Yusuf Misdaq is a multimedia artist, writer, creative consultant, and is founder of the arts website Nefisa, which also doubles as an independent media label- Nefisa UK.
MH: You’ve got a pretty unique cultural background, can you tell us more about your unique cultural background?
My parents are Afghan, from Afghanistan, and I grew up in a beach town called Brighton in England. It was a nice place, and we were the first Afghan family there.
MH: How does your faith and cultural background influence your work?
Well I’m not unlike lots of Muslims raised mostly in the West in that my faith and even cultural background have been blurred slightly by echoes of displacement, and all of the insecurity that comes with that. You find yourself in a constant state of searching and yearning and trying to find out what is authentic, what feels real and true, in both the cultural and spiritual aspect, and of course this path is one that can be walked parallel with the path of artistic expression. I think taken as a whole, the Muslim community also doesn’t really know who it is at large, and that’s reflected in the disunity we sometimes see creeping in. Everyone is claiming to be the middle way and the voice of reason, but claims are one thing.
MH: What role do you feel art plays in the world? Can it be a tool for education? Social change?
Yes it is, all of those. It can also be a tool for ego and selfishness too. So as artists we have to constantly keep ourselves in check, and be around others who keep us in check. We’ve got to make sure we remember that our goal is no different to that of a taxi driver or a ticket salesman, i.e. to constantly serve other humans.
MH: In recent times, Muslim artists have been primarily defined by calligraphy. What other forms of art do you feel are becoming more appreciated and recognized in the Muslim community?
Any forms of art that are wholesome are quickly accepted by the community. A community is just that, a community. It’s easy to be in the comfort of your own home and make art, but that’s also not very conducive to getting other people to invest their time in your work. I spent far too long isolated and working on my own art when I was living in the UK, simply because I didn’t feel there was a community for me at that time, and I suffered a lot because of that. But the beautiful thing about America is that the traditional community spirit is very much alive here in many ways, and so, if you know someone from your community, and they are given the chance to display their talent, it is usually appreciated and potentially supported too.
MH: In what ways can we educate the Muslim community about its artistic history, increase its artistic innovation and creativity?
Muslims can read more hadith and the quran instead of relying on the conjecture of others, doing so will also lay the foundation for them to be far more educated about art, art history and positive innovations in creative, social spheres (all things which tend to thrive when traditional Islam is being implemented); likewise, when a distorted or muddled Islam becomes the norm, those are usually the first things that get wiped out. Being an Afghan, I have seen this quite starkly in my own country. Regarding music, the most contentious issue, we have to be brave enough to face it fully, to face ourselves honestly, and understand the issues fully, at least to the best of our abilities. The unexamined life isn’t worth living, and if anyone out there has ever found themselves feeling conflicted about whether music is okay or not, they should put down whatever they’re doing and look into it. I did. Al-Ghazzali is probably the most reliable and trustworthy source to read regarding the permissibility of music, so my recommendation would be to use him as your starting point. What he says is both uncompromising, incredibly enlightened and subtle at the same time.
MH: As a Muslim artist you have quite a unique direction—you’ve done writing, film making and art. What out of those three is your favorite and why?
Those mediums are all just different strands of life; life is my favorite :) I’m very grateful to be alive and to have fingers and a voice that I can use for good. There’s nothing unique about making art, pictures, or writing (or rather, there shouldn’t be) – I think the wider ones eyes become to life, both the inner and outer forms of it, the more one is compelled to write and sing about it. It’s brilliant.
MH: How did you learn all of your different modes of artistic expression? Were you self-taught or did you have formal education in film, writing and art?
I have an MA in documentary filmmaking, although I have been writing and making music for far longer. Painting and writing and music have all been learned through great masters that I loved, observing their work, imitating it in some ways, and then just carrying on. I wish I had more time to spend with each of them in my week but life pulls you in so many different directions.I was recently fortunate to stay with two amazing wood-carvers in New Mexico for some weeks, Binyamin van Hattum and Omar Cashmere, both of whom are masters of their craft who contributed significantly to the famous Mosque in Abiquiu (they’re both Muslim too). I was really just blessed to be able to watch them, each in their own workshops, doing what they do for somewhat extended periods of time, and I did my best to pick up some of the very basic fundamentals. So, I have been delving much more into wood sculpting and also clay sculpture in the last year or so, which has been a lifelong ambition and one I’m really grateful that I’ve been able to start at such a young age.
MH: What type of art do you feel personally helps you best express yourself, your ideas and your thoughts?
Any art that comes from the heart. Art and heart rhyme :)
MH: Tell us more about Nefisa. What is it?
Nefisa-UK, in its current form, is a media label that I originally founded in 2002. It’s a small company that publishes books, novels, poetry, and releases and distributes music as well as other artworks. This year we had our very first American intern, Benneh Massaquoi, who has been a real blessing to have on board, and we’ve been working on a lot of exciting projects together, including the new Kindle e-book releases of my first two novels, which just recently came out.
MH: Do you feel there’s a revival of appreciation for art in the Muslim community?
Not really. People like to talk about it a lot, because talking about art and creativity really helps those in authority positions look open-minded and culturally sophisticated. When you start to see really great quality art coming from Muslims as the norm and not the exception, then you will know that both appreciation, good taste, and support for the arts in the Muslim community will have increased dramatically. As it is, artists of real quality are quite few and far between, and most of them are fighting a battle with the scales tipped heavily against them, both monetarily and, from within their own society, culturally. I mean, just imagine if a taxi driver had to carry around people in the back of his car who kept on leaning forward and telling him that taxi-driving was a haram profession, or hinting subtly that what he did was not a real or respectable job. He would still drive every day, because he had to, but it would get him down after a while and make it tougher to do what he does well. As I said before, the Muslim community hasn’t really come to grips with who it is and what it wants to be, especially here in the West. When it does that, the love will be felt much stronger and everyone will benefit.
MH: Tell us more about your book, Pieces of a Paki, what is it about, what inspired you to write it?
It’s my first novel. It came out in 2007 and everyone who reads it really likes it. Go in with an open mind and you will too. It recently came out as a Kindle e-book, which you can get on Amazon.
MH: You have a new album out this year called IF YOU ASK ME, YES! which came out on February 14th of this year, can you tell us more about this album and what it’s about?
It’s about the power of being and staying positive in the face of a crumbling society. It’s music that I sculpted out of love for people, and a desire to see people happy. I have spent a lot of time working in the media, and I’ve seen first hand how humanity is in a daily tug of war between optimism and pessimism. Between faith and what they would call “reality as it is”. I see things a little differently, and so, along with a lot of musical influence from my time in Malawi, I was blessed to be able to make this album to express my ideas. In it, I am telling everyone that it is going to be all right, that love will win, essentially.
MH: If you could work with any artist in any artistic field who would you want to work with and why?
Ishmael Butler, who is the MC for the group Shabazz Palaces. He’s the greatest artist alive in Hip-Hop today and has been for quite a long time. Yasin bey would also definitely be in the conversation too, I respect them both a whole lot. I’d also love to work for Terrance Malick in any capacity, whenever it is that he makes his next film. I like always being a student.
MH: What advice would you give to aspiring artists who would like to pursue the same career path as yourself?
If your will is strong, prove it. If you have the desire, then prove it. Make something, and bring it to the world, if you want to. It’s not easy, but if you can do it, you’ll smile at the end, and all your ends will start to become beginnings.
MH: How can we keep up with your work and support your work?