Javid Exalts The Divine Feminine with Alaama

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Revolution is silently brewing in the heart of Kensington Market. And it entails more than pissing off the landlord with a brilliant piece of social commentary on Toronto’s embattled mayor, Rob Ford titled, “We Can’t Afford This!” I’m talking about none other than Market resident, Javid (pronounced Jah-vid), who is changing the world one brushstroke at a time. This amazing street artist has been painting murals since 2000, and hasn’t looked back since. Javid was educated at the University of Toronto and the University of British Colombia, with exhibitions of his work in New York, Bombay and Johannesburg. According to his biography, Javid’s interest in Arabic calligraphy and graffiti drives his expression as a painter, incorporating a range of media from brush and palette knife to aerosol and marker. His work blurs critical lines between graffiti, mural art, vandalism and revitalization.

Co-founder of Under The Radar, Javid is committed to mentoring emerging artists. He is now entering his third year of the Masters of Architecture program at U of T, aspiring to establish a practice focused on user-driven, grassroots architecture for marginalized communities.On August 23rd, Javid held a solo exhibit of his work at his studio in Kensington called Alaama (which is Arabic for “She Knows”).The turnout was tremendous, resembling a clubnight more than a reception, minus the attitude. Intrigued was I by the ostentatious display of talent and courage from this formidable artist. So naturally, I interviewed him. What followed was an outpouring of deep inner realizations not only about the role of the Divine Feminine in Islam, but on art as an instrument of self actualization and social change.

F: Javid thanks for taking the time out to speak with me today. I would like to ask you what inspired you to become an artist?

J: Seems to me like it’d be a complicated history to tell a story that would be like a recipe on how to become an artist. Everyone obviously has their own path. I was inspired by activism more than anything. I was inspired to find a creative way to get involved with helping people. Murals made a lot of sense, cuz people always told me I could draw. I never thought I was that good at drawing to be honest; I thought my sister was way better.

F: Did your sister encourage you to follow this path?

J: No, she encouraged me by resisting me from getting her on the path, so everytime I was telling her, “Oh Zara that was amazing, you should go further,” she wouldn’t really push it. People said to me that I’d have to work harder. But I was inspired by being on the streets, I was inspired by the idea of hustle and making it on your own through your own hands and intelligence and means, and I was inspired by activism, change.

F: When you talk about activism, what kind of activism are you referring to in particular?

A pair of shades handpainted by Javid…cool!

J: I guess in the context of  mural art it was Diego Rivera I felt was a mobilized school of art, but then when I learned about this process and I learned about the idea of painting collaboratively in terms of groups, that seemed like a wicked way to get young people involved in things. In Toronto for example, you need people to be active, whether through music or sport. You need to be culturally active to be focused and grow as opposed to just hanging around and doing unemployment; all those things lead to stagnation in the community, right? And so much of the immigrant community that doesn’t choose the professional side to pursue it because of pressure from their parents, they need to have those opportunities to express in alternative means. It’s kind of a throwback to when people say, “life back home” and the things you need that are very simple. You don’t need as much spending power as a professional, as a corporate job might earn you. You make like 3, 5 million dollars that’s great, but do you really need that much to live? People are living way beyond carrying capacities that don’t need to do that. That’s time which translates into money into creative means which are nurturing for the spiritual and material well being, know what I mean?

So I mean the idea of change for me was providing opportunities to people that were on the fringe of poverty to be engaged in processes that made them feel successful, and I think the ultimate means is the ultimate thing there is; just making money for artists, simple as that. How do you create industries? With t-shirts, we have to make our own prints, we cut out our own business cards, we have to paint people’s shoes and sell them for $100. What kind of a next gimmick, not even gimmick, but trick can we pull? And I think murals made the most sense cuz they can be lucrative. You can make 5G’s ($5000) for painting 2 to 6 days, but it can also be enough people involved in terms of  film, music, the event, the community coming out to support; it’s like very holistic interactive for activists. Holy…I talk for like, so long man. Holy! (Laughter). When people start poking me and asking me things I just go off.

F: Before you decided to pursue this path as a professional artist, did you get started by doing murals as a graffiti artist around the city?

J: I think they’re one and the same to me. Yeah, I mean what happened with me was I did this thing where I painted with organizations as first a volunteer, then as the leader of a youth group still {as a} volunteer, still as an employee that someone had to write the grant for until I was the artist who is working with other artists hired by the centre, and now it’s come full circle to the point of social enterprise, so actually running a business, that is a graffiti crew but also provides mentorship to the artists, so we work with different organizations and government bodies that give funding while we get private funding for independent murals.

F: It’s interesting that you mentioned funding because I wanted to ask you about that. How did you go about getting the support from the government in terms of grants to assist with your endeavours?

J: Everything started for me with umbrella organizations like back in ‘03 I got an organization that hired me

Javid’s take on Rob Ford

as an intern and we had to fundraise to go to Tanzania to paint murals. That was ’03. By ’05 I worked with Mural Routes and they are the organization that provided the platform for me to get the government funding and they provide the platform for artists to be hired and to work on their projects. Finally, I think by ’07 I was working for the Christie Ossington Neighbourhood Centre which is an established, nonprofit, charitable organization that has a stream of core funding from United Way and the City of Toronto so they made it easier for me to work with Robert Bailey who was my boss, who is still my mentor, to write grants for programs and provide our own twist on how the grants run, but use the reputation and credibility of organizations to get your foot in the door. After that, now I have enough of a repertoire, enough of a portfolio to apply independently and not have an umbrella, but I think having an umbrella really helps, even a trustee. You have to have a trustee.

