Before her legions of enamored followers on Instagram, her feature in Elle magazine and other indie blogs; before her enchanting “Fairies of Color” series and the phenomenon that is “The Freckled Hijabi,” Sumaiyah Jones was just a gifted kid with a pencil and notebook who loved to draw. The challenge? Islamic schools just aren’t the most encouraging spaces for young artists to grow. With thinly stretched resources coupled with cultural stigmas, the arts are generally last on the list of priorities. That’s where I came in.
I was one of the few professional Muslim artists in the community at the time, and had found my calling mentoring kids at our local Islamic school. I didn’t have to do much in her case. She possessed passion, determination and raw talent; a unique mix of ingredients slowly simmering to make magic one day. Like many middle schoolers, Sumaiyah was struggling to find herself. But one thing was certain — art gave her a voice. Today, she uses that voice to elevate Black women and women of color through a variety of mediums such as acrylics, watercolor, gouache, and resin, just to name a few. In 2019, she started handcrafting and successfully selling pressed flower jewelry.
I caught up with Sumaiyah to talk art, the realities of life, and more art! Here are some highlights from our conversation.
Kulsum: What motivates you to create?
There are many reasons why I create art the way I do now. I paint my “Fairies of Color” as a way to show representation for Black women and women of color as elves, pixies, sirens, mermaids and other magical creatures. Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Spider Wick and Chronicles of Narnia were all magical and also lacked representation, but are favorites for many people. To be FAIRY specific, Fairyopolis: A Flower Fairies Journal and How To Find Flower Fairies by Cicely Mary Barker were my favorite fairy books as a child; however, they only featured white fairies. It would be a dream for my fairies to be as iconic as Cicely Mary Barker’s, but even if it makes just one little Black girl or girl of color feel included, that’s honestly enough for me.
What are some things you’ve learned about yourself through “mistakes” you’ve made? How have you grown as an artist as a result?
I’ve made many mistakes in my art and business. They definitely helped me grow. One thing I learned about myself is that I have to jump into things in order to get them done and give them my all. I can’t just “try” something out. If my energy going into it isn’t “I’m giving my all into this,” then it will most likely flop for me. Investing time and money into my craft is something else I learned over time. I used to buy cheap art supplies, and it would definitely show. I’ve never regretted spending time and effort on a piece of work, whether I was proud of it or not. I hope to share what I’ve learned with other artists to keep them from making similar mistakes.
How has social media influenced your art?
I definitely feel as though social media has affected my artwork. Sometimes I do simpler pieces that I call “good feeling art.” It makes other people feel good to look at them. Things like gradient skies, flower fields, clouds, etc. Simple things like that are aesthetically pleasing to many people. I enjoy painting them as well, but they aren’t unique to my work, and I feel like it’s something anyone and everyone does. They are popular, and people love them but if it was up to me, I’d only work on my more detailed pieces. Those pieces take much longer to complete (which is less content) and they don’t always get as much engagement.
You grew up in a multicultural Islamic School. You and I have discussed the racism Black children face in Muslim environments. How did those experiences affect you?
Growing up in Islamic school has its pros and cons. A pro is being able to pray with my peers and learn from other Muslims. A con is that not all non-Black Muslims are as accepting to Black Muslims as we would hope. I’ve had other girls comment on my lips, hair and culture, making me really insecure about those things as a child. A friend of mine who is also Black was very good in her Qur’an and Arabic class — meaning that she absolutely couldn’t be “just African-American,” which is harmful to Black Muslim children; the idea that they can’t be African-American and Muslim. I went to a public school, and was bullied for being a Muslim; somehow that doesn’t hurt as much as being discredited as a Muslim by my Muslim peers for being Black.
What advice would you give young Black Muslim girls going through similar experiences?
My advice for young Black Muslim girls would be to always be proud of your culture, whether you know your roots in Africa or you don’t. Be proud of your skin. Be proud of your hair. Be proud of your hijab. You’re allowed to be unapologetically Black. They will say “We are all one” to discredit you when you express your Blackness, only to turn around and be proud of their own culture and background. Call them out on their racism when you feel it’s necessary. I certainly wish I had.
“My advice for young Black Muslim girls would be to always be proud of your culture, whether you know your roots in Africa or you don’t. Be proud of your skin. Be proud of your hair. Be proud of your hijab. You’re allowed to be unapologetically Black.”
George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Laquan McDonald. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Sandra Bland. Tamir Rice. Philando Castile. The list goes on. What role do the arts play in bringing about social change? Do you feel the weight of that responsibility as a Black artist? How do you cope?
I feel that when art is created to honor the victims of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s to spread awareness. Everyone speaks the language of art, so it’s a universal statement. As a Black artist, I don’t necessarily feel the responsibility to create art about the movement as I’m quite vocal about it. I think other Black artists might also feel similar. We aren’t repping for Black lives only when one is brutally killed. We are repping for it every day. There’s also the line between creating art because you truly feel it, and creating art because it’s trending at the time.
“There’s also the line between creating art because you truly feel it and creating art because it’s trending at the time.”
You’re really proud of your zine. Tell us about it!
Early this year, I created a zine as a prologue to a storybook I’m working on. I created the short story in December. I heard about a zine fest in my area called “The Bearded Lady Zine Fest” (@thebeardedladyzine on Instagram) and spent 10 days working day and night to illustrate and format it into a zine. I’m proud of myself for creating it because I know the little eight-year-old me would be. It’s a legend of two sisters born from the same star with two different fates. It’s called Legend of Arden Lora. I won’t go in detail, but I’ll be selling it on my website very soon.
One of your goals is to write and illustrate a book. Can you elaborate?
I’ve been wanting to write a storybook for three years now. I went through many plots and ideas but I only decided on one last year. At the moment, there isn’t much information I can give on it, as I’m taking a break from that dream, but the Legend Of Arden Lora zine will give you the tone and theme of the book.
You’re coming out with a jewelry collection, that’s exciting! Tell us more. Where, when, and how can we get our hands on them?
Last year I did resin jewelry, and I’ll be continuing that in the future. This year however, I’ve branched out into wire wrapped crystal jewelry and fairy inspired jewelry. I have a goal to create classy fairy-esque accessories for people of all ages to wear. I actually haven’t been talking about it on my Instagram just yet, so Muslim Girl is the first to know! Follow me on Instagram @freckledhijabi to see when I will relaunch my shop.
Being an artist who is still establishing her craft can be challenging. What are those challenges? How can we support you?
There are many challenges such as art style change, getting to the right audience, finding balance between online supporters and local supporters, etc. I think the best way to help any artist is to share their work if you like it. If you can afford to, purchase it as well. My website will be launching in July, but you can sign up at www.freckledhijabi.com to be notified when it launches!
The author of this interview, Kulsum Tasnif, is a mixed media artist and a graduate student studying Art and Design at North Carolina State University. Her solo exhibits include “The Protest Purse” series about female strength and empowerment, and “Journey to the Good Life,” which illustrated stories of survivors of war. Check out @kulsumts to follow her work.
Image credits: all photos courtesy of artist.