"I felt that I had to do what I can to draw attention to the crisis" : An Interview With David Najib Kasir
I’ll admit that David Najib Kasir’s work first pulled me in with its vibrant use of pattern. I’m a sucker for work that is both visually enticing and rich with meaning, and I could see immediately that Kasir’s paintings weren’t just pretty pictures. While I had the opportunity to briefly meet Kasir in Milwaukee last year, I regretted not having more time to spend talking about his work. Thankfully, he agreed to take time out of a busy art practice to chat with me this August. Kasir talks about being compelled to make paintings that show the struggles of immigrants and refugees, his complex use of pattern as an embodiment of beauty and loss, and how current events have made his artistic efforts even more imperative. Here’s our conversation:
Liz Miller: You are a Syrian-American artist living and working in Milwaukee. Your work speaks specifically to your family’s background in Syria, and to issues relevant to the Middle East--but it’s also poignant on a much broader level in relation to current events. We are bombarded with horrible news regarding the plight of immigrants and refugees. I think it’s fair to say that there are things that art can convey that media stories and images cannot. How do you think your work helps address a gap or tells a story that is missing from news sources?
David Najib Kasir: Perception has always been relevant in my ways of thinking from early on as a kid. I remember in the late 80’s and early 90’s with the first Gulf War, there was a certain perception of a negative stereotype and narrative of Middle Easterners that was being pushed in our American culture. As a kid, it was confusing. My own Baba (father) was Iraqi, and my mom’s country Syria was it’s neighbor. I’d see the way we were depicted in entertainment as jokes or the enemy in action movies, knowing that was not who we were. My family attended an Arab Assyrian church. I remember thinking these are not the same people I saw that we were mistaken for. My family would travel to visit family in Syria, and I would meet friends and neighbors who were/are beautiful and pleasant. As I got older, the disconnect in representation just became more apparent and exhausting. Especially after 911 took place!
I wanted to do something that would change that narrative. And once the Syrian Civil War had started, because it is a country I lived in at a very young age and I visited many times, I felt I had to. The war was going on for years and American media was ignoring it. It was a war that was in part a result of our involvement in Iraq. I felt that I had to do what I can to draw attention to the crisis. And when Trump happened to our country, and once he started to vilify all refugees and immigrants, my want in changing the narrative became more like a responsibility. So in my work, I’ve tried to draw attention to the story of a people who are caught in a war and desperately trying to keep their family intact together as they lose or have lost their homes and look for refuge in a long harrowing unwanted journey.
Liz Miller: I’m interested in pattern/decoration as not only a visual phenomenon, but also as a vehicle for content. You use pattern and decoration abundantly in your work while addressing issues that are complex and often devastating. Tell me more about the use of pattern in your paintings.
David Najib Kasir: The patterns are known as Zellige. I’ve been around these patterns my whole life, but was particularly taken by it during my visit in the region as a college art student. I was struck how I was surrounded by these amazing designs that was a natural part of the cultural existence. I would see it on buildings, furniture, instruments, jewelry boxes as well as some clothing. I was young and felt inspired by it. I knew I wanted to use it in my work, but needed to have a reason to do so. Unfortunately it wasn’t until the start of the civil war that gave me a reason to use it as a device and language. I am an American, I know and understand the way people see and view people of the Middle East. I’ve heard others see the devastation in Aleppo and ask “isn’t that how it all always looks?” By using the Zellige designs, I am answering NO. I am reminding or informing the beauty of a people and culture that was created by hand over thousands of years. But in the recent work I am also referring to the loss of it on their garments. As these refugees seek shelter in other western foriegn lands, how do they hold on and keep to their culture as each child grows, attempts to fit in and seperate themselves from where they came? There is a bit of that to my own story along with my sisters.
