Artist’s works tell stories of sadness and struggle, but also love and survival

Artist Kulsum Tasnif channels her emotions with loss, life, love and politics into paintings, drawings, and even purses that have caught national attention.

Her work includes a collection called “Journey to the Good Life,” pieces with wide hand-painted borders that surround smaller black-and-white pen drawings.

While each of the 23 pieces has a deeper meaning behind it, inspired by stories of war and refugees in the Muslim community, the final piece, called “Rough Seas,” is especially personal. It tells Tasnif’s own story of coming to terms with her mother’s death.

“Rough Seas” is designed like the other pieces in the collection: a beautifully painted colorful wide border surrounding a black-and-white pen drawing in the center. In “Rough Seas,” the drawing shows a boat going through rough water, which Tasnif said symbolizes that people can stay strong when times are tough, but that they’re supposed to hold on.

“It’s just about how I view life,” Tasnif said about the work in an interview at her Raleigh studio. “It can be rough and hard, but there’s also tremendous beauty and there’s love. That’s what I hold on to.”

Artist Kulsum Tasnif’s featured artwork for VAE’s Gala comes from her series “Journey to the Good Life” which illustrates the stories of war survivors. VAE Raleigh

Tasnif was selected to be the featured artist at the 35th annual gala for Raleigh’s Visual Art Exchange, a fundraiser for the nonprofit whose goal is to support area artists and creativity.

“Rough Seas” will be the finale piece in the gala’s live auction, said VAE Executive Director Brandon Cordrey. VAE chose Tasnif as the featured artist because she approached the organization four years ago for help to promote her art in Raleigh, Cordrey said.

“Kulsum is the perfect example of what VAE stands for,” Cordrey told The News & Observer.

Stories of survival

The idea behind “Journey to the Good Life” coaxed Tasnif into creating art professionally again.

“I had been thinking about that topic of refugees and the subject matter of survival in all of those issues and making it my own,” said Tasnif, who is of Pakistani descent and was born in England.

The paintings tell the stories of people who survived war in countries like Afghanistan, Bosnia, Syria and Burma. She has personal knowledge of the struggles and emotions within these stories due to her previous work as a humanitarian aid worker in Bosnian refugee camps.

One of her favorites in the collection is inspired by a story from a Somali refugee, who recounted how her mother had lost her child while escaping the country’s civil war. She told Tasnif how it was such a deep loss in the midst of political and social turmoil, and it was something that her mother would never recover from.

Kulsum Tasnif works on a sketch in her Raleigh home studio Friday, Feb. 1, 2019. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

These are the types of emotions that Tasnif displays in her work. And while those emotions of grief and struggle might be sad, she also tries to convey love and positivity.

In the piece with the Somali refugee, the center drawing shows a group of people’s feet. The majority of them are going in one direction, but one pair of feet is standing still in the distance. This is supposed to represent the mother who lost her child, and could not move on, Tasnif said.

“My painting is all about emotions, whether it is sadness or happiness,” Tasnif said. “In the end, it boils down to love. I always draw from what I feel is most important to me in life, and that is love, and that is the inspiration behind all of my paintings really.”

Tasnif said she thought she was done with “Journey to the Good Life” and had moved on to the beginning parts of her next project, The Protest Purse. But then she saw a woman at a doctor’s office. The woman’s smile was just like her mother’s. Her mother died of cancer in 2014.

“It had this sort of uninhibited beautiful happiness that shown through, and my heart stopped for a minute,” Tasnif said. “When I was working on that painting, I thought of her smile and how beautiful it was, and even when it hurts I wanted to keep thinking about it,”

Kulsum Tasnif works on a sketch in her Raleigh home studio Friday, Feb. 1, 2019. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

The Protest Purse

For her most recent collection, called the Protest Purse, Tasnif translates her feelings about politics and current events into practical pieces — handbags — with a message.

Tasnif’s art started to be politically charged when she was in college years ago, but the Protest Purse idea started at the Raleigh Women’s March in 2017.

Tasnif created a purse to take to the march with the words “Flip The House” on it. Someone connected with Pantsuit Nation, a group that seeks to encourage civic involvement, posted a photo of it on their social media. Suddenly, Tasnif was asked to make over 30 different purses.

“It’s just the idea of wearing your heart on your sleeve, or what I like to say, your politics on your purse,” Tasnif said.

Since then, Tasnif has been painting on purses that her sister finds for her. She paints patterns and then a short message, usually two or three words, including Immigrant, Seek Love, Dreamers Welcome, persist and resist. Typically, the words have a personal meaning to the purse’s owner.

“There’s a lot of depth to these simple words,” Tasnif said. “There’s a whole life story behind these words. It’s about getting your message out in the world and just being yourself and being bold and empowered and not being afraid, no longer being silenced.”

Tasnif said she is excited that her work will be featured at the VAE gala. The organization helped her get to where she is today.

“I would love for people to connect to my art in some emotional way,” she said. “I hope my work can leave you feeling better off somehow with love, compassion, understanding, acceptance, just unconditionally.”


What: VAE Gala

When: 6:30 p.m. Feb. 16

Where: 4300 Fayetteville Road, Raleigh

Cost: $150 general admission, $200 VIP (includes preview)

Info: https://vaeraleigh.org/attend

The artist: For more on the artist, go to kulsumtasnif.com.