Portrait of the Artist

By Gus Bode

Portrait of the Artist

Local artist Najaar Abdul-Musawwir provides sample of distant culture at SIUC

The office of artist Najaar Abdul-Musawwir is slightly cluttered with past work, recently completed work and work yet to be finished.


But even the array of black art books posing across the chairs’ desk and shelves in the office seem to have a certain order to them – a certain beautiful chaos.

An example of this “beautiful chaos,” exists in a painting on the right side of the artist. In the new piece, called “Cup-lifted,” the actual content of the cup takes precedence over the cup itself.

“The subject is liquid,” said Abdul-Musawwir, an assistant professor in the School of Art and Design. “And I want to show that the subject, from an artistic standpoint, is not necessarily the liquids being inside the cup, but the liquid being what it’s all about.

“Taking the liquid out of the cup allows for the paint to do what it does, and that is to move about, to mix and to blend. By taking the liquid out of the cup and putting it in a different environment just makes it a more interesting discussion.”

Abdul-Musawwir believes that although art stands still, it is not effective unless it evokes movement in the minds of onlookers.

But long before Abdul-Musawwir developed the theories he attempts to express through his art, and even before he had a classroom of students to share them with, he was a young man looking for something to spark his interest.

The inspiration that influenced Abdul- Musawwir to become an artist did not come from a painting in the Smithsonian, or any other well-known piece of art. He offers, instead, rough sketches seen by few eyes, crumbled up, discarded and, most likely, forgotten by all but him.


“I remember my father always drew these pictures of cowboy figures,” said Abdul- Musawwir. “These were not childlike figures, though. He never drew anything else and when he finished he just balled it up and threw it in the trash.”

The cowboy and horse drawn by his father, along with grids drawn by his cousin, are the two most prominent influences that brought art to the life of Abdul-Musawwir. In a dark corner of the basement, the artist said he hid, drawing, painting and studying techniques for capturing light in his work.

Abdul-Musawwir’s years of fixation and dedication led him to receive his bachelor’s in art and design, and eventually a master’s in fine arts from SIUC in 1997.

Even before finishing school, Abdul-Musawwir was experimenting with ‘color, light and culture’ through his ever- progressing work.

The constant progression in the artist’s work has hardly transformed him into a recluse who limits himself to his classroom, office and studio. In fact, Abdul-Mussawir makes it a point to share his work and thoughts at universities all over the country. He speaks, as he does to his classes, on the underlying ideas of art, encouraging students to look beyond the surface of what a piece says. The most recent technique apparent in Abdul- Musawwir’s work is the presence of rhythm in his visual art.

“In addition to adding more narrative to my technique, I’m starting to mix colors in a way that the color has rhythm,” said Abdul-Musawwir. “When colors have rhythm, you have colors that jump back and forth, back and forth and that is quite different from traditional painting. In fact, the idea of it jumping back and forth is more of an African approach to color.”

The Breast Cancer series, one of many series of art Abdul- Musawwir has created, showcases a variety of art using the rhythmic technique the artist recently began illustrating.

When he is not following the beat his art leads him on, Abdul-Musawwir is involved in a variety of activities both on and off campus, including the Black Affairs Council, Muslim American Association and the Black Togetherness Organization.

Abdul-Musawwir is involved in many activities outside of campus; his passion exists in the classes that allow him to teach to others the lessons art has taught him. In particular, the artist enjoys guiding the brushes and minds of youth.

While he, of course, makes it a point to share his knowledge of art with his children, one of which has already shown promise in the area, he does not limit his teachings to his own children.

Abdul-Musawwir teaches many courses geared toward children, including a program in the Carol Mosley Braun Center that allows children to participate in art classes as well as give them the ability to showcase their work. The artist’s youngest children, Mekka, 5, and Malekah, 7, both of which have shown interest in and ability in the arts, regularly participate in these classes.

Although Abdul-Musawwir is predominantly a teacher of art, this is certainly not all that he knows, nor all that he teaches.

“He has great appeal to young people,” said his wife, Kahleelah Muta-Ali, with whom he has five children. “One of the best things about him is his ability to deal with tense situations without going over the edge, which I think has to do with him doing time.”

The ‘time” his wife refers to is the short period Abdul-Musawwir spent in jail. That was a point in the artist’s life he does not attempt to cover-up, but, instead, often uses as a warning to the youth he teaches.

“He’s a role model to a lot of people,” said Muta-Ali. “He uses his life as an example and gets people to think about the decisions they make in life.

“He feels like he needs to make up for lost time, so he’s a very hard worker. He thrives off being active in the community and with his family,” she said.

Throughout his career, the ever-changing artist has seen many changes in the youth he teaches, the University he teaches at, and even the artwork he presents.

The position of the sketches and books scattered about his office may even rearrange into another “beautifully chaotic” position. But according to Abdul-Musawwir, the busy artist with the beautifully chaotic life, his work has and will continue to have the same theme – “peace.”

Reporter Jessica Yorama can be reached at [email protected]