David Najib Kasir, a Syrian-American artist based in Milwaukee is best known for his contemporary oil paintings. Featuring common themes of family, love, life, and loss, he offers a look into his own life through his artwork. Kasir sat with the Wisconsin Muslim Journal to discuss his inspirations, cultural identity, and how the two merge on the canvas through a unique and colorful geometric design style.
Originally from the Chicagoland area, Kasir came to Milwaukee as a student pursuing an art education at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD). However, both Milwaukee and Chicago are a striking contrast to the experience he recalls from his life in Syria
Now, David showcases his cultural identity in the series of paintings like “My Mother’s Land In Zeros & Deficits.” His work reflects the turmoil and destruction happening in his mother’s homeland. The pieces depict images of Syrian men, women, and children fleeing their homes and the relentless hope they have in keeping their families intact and safe. His most recent mural, “Fractionated Mother Subtract Children,” is featured in Black Cat Alley on Milwaukee’s East side and portrays the harrowing reality many Syrian families continue to face.
Q&A with David Najib Kasir
Wisconsin Muslim Journal: Who was the most influential person during your formative years?
David Najib Kasir: The most influential person during my younger years was my mom, and she still is today. I think even as a young child I was very aware of her struggles as an immigrant woman trying to fit into her new country. In some ways, my mom’s experience was very much like that of my sisters and myself growing up. We all learned English and figured out how to adapt to the American landscape together. She was a creative soul who encouraged my drawing. We would draw He-Man and other toys or cartoons together. She was learning how to be American and a foreign Arab at the same time, so my siblings and I followed her example. I learned a lot from her bravery, humor, and empathy.
Wisconsin Muslim Journal: How did your early life influence who you are today?
David Najib Kasir: I grew up with immigrant parents, my mother from Syria and father was Iraqi. So I was exposed to a lot of Syrian and the Middle Eastern traditions. America culture added to that, and also pushed some things aside. I grew up knowing that my family and I were different from other families in the neighborhood, which was a very white suburb. I was in junior high when the First Gulf War began, and that began to create a political and social awareness for me. My sisters and I looked like we could pass for regular white kids. but it was hard watching the TV news, how cultural and racial stereotypes were slung at my heritage. I would hear people yell negative things at my parents, like “go back to your country,” so it made me look at things in life more carefully.
Wisconsin Muslim Journal: What was your experience like growing up as an Arab-American in the Chicagoland area?
David Najib Kasir: I loved growing up in Chicagoland. I often tell my daughters how lucky my sisters and I were. My parents could have immigrated to anywhere in this country, but we grew up near a large city full of many cultures and different ethnicities. Although I did live in a very white part of the city, I was exposed to Jewish, Black, Asian, Latino, and other Arab communities. I believe cities are important for just that reason, because they are a hub where cultures can exist together. I have tried to apply that influence as I have raised my own girls, and why I like being in Milwaukee and not a more rural town.
Wisconsin Muslim Journal: What brought you to Milwaukee, and how do you fit in with the Arab community?
David Najib Kasir: I came to Milwaukee in 1998 to go to the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design MIAD as a student. I started a family in my 20s, and Milwaukee is an affordable city for an artist like myself to do that. So it was an easy decision to stay, but it has not been easy to sell artwork in this city. I am not always sure if my style translates well here. Milwaukee has a great community of artists and people with so much talent who I love. I often say our city could rival any other. Regarding the Arab community in Milwaukee, I really don’t have the true relationship that I would like. I am not a strictly religious person, and that always seems to separate me from other Arabs. Through art, that is the best way I build and create relationships.
Wisconsin Muslim Journal: Did you experience a culture shock when you moved to Syria, and again when you returned to America?
David Najib Kasir: I think there is always a culture shock when moving between countries. I remember going back to Syria with my entire family back in 1999. I traveled with my nieces and nephew, and they were just little babies at 4, 5, and 6 years old. We’d go to restaurants and see children their same age working, and pouring my tea. So that was a big contrast, when you realize how we are afforded to be children and young in the United States. Even my nephew at his young age had that realization, and it was a surprise. We don’t always realize how different our daily routines are from other cultures, so those shocks became apparent in everything from the food, to the crazy and chaotic driving, to the process of negotiating and buying of goods at the market, and right down to the interactions with authorities.
Wisconsin Muslim Journal: What is your fondest memory from your time living in Syria?
David Najib Kasir: When I think of Syria, I remember sitting on a balcony with my cousins. Over there, life is lived on the balcony. It’s where people unwind from a long day and talk, eat, and play cards. It’s where family gets together, tell jokes, and share stories. It offers the perfect backdrop with views into the city, and landscapes of buildings with all the families enjoying their balconies in the same way.
Wisconsin Muslim Journal: What do you love most about being creative?
David Najib Kasir: Communication. I love how I have the ability to communicate without saying a word. Through art we don’t even need to speak the same language. I like that my work creates a feeling or emotions with viewers. Maybe even an understanding. I like that by being creative, I get to see things differently than other people do. I also like the science of art. The colors, chemicals, compositions, subject matter, and artistic process. I love putting everything within myself on a canvas, and then showing my soul to its core. I realize that a lot of people do not have any way of expressing themselves. So I feel fortunate that I do, by having a creative outlet.
Wisconsin Muslim Journal: How does your life experiences affect your art?
David Najib Kasir: I can only paint what I know, and that comes from my life journey. In the past, I have worked on a series of paintings that dealt with the death of my father, the birth of my daughter, and the building of a family and home. Then also, my art explored the destruction of my marriage, and now focuses on the war in my mother’s homeland of Syria. I am a big fan of music, for example, but I have no talent for it. So drawing and painting lets me express those memories and emotions that have developed within me over the years.
Wisconsin Muslim Journal: What theme or message do you try to express with your art?
David Najib Kasir: The recurring theme or focus of my work centers around homes and families. I had two major life events with these subjects as I was perfecting my craft in school, so naturally they found their way into my style.
Wisconsin Muslim Journal: How has your creativity impacted other people?
David Najib Kasir: One of the proudest moments I get from my work is when I see how it connects with a viewer. I have shown different pieces of my work and watched them create emotional responses. Some viewers have been brought to tears. I find the experience satisfying because I know I have communicated something powerful and it has been received. I want my art to touch others, or make them think, and just feel something about a subject that they are indifferent about in a normal conversation. That kind of reaction is all I can expect from audience, for them to review a piece and really let it in.
Wisconsin Muslim Journal: What is your hope for the future of the Arab community in Milwaukee?
David Najib Kasir: My hope for Milwaukee, and the whole country, is to grow in awareness so that we can all be more tolerant of people who don’t look like us. I’d also like to see the Arab community develop its own voice. I think part of the reason why there are negative stereotypes of us as Arab people, is because we constantly allow it or turn a blind eye to how we are portrayed. I think by doing that, we have allowed intolerance and hate to grow. People won’t learn unless we teach them. We have to show who we are, how we love, what we really think, and how the way we live is just like they do. People could then stop separating each other into groups once they start to see the similarities we all share. That’s what I hope my work is able to do. I want someone to look at the figures I have painted and say “I love my child just as that mother does. I would travel thousands of miles to keep my loved ones safe too.” Once that realization happens, then we would see those who reject us become our friends and allies.
Wisconsin Muslim Journal