folks’ well-being in this world. Being able to see our existence reflected in art, in media, in story, I think is ultimately about affirming not only our existence, but our humanity. And my aim is to do that in a way that is not further codifying binaries and boxes, but actually has room for complexity and nuance.

"And so, part of my approach is not necessarily to be legible to folks who aren't part of my community. And I say part of my community in a pretty loose way. I think there's a lot of ways to see oneself in this work, even If we don't share all the same answers on the census. Not necessarily having to be trauma-forward in that explanation, and also not explaining who we are for the white gaze, for consumption has been a really central part of how I approach the work that I do.

"And really, it's about love, you know. I just I love my people."

Three surrealist mixed-media paintings at the Anchorlight Gallery in Raleigh.
Josh Sullivan
Artist Saba Taj painted a series of self-portraits for a year-long Brightwork Fellowship at the Anchorlight studios in Raleigh.

I want to direct our attention to the paintings behind us [featuring Palestinian birds] and ask you about how, as you're developing the paintings in this exhibition, October 7 happened, and following that, the violence that has displaced many and killed many Palestinians, over the last several months — I'm wondering how that impacted your work.

"It deeply impacted my work. I had some other self-portraits planned for this exhibition. And seeing even my own body in a sketch …. hit different, after what I had been witnessing on my timeline. I'm already getting emotional. The kinds of brutality that I never imagined I would see on video, on repeat. It's so far beyond. Every day I feel like it's beyond what I would have ever thought and it’s continuing over and over again. And I’m speaking about witnessing it, not living it.

"And I think Palestinian resistance and struggle has long been a part of my world, as a Muslim growing up in the U.S. And so much of the narrative that we're seeing, particularly these narratives of dehumanization of Palestinians, are in large part orientalist, and really echo Islamophobic narratives.

"I felt like I had to engage with this moment. I had this space [at Anchorlight], which is a privilege and opportunity. And I think part of it was emerging from what I was witnessing, where I was seeing not only these brutal images of destruction, but also, there were a few photographs of birds in the rubble. And there's a verse in the Quran, Surah Al-fil, which is the story of the elephant, that I have engaged with before in my art and that has always felt so much about Palestine and Palestinian people and their struggle. It tells a story of this army that comes to destroy the house of God on the backs of elephants, and the people of Mecca had never seen elephants before. And it was a representation of just immense, impossible power: how could they ever defeat an army with this much wealth? And it's just such a metaphor also for imperialism, for greed. And ultimately, what happens in this story is that God sends flights of birds armed with stones that defeat that army and … seeing [on social media] these kids, as well as adults, using stones, throwing stones against tanks, which almost like look like elephants in some way. I just feel like it echoes so much this story. And even though they may seem small, that together these sorts of things can be possible, that this army could be defeated, and the house of God or all of their homes could be protected.

"So, in this moment, I came back to it and articulated it in a more straightforward way than I have before and that I really literally painted birds of Palestine. [Several] are endangered in some capacity in that region. And thinking about what that means, you know, these birds belong in this place, they should be able to fly freely there. So that was one piece was painting those birds and also looking at indigenous plants of Palestine, which hold deep meaning for the Palestinian people as well."

Three upside down triangle paintings showing plants and birds, each above a pile of stones in a gallery.
Josh Sullivan
Artist Saba Taj said she broke away from doing self-portraits during her fellowship at Anchorlight when the violence in Gaza escalated after Oct. 7, and painted five pieces of Palestinian birds that were, in part, inspired by a set of verses in the Quran called Surah Al-Fil, which tell the story of when a Yemeni king marched with an army of elephants to destroy the most sacred site in Mecca and were defeated by birds that threw stones at them. Taj said she felt the story reminded her of the Palestinian people and their struggle.

Thank you for sharing all of that. When I look at these paintings, there's a lot of beauty. There's a lot of serenity. And in contrast, when I open up social media, sometimes I see really horrific, chaotic images of the violence that Palestinians are experiencing, of people having lost family members and having lost, you know, everything. What is the different perspective that your art is offering folks who are reading about or seeing the violence play out in the news and social media?

"I think there's a really difficult thing that happens when, especially for folks who are minoritized, who are often not seeing themselves reflected or represented in media, where when we see ourselves, it is in death, and it is being harmed. And I'm thinking most about the communities who see themselves reflected in these ways. And this is so much what my approach is to this work where … it's an essential part and it's not the only part. And it does matter that we also get to see ourselves in our dignity. And so I hope that this work does start to get to that."

You're a part of the group, Mothers for Ceasefire. And I know that you were also a part of the effort to call on Durham City Council to pass a ceasefire resolution. What do you think is the role that activism plays in sort of your identity and how you operate as an artist?

"I just feel like it's about being a person. At the end of it, if I'm in this world, then I have a responsibility in it. I think that shows up in the way I approach my art, the way I treat the people in my life. The same values that move me to work on things like the ceasefire resolution at city council, or organize with Mothers for Ceasefire, are the ethics that are embedded within the work I create.

"And this bird series was happening concurrently with an event that Mothers for Ceasefire put on called “Fly for Free Palestine,” which really was all about the sky. And community members collaborated on a banner that flew up into the sky with balloons. Kids and adults came with kites and made kites. And it resonated because the kids of Gaza that had broken the world record for the number of simultaneous kites in the sky. Kind of coming back to this notion of this inherent understanding of freedom that they have, that Palestinians have and teach us constantly. So, I think it all feels so deeply connected."

A woman painting a surreal self-portrait, which depicts her as a pink, nude being with a river coming out of her eyes.
Courtesy of Saba Taj
Saba Taj painting one of her self-portraits for her "Grief Magic" exhibition.

As I'm talking to you, it’s more than a couple of weeks into Ramadan. Do you feel like the holiday, the holy month, is sort of taking on a different feeling this year? And what sort of reflections are you having?

"Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I think that this time, there are so many ways that folks will relate to Ramadan. But in particular, it's so anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist. It invites an individual into a disciplined practice of being intentional with what we consume. I want to just grab a handful of goldfish crackers, put them in my mouth, but I stop before I do that. And it's less about the goldfish crackers. It's more about what happens in that moment of choice that makes us think about what we are putting into our bodies., And also what we are resourcing, what are we putting our energy and attention and money towards, as well. And it's a real invitation to … think about God. Another way to think about it is accountability. What are we accountable to? Who are we accountable to? I think Islam is really special in the way that it so often is centered on community as well. And also principled struggle. How do we do the hard thing, to speak up when something is wrong? To take action when something is wrong?

"And with fasting, because you're doing something fairly extreme, it really brings the focus into how can I bring this intentionality into as many parts of my life, my day as possible. And to be doing that, while our Palestinian siblings are also observing Ramadan, and how many of them are being forcibly starved right now. I think it's a way of practicing solidarity that we do by calling our elected (officials), by showing up to protests, by speaking out, but also there's a way that we can practice these things internally, as well, which is through returning again and again, to compassion.

"So, I think Ramadan feels potent in a way that it's always an invitation to do and practice these things and in particular this year, it feels deep. And I'm seeing that echoed throughout my community as well, that yeah, resistance is feeling like a big component of how we're relating to the holy month this year."

Eli Chen is WUNC’s afternoon digital news producer.