-By Fatima Haffejee

Islamic art has long since been a depiction of Muslim faith. Whilst Musjids and their furnishings are more common celebrations of Islamic culture and history, there are indeed numerous art pieces and architecture historically produced by Muslim artists in the lands ruled, or inhabited by Muslims.

As it is not only a religion but a way of life, Islam fostered the development of a distinctive culture with its own unique artistic language that is reflected in art and architecture throughout the Muslim world¹.

Whilst art in itself can be classified as a means of communication, it is neither subjected to religious beliefs nor the need for artistic background. There are a rare few Muslims that pursue art or illustrations as a career. The majority of us are contented with doodling but there are those whose passion for art has enabled them to take a leap into creativity.

Shameema Dharsey is a Capetonian who makes a living from illustrating. Her passion for art is evident in her work and whilst a stable income is always welcomed, Shameema tells us why she’d have it no other way.

Q:  What does art symbolize for you?

A: Art to me is a means of self-expression amongst other forms of communication. It’s very intangible. It can be a smile on a friend’s face, a painting, a sculpture, or a really fantastic meal cooked by your mum. Art could also be defined as a form of appreciation, much like beauty in the eye of its beholder.
Q: How did you get into illustrations? 

I’ve been doodling and drawing since I was a kid. I loved reading and when you’re little, the pictures that go with the words are very important in portraying meaning.
A: Initially I studied Graphic Design as a means of getting into the Music Industry (my idea was to design CD Covers and T-shirts)since I wasn’t sure I had what it took to become a Rock Star. I did the Graphic design course only to later realize that being an illustrator was my real aspiration. My interest diverted to a more visual career and in my 4th year I completed with illustration as my major.

Q: Is there a distinctive difference between art & illustration?

For me, there is. Some people might argue otherwise. The way I see it,  art does not always seek to communicate something specific. Much interpretation is left open to the viewer and a piece that may come across as morbid could symbolize something far different for another. Illustration on the other hand, is very orientated on communicating the correct message to the viewer.
Q: Who were your greatest influences in choosing your career path? 

A: My parents were very encouraging of my artistic side and my father especially used to take us to galleries and museums. I grew up reading the like of Roald dahl and in some way this too was influential in harbouring a passion for all things visual.

Q:  Some would say being an ‘illustrator’ isn’t an actual job. How would you respond to this and have you faced any stigma from society as such?

Please introduce me to these people for I need to enlighten them! It completely confounds me that anyone could have this attitude. Being an illustrator requires time, dedication, hard work and skill, just like any other job. I’ve been lucky to only have received positive responses or curious mind sets when informing people of my job. Although some clients do not fully understand the skill it takes to do the work and think everything can be done with the click of a button. Most however, are very appreciative of the work I do.

Q: Growing up, were you subjected to the  teaching² that drawing ‘eyes’ is impermissible in Islam and what is your personal view on this?  

A: Drawing eyes wasn’t an issue for me or my family and I see it as a rather archaic idea. Are taking photos of people as bad as drawing them and why is one less frowned upon than the other? I don’t understand it at all.

Q:  It is not often that you find other Muslims in your field? What are your experiences in this regard?

A: In South Africa, this is true, but as the years go by and more Muslims open themselves up to the possibilities available to them, I am certain they will take to Illustrating/art as a career option.

Q:  Do you find that our personalities set the benchmark for our career choices and do you feel that we don’t focus enough on pursuing the things we love?

A: I do think personality has a great part to play. Often our focus is dictated by financial means (sometimes doing the things we’re passionate about doesn’t pay the bills), but if we define success in our own terms, then we are better able to live the life we are ideally inclined towards. Not everyone aspires towards riches or making a name for themselves, for some of us contentment and satisfaction is our main objective.

Q: Every job comes with its ups and downs. What are some of the highs and lows of being an illustrator?

A: Keeping yourself occupied when times are tough is pretty challenging. At times there is no work available, clients can also pressure you into lowering your charges and sometimes the solidarity can be lonesome.
On the plus side I have the freedom of being my own boss. I have time to do the things I enjoy. It’s also nice to receive appreciation from satisfied clients and when need be I spend time with fellow illustrators and freelancers to make up for loss social time.
Q:  Is having the freedom to go and come as you please in a work environment always a positive? 

A: If you can discipline yourself, then it definitely is. Everyone has a different working style. For instance, if you are more productive in the morning, then you work in the morning and if you are more productive at night (like I tend to be) then you bask in the morning sun and use the night for work.
Q: What motivates you to get things done on time?

A: I take deadlines as ‘the gospel’. The thought of missing a deadline sends me into wailing despair so I will work through the night so as not to miss one.

Q: You’ve done illustrations for the likes of National Geographic Kids, MacMillan Oxford and several other textbooks. What for you has been your greatest achievement thus far?

A: My greatest achievement so far has been surviving my second great leap into freelancing (I have freelanced before). I am proud that I manage to do what I enjoy, pay my bills and feed my cats, all at the same time.
Q:  It is not often that we hear of Muslim illustrators as such. Whilst it is often not a chosen career path I am certain that there are many other Muslims who are just as keen about pursuing it as a career, but lack the encouragement or incentive. Going back to when you started out, what are some of the things you wish you knew then? 

I wish I knew that if you work hard enough, anything is possible. It isn’t always easy, but if you have enough incentive, are willing to learn from everybody and alter your idea of success, then it definitely is possible.


¹ http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/orna/hd_orna.htm, accessed 09-09-13

² According to Hadith: “On the Day of Resurrection a neck will stretch forth from Hell; it will have two eyes to see, two ears to hear, and a tongue to speak. It will say, “I have been appointed to take care of three types of people: every arrogant tyrant, every person who called on some deity other than Allah and those who made pictures” Hadith At Tirmidhi http://muttaqun.com/pictures.html)