Reviving Muslim Aestheticism: Biti Fannana (بنتي فنانة), An Interview with Self-Taught Artist, Alaa Ali

“My daughter is an artist”

By Lina Bhatti

A couple of months ago, I attended a lecture on the concept of the “Islamic Garden.” Throughout the lecture, the speaker primarily referred to the Islamic Garden as being a structure through which the spirit of God was emulated; a spirit that we do not have today. The speaker claimed that there is no art in our souls today, that we are strung up on becoming doctors or engineers, or pursuing a degree that will give us wealth. The sustenance that the deepest part of ourselves longs for in terms of aesthetics is lacking. There is truth to this idea, but it is formed on a false premise of a conceptual misunderstanding of why aesthetics is unattainable for many. 

Living in a world that is utterly capitalist disallows humans the ability to indulge in art for the sake of aestheticism. If you like to bake, you feel compelled to sell cupcakes; if you’re good at painting – sell your canvases! – and so on. We are conditioned to believe that we cannot enjoy something without the compulsion of needing to make money from it. Furthermore, many Muslim majority areas have been ravaged through colonialism, Western imperialism, contemporary proxy wars, corruption, forced secularism, and wide-scale income inequality. The need for aesthetics is not a necessity when faced with survival. However, even then, art persists – time and time again, there has been consistent poetic portrayal of the trials and tribulations, the finer things, the wispy white clouds on a beautiful periwinkle sky, the reiteration of God, and the beauty we strive to emulate in order to worship him.

There are countless Muslims who create despite being told that their work is unimportant, despite juggling responsibilities, despite corruption, despite barely surviving. This series aims to give light to those Muslims who persevere and create on the basis of aestheticism – of providing a little bit of beauty into the lives of those whose hearts and souls have been hardened persistently: Reviving Muslim Aestheticism.

Alaa Ali is a self-taught Sudanese artist who shows her love and passion for her home and people through her artwork. She is a part of the Sudanese diaspora. She aims to shed light on the beauty and richness of Sudan, which has consistently been overshadowed by negative mainstream media portrayal over the past few decades. Although she isn’t back home to help build her country, she aims to help dispel negativity through her artistic ability. Alaa believes Sudanese people should be recognized for their talents, resilience, and strength. She hopes to be a part of rewriting the narrative. 

When asked what inspired her to start creating artwork around Sudan, Alaa explained that she would visit Sudan every few years and spend summers there. The beauty of the country, its people, and the sense of home inspired her beyond anything else. Her identity as a Sudanese woman only strengthened as she grew older, and she felt it only right to center her work around Sudan. She also draws inspiration from her community and family – she was surrounded by the Sudanese community while growing up. The generosity, selflessness, and the diversity that is instilled in them has constantly given her motivation.

 “My mother and father are the main source of my inspiration. They made sure I knew exactly what it meant to be Sudanese even if I was raised thousands of miles away from my extended family. The traits they carry have and always will inspire me,” she said.

Representation is extremely important for a sense of belonging; however, when representation is presented as a bullet to checkmark, it becomes problematic. Although there has been a significant shift in the amount of diversity there is in institutions, artwork, and spheres of influence, that diversity comes from the eyes of fetishization, orientalism, and commodification. Thus, it is extremely necessary for minorities to be able to take the narrative into their own hands and even go as far as to what Alaa said – actually rewriting the narrative.

 Alaa says, “Not only am I expressing myself, but I’m also able to showcase the beauty of many who speak and look just like me.” 

Alaa’s go-to art form is digital art because of its ease and visual appeal. The first medium she used as the traditional pencil and paper; years later, she started painting on canvases after taking a painting course. She fell in love with the therapeutic method of painting and continued for a few years. 

Speaking about art and the impact of artistic expression on humanity, Alaa articulated that she believes art has a powerful way of speaking to more than just one type of person, and that fact holds the beauty of artistic expression. 

“No matter what language you speak, cultures you are associated with, or communities you are a part of – you can always relate to a piece one way or another without needing a qualifying prerequisite. Arts around the world can allow for representation of different groups of people whether it’s the women of the Nuba Mountains or the children of Darfur. Allowing people to feel a connection to these people/ethnic groups reminds them that yes, they do exist and yes, the crises they face are real. Along with this, people like me finally see themselves in places other than the mirror whether it’s a film, a photograph, or an illustration.”

When I look at Alaa’s work, even though the people in her drawings look different than the way I look, I’m able to understand the nuance and intricacy involved in it; art that can translate into different languages is something to cherish. Although Alaa’s audience base is mainly the younger generation of Sudanese people living in Sudan and in the diaspora, the pieces speak for themselves in their worldliness, yet detail and locality. However, there is a consistent lack of support in the Muslim community for Black Muslim women. Alaa explained that the Black Muslim community is constantly overlooked as part of the Muslim community due to not fitting into the stereotypical “white, Arab/Arabic-speaking” profile. 

“It’s frustrating to see Muslims get excluded from a group they identify as because of the color of our skin when ironically, our Prophet (SAW) said ‘an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over a white – except by piety and good action.’ Seeing that black men and women have always been on the forefront for different causes, it’s upsetting to see the lack of support of things like #BlackLivesMatter, putting a stop to modern-day slavery in Muslim countries, etc.” 

Alaa is a very sophisticated and nuanced woman, who is more than equipped to handle the weight of representation of being an immigrant black Muslim woman. To end, here are some words by Alaa: “The best thing about art is that it speaks volumes to absolutely anyone. It doesn’t matter what age you are, what educational background you have, or which language you speak. Art is a timeless tool to tell stories that words cannot.”

Follow Alaa on Instagram @artbyalaaa.