Liz Miller: The figures in your work feel both familiar and anonymous—they are often without faces, simple silhouettes or line drawings that are surrounded by or imbedded in fields of flat pattern. Even the more nuanced figurative elements in your work retain a sense of anonymity and simplicity—they are almost camouflaged in the larger fields of pattern in some instances. Why do you choose to depict the figure in this way?
David Najib Kasir: Somewhere along the way I had the realization or thought that white America or maybe western white people in general struggle to empathize and relate to other races who’s environment is in disarray and lives in agony of circumstance. I worried if I gave the figures Arab colors and obvious Arab features, it would become easier for the average viewer to dismiss. I wanted there to be connection and understanding. I wanted the viewer to put him/herself or their own mother, father, child or whatever loved one in those empty faces to better create a dialogue. I have two daughters myself. Sometimes I look at these figures and not only understand and sympathize because of my heritage. I’ll look and understand the utter desperation in keeping their children safe and together. I’ll look at these tired refugee parents on this long exhausting journey and consider those weary feet, those tired arms in carrying their child. I want viewers to consider that in the work and I felt if I made each figure recognizable in features, it would be more difficult for the viewer to recognize their hardships an easier for them to walk by to no the next piece on the wall. As a painter, I work hard to make sure I am not creating work you walk by.
Liz Miller: If my research is correct, you grew up in Chicago and moved to Milwaukee to attend MIAD. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Milwaukee several times recently, and I’m really impressed with the vitality of the art scene. Is it as great as it seems? How has being part of the Milwaukee art community, and living in Milwaukee in general, influenced your work?
David Najib Kasir: Well that is sorta a difficult questions to answer. Yes, I was born in Chicago and moved here to Milwaukee to attend MIAD (Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design) in 1998. The art scene has changed in so many ways in that time. When I first moved here, I was apart of young artists that would create our own gallery space through outside platforms to show our work. There have been many galleries that have come and gone in that time with the scene at low and high points. But the community has always been constant. The community among artists here is pretty fantastic. We genuinely support and show up for one another. The best part of Milwaukee and maybe a big reason I continue to stay is the affordability of the city in studio and home. The art scene in the city is probably at its most interesting and exciting time. There are more interesting galleries to show and visit than there has ever been. The exciting Saint Kate Arts Hotel just opened up. There are great murals popping up all over the city and into the suburbs. The city still struggles with finding ways to give opportunities for artists to thrive, but there are groups and organizations here looking to change that. There are galleries like Var looking to bring contemporary national artist to the city as well help it’s own artist reach out to other cities and markets. As a small US city, Milwaukee still has a ways to go. But it’s getting there and it’s interesting and exciting to see it do that.
Liz Miller: What are you working on now, and where can we see your work in the future?
David Najib Kasir: I am continuing to work on my series on Syria and Refugees in the studio. In my work I usually move one series to another after a year or two of working on a subject. But I don’t know if it’s because of the subject matter or the political chaotic times, but I feel I still have more to say and maybe audiences to reach with the series. I am focused on trying to get my work out of Milwaukee. Currently looking for more mural opportunities in in the midwest. I am a gallery artist and making work in my studio is what I do, but I’d like more mural work. It’s not to become a mural artist primarily, but to reach and engage with audiences who might not be found in galleries. I’m interested in searching for ways to get my work in larger cities here in the US and outside of it.
David Najib Kasir is an Arab-American born in 1977 to immigrant parents of Iraq & Syria. Kasir’s work are contemporary paintings comprised of personal narratives and surrounds the act of coming to terms with the challenges of life, family, love, loss, homes and war. Kasir's work transcends the basic conversation of the issues surrounding Syria and the Middle East and gives you something truly palpable that you feel that you are able to emotionally connect with as a subject matter to create a better understanding. Originally a Chicago born artist, Kasir resides in Milwaukee as a 2001 MIAD alumni where he works as part of the Var Gallery growing collective of artist in Walker’s Point. Kasir exhibits work regularly throughout the Midwest, as his work has been accepted into many juried exhibitions and has won many awards and acknowledgement for his work.