“Cheaper Than Therapy,” an Interview with Safwat Saleem
Safwat Saleem is a graphic designer, an artist, an illustrator, a film-maker, a writer, and is just a generally awesome at things kind of guy. Much of his work is satirical, politically charged, and forces us to take a look at subject matter that might be uncomfortable through the accessibility of humor. He met with us recently to talk about his art, his role as a TED Fellow, and how creating functions as a cathartic act. He was incredibly gracious with his responses, and it was a sincere pleasure to spend the morning with him. Then we all ate breakfast food together. It was pretty great.
I say graphic design because essentially that is what I do as a job. That is my skill-set. That’s how I earn most of my living. It’s also a term people understand. Artist is a really vague term that can mean anything at all. So, it’s the easiest way to describe what I do, but I know it’s such a loaded term. I’m an artist, but let me tell you more.
I became a TED Fellow in 2013, and then I became a Senior TED Fellow in 2015. So, the Fellows program is essentially where every year they choose about twenty people to come to TED and speak on the TED stage. They’ve got astrophysicists and they’ve got researchers; they’ve got people doing amazing things that I don’t even understand, but they’re cool people. The biggest thing is that you get to be with this group of twenty people who are doing incredible things and you get to learn from them. They become your lifelong friends. Some of my closest friends are people that I met at TED.
“And Everything Was Alright” was essentially what I considered the very first creative project that I did. It was a project about the day in the life of a lonely bear who wants to travel to space. It was a picture book, a short film, and a gallery exhibit as well. That project was the first time that I thought of myself as an artist because it was one of the very first times that I did a project where I was the client. I come from a graphic design background, and no matter how good the work might be, how satisfied you are with it, at the end of the day you’re always working on someone else’s vision. It’s never as satisfying as working on your own vision. My work is my voice, and when I do projects for myself, I’m speaking. So, in hindsight, that project was the most important thing that I did for myself. It’s cheaper than therapy.
Art is a very cathartic process for me because it’s how I make sense of what is happening in the world and what is happening in my surroundings. It’s the act of processing something that might be beyond me, that I can’t immediately make sense of. Like the attacks in Paris happened, and I was not sure how to process this. So, I just started writing, I started illustrating, and what came out of that was a long, illustrated essay about how I process something like that being a Muslim in America. It’s just me trying to figure out how I feel about this, and how I can make sense of it.
Being an artist in Phoenix is incredible. Because it does not have such a big name on the national level, I think people are more open to trying things, and that helps. I’ve seen Phoenix change and evolve. It’s just incredible. We have such thriving art scene now. I’m excited to see where it goes. I’m excited to be a part of more shows, work with more people, and make more art.
I’m Safwat Saleem, and I’m a graphic designer and an artist—I think.