F: What kind of obstacles did you have to overcome when you were first trying to establish yourself as a professional artist?

J: I think you have a certain confidence that you know you just gotta go in…you know the point of no return?There’s a point of no return in an artist’s life. Once you go past that point that’s it. If you go back it’s gonna be soft. People will see through it. Graffiti has that point of no return where it’s like, “I do graff, I’m a writer,” and once you pass that point I don’t know how you can go back. So that gives you confidence but you’re still trying to look and find a style; you know the pressure of the art world to find a style: can people identify you? How do we know that it’s you? So I think a big thing for me in terms of establishing the biggest obstacle was finding a style that could be identified with me and a niche within graffiti or calligraphy which I saw as, sort of, you know the Arab Islamic influence in my sort of personal research, and then love for Arabic mixed with my writing on the streets and Arabic coming out in mural paintings…I call it calligraffiti. But I’m not the only artist that does that or claims to have been a proponent of it. El Seed in Montreal, he’s ill, he’s really ill and he rocked it last year. He just finished minarets in Tunisia. So I can’t even begin to claim that. I would probably say that 8 out of 10 artists who know their shit, whatever that means, would say the biggest obstacle is promotion. Business sense, marketing, you know what I mean? Having access to that world and having to use an agent or a storm of social media or whatever it is, that exposure is such a critical component of an obstacle to an artist being successful.

F: What inspired you to choose an Islamic theme for this particular exhibition? I noticed that you’ve called it “Alaama – She Knows.” Would you care to elaborate more on that?

J: Sure. I think it had to be natural for me because I’m Muslim, born Muslim, my parents are both Muslim and we grew up going to prayers regularly so it was definitely a part of my life. I claim to be Sufi, {it} comes from the word Tassawus which means secrecy. Sufis practice devotional love of God, it’s an expression of a search for light through poetry, dance, music, art and prayer, not just prayer. And meditation. My painting for me is part of my prayer. That’s how it’s connected to Islam but the actual show “Alaama – She Knows” is a direct questioning, it’s like an obvious skepticism about the nature of God in a man. Both in the sense of Christianity being God is a man and Jesus, and in the sense of Islam where God is a He with a capital H – ذكر من الإنسان (pronounced how-ah). الأنثى من الحيوان أو الإنسان (pronounced hali-ah) which is She relates to the political idea intention of how women are treated in Islam, and so the whole lack of matriarchy and the subjugation of women in popular representations of Islam were also forced. It’s like, ok, if the female now is the Divine, how does that change and could it be expressed through Sufi Islam and can this affect the way that contemporary societies address the role of females in the development of society. For example, in the ‘50’s, our Imam, Aga Khan II I believe, addressed our community of Ismaili Muslims: “If you could only afford to send one child to school, make it the girl.” Which is contrary to mostly what happens and the idea there is that the woman is really the thinker in the household, and not to say that in a disrespectful way to women, just that if that was to be the case, then at least she has the understanding that we assume you’d get from an education to be a better role model and lieutenant if you will, of the household. So the idea of switching, putting “She Knows” instead of “He Knows” so there’s so many layers within Islam itself, which is why I wanted it to be about reconceptualizing females in the sense of divinity.

F: Would you say that your work is partially influenced by African sculpture because I’m getting a very strong impression of that influence just from observing most of your pieces.

J: It’s the first time I’m hearing sculpture, and African…my mom always said that the females I drew were African looking, and she wondered if I had a thing for black women or what was up with that. She knew I loved hip-hop and basketball so thought that was just natural. I questioned it but I realized that in a sense, it’s easier to draw those shapes and I didn’t like the rigidity of what would be seen as a Caucasian or Aryan or not Oriental, but any of the Euro races of facial structures. I thought that the fact that my parents were born in Africa could have had an influence on my life, maybe African, and I meet people sometimes and they’re convinced I’m African. I’ve been to Africa, meaning Kenya and Tanzania where my dad and mom are from respectively. I’ve been to South Africa and I definitely believe I’m African, but finding how it translates into why these pieces could be seen as African is a whole new ballgame. I can’t make that connection necessarily, although I do see the resemblance especially in the wood pieces.

F: On a final note, what sort of advice would you give to up and coming artists that want to make their art a profession in terms of making a decent living from it?

J: Well I’m giving advice to myself still because I’m still up and coming, still struggling to pay for all this shit and to go to school; I start school again in less than a week or something. I mean, I think the number one thing is you have to have faith, number two you gotta work your ass off, number three you have to be open minded. I definitely believe that you have to have a strong team because there’s no way I’d be sitting here right now. The support network I have is ridiculous. So props to that but at the end of the day, you know, it’s just yourself believing that you have something to achieve or a higher purpose to your journey. You definitely have to believe in that. You don’t have to be religious – you just have to believe it. And work your butt off.

F: Excellent! Thanks Javid.

J: You’re welcome.

Javid’s work is currently on display at Loft 404, 263 Adelaide St. West, Toronto, M5H 1Y2

For more info on Javid and other amazing artists, visit http://www.185augusta.com

Copyright © 2012 Frankie Diamond. All rights reserved. Excerpts of less than 200 words may be published to another site, including a link back to the original article. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety and posted to another site without the express permission of the author.

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