Waging Beauty: A Conversation with Visual Artist Kelly Izdihar Crosby

Kelly Izdihar Crosby is an Atlanta-based multimedia visual artist who has been making her career as an artist for over a decade. Born and raised in New Orleans, La., Kelly studied art professionally at the University of New Orleans, earning a Bachelor of Arts, then a Master in Arts Administration in 2007. Her work has been featured in art shows across the United States, Canada and the United Arab Emirates. In 2018, she was an IMAN Sacred Cypher resident artist and had her first solo exhibition at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. We spoke with Kelly recently to learn about her creative process, career building and challenges and triumphs of being a Black Muslim woman artist.

“Some people wage war, but I prefer to wage beauty.”

Kelly Izdihar Crosby

Sapelo Square: What is the artistic statement that guides your creative process?

Kelly Crosby: I came up with this idea of waging beauty. Some people wage war, but I prefer to wage beauty. It’s an idea influenced by Islam as well: the idea that as Muslims we should have beautiful character, and that everything we do should be beautified, and so art is a visual interpretation of that.

SS: Owning the title Artist can be challenging and often involves a certain mental, emotional and even spiritual evolution. When did you begin to officially call yourself an artist? How did that come about? 

KC: I never had any problems embracing that word and I knew it was something I wanted to pursue; it was my passion. It helped that I had art teachers who cultivated that mindset. My high school art teacher, Richard Thomas (a well-known New Orleans artist) was keen on treating us like professional artists, making sure that we met our deadlines, making sure we knew how to advocate for ourselves as artists straight out the bat. From day one he told us, “You are an artist. You are going to own that label.”

SS: As a Muslim, did you face any internal struggle with this self-identity? How does your faith influence your art?

KC: Wherever I am mentally and spiritually and politically will influence my art — so I look at Islam as another influence. And for me, going to a predominately African American school meant that I was exposed to a lot of African American history, and Mr. Thomas exposed us to a lot of African American artists. And then in college learning about Middle Eastern art and Islam, looking at Arabic calligraphy, so I added on to the things that inspired me.

The way my faith influences my work is that I like to use Islamic elements because Islamic art is known for being geometric, colorful, patterned, and balanced, but also multicultural. When I think about Islam I ask, what culture is influencing me from the Muslim world right now? Like am I looking at West African patterns or patterns from South Asia, or Palestinian dresses? For me, Islam and multiculturalism always go together. 

SS: You’re from the South. How do your origins influence your art?

KC: Definitely being from New Orleans influences my art because there it’s always bright, vibrant and colorful, and I didn’t realize that was unique until leaving. In New Orleans, we grow up with color. It’s in the architecture, where it’s normal to see all these pastel colors on houses. And in Atlanta, you can definitely see the Southern Black Muslim culture here, as far as not being afraid of color, like our West African ancestors who were not afraid of color either.

SS: How has your formal education helped your art and career?

KC: The short way to describe the Arts Administration program is that it’s the business of the arts. I learned about nonprofit management, marketing, how to create a festival, how to put on an art show, how to raise money for an organization, how to write grants, even start a museum — all the background stuff that people don’t think about when they go to a museum or an arts festival. It brought together my art skills and enhanced my entrepreneurial skills to help me create a sustainable career.

SS:You lived in Dubai for a few years and you’ve traveled to a few places: Morocco, Jordan, Mecca and Medina. Did these experiences impact your art? If so, how?

KC: You would think that Dubai would have had more of an impact considering I lived there for just over two years, but I’ve always been drawn to Morocco and I swear that country stays on my mind. If you want to talk about color, North Africans are great about that. They love colors, patterns and designs, and a lot of those patterns come up in my work. 

“Wherever I am mentally and spiritually and politically will influence my art — so I look at Islam as another influence.”

SS: I want to talk about the installation you did for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta in 2018. How did that project come about?

KC: It was actually a contest that the center put out called “Living the Legacy” to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death. They wanted three pieces of art representing the past, present and future. I submitted a design for the future inspired by a quote from Dr. King about how we have to conquer the triplets of evil: racism, militarism and materialism, in order for society to move forward. The three figures in the piece represent those triplets of evil. Alhamdulillah it was accepted and the response has been great. Now that I work at the center, I get to talk with patrons who are curious to learn about the origins of the piece and it’s nice to be able to share that with people.

SS: You’re an outspoken Black Muslim woman artist. How does this triple threat identity impact your work as an artist and how does it challenge you?

KC: I’ve always had this mentality of, I’m going to do what I want to do, so just get out my way and let me do it. From a young age, we (girls) already face so much of that, this dismissal of our talents and interests. My art is my shield and my sword. I use it to fend off the world from all this nonsense. I know that our voices are definitely needed as Black Muslims, as Black Muslim women. 

For the most part, the Muslim community’s response has been pretty positive. I haven’t gotten any negative feedback because the people who invite me are already interested in the arts and looking for representation, to see themselves in art and also looking for validation that Muslims do art and it’s something we can pursue. 

“My art is my shield and my sword. I use it to fend off the world from all this nonsense.”

SS: Has COVID-19 affected your creativity and/or your creative process? If so, how?

KC: I’ve taken the middle approach in regards to coping with quarantine, not feeling the need to be over productive nor solely focused on just surviving. The attitude I took was, no judgment. I’m going to try my best not to judge myself for what I do or don’t get done. This is an unprecedented time for all of us and I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to handle it. In general and in 2020 especially, no judgment.

I was inspired to do a mask painting though. I was reading a lot of news articles, and there were three that stood out to me. One about how Muslim practices like wudhu help in COVID prevention because we’re always washing, and another about how Muslim women who wear niqab are also better protected already, and then in France with the niqab ban while also passing a law fining people for not mask wearing. So I created a painting with different women, all wearing face coverings, but with different head coverings, to pose the question, who’s who? Who’s Muslim and who isn’t? Who’s covering for religious reasons and who’s covering for health reasons? The point being, why do you care?

“To aspiring Muslim artists, I would also say, take your faith with you.”

SS: What advice would you give Black Muslim artists considering a career in the arts?

KC: Be patient and try to enjoy the whole process, the art making and business process, the getting your name out there process. There’s no overnight success; there’s days and nights of work we don’t see, so stay the course because it can be frustrating. We’re extremely hard on ourselves, but we need to let some of that internal critic go. And I would also say, take your faith with you. Which doesn’t mean that your work has to have Islamic influence, depending on how you interpret that, because maybe that’s not your interest at that time. It’s enough to be out there producing your work and be Muslim. Someone out there will see that and see that you’re Muslim and be inspired. It’s a process; we’re all on a journey. Where we are isn’t necessarily where we’ll be at another point in our life. And lastly, learn everything you can about the business end, the marketing, money management and legal aspects.

SS: What do you hope will be your legacy?

KC: I want to be remembered as a prominent Muslim American artist, someone that can be an example for other Muslims who want to go into the arts, feeling comfortable and confident, knowing that it is a God-given talent that should be expressed.

Little Green Mosque

Feature image: American Muslim Community. All images © Kelly Izdihar Crosby

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