This week we caught up with Mueen Saheed, an award-winning artist and jewellery designer, who was the recipient of the 2020 “Kala Bhushana (කලා භූෂණ)” award, from the Department of Cultural Affairs for his outstanding lifetime contribution to Sri Lankan art.
Speaking to Saheed about his life’s work and his identity as an artist, he shared that he identifies himself as an “Abstract Narrative Expressionist”. Abstract being the medium of art which is not a portrait, “it is for one to visualise, which allows one to wonder, ponder, to connect, and to disconnect”, according to Saheed. He added: “Abstract art can be so different that if I were to invite 10 different people to come and observe a piece of abstract art, almost every single one would have a different interpretation of it.” He shared that this art is a journey, which can be a spiritual one if you allow it to be, and it can rejuvenate you.
The word “narrative” he said is something he coined for himself because what he does is he paints stories and he paints expressions, “to paint something” with his “inner eye”.
Interestingly, despite his impact on Sri Lankan art culture, Saheed shared that he has had no formal art training. Till about 15 years ago, he had never even touched a brush or canvas, and so when he paints he feels as though what he paints is what he knows. “For me it is different, I learned as if I was pushed into the deepest part of the ocean. I have created my own method of painting and I call it Abstract Narrative Expressionist,” he said.
He said that it is an ocean of knowledge; the further you wade into it, you realise how little you really know.
He shared with us his journey to realising his artistry – how in 2007, he simply decided that this was what he was most passionate about, picked up a brush and canvas and never looked back. He said that his passion was always there, but it wasn’t yet at the surface. “I was a traveller; when I was around 19-20, I would travel all over Europe, etc. and unknowingly I would always be visiting art galleries and museums. I would spend hours and hours in those places, to see all the great masters and I enjoyed it and it gave me an experience,” he said, adding, however, that he never would have expected that he too would eventually become an artist himself. “Back then I was fascinated, but it was never really my cup of tea,” he said.
Saheed said that at the time, he had a thriving jewellery design business, but one day, at the height of his success, out of nowhere a sudden desire came over him to turn to art. “The first thing I did was look for a master to teach me, but the first teacher I met, after just one lesson, they told me don’t search for a teacher, you should do it by yourself,” he said, adding that this was somewhat of a disappointing moment for him as he really wanted to learn and did not know how. However he took the teacher’s advice, the teacher who was known to be a highly revered guru, and decided to just paint. “I started to paint and paint, and I immersed myself in it.”
Because he immersed himself in his art so completely, he let his business go to ruin. “One day I turned around and my businesses were run to the ground and I was penniless,” he said. He then had to “resurrect” himself, and had to start from the beginning. “I was happy to build from zero, to start again.”
Today, he is a renowned creative businessman and also a philanthropist who dedicates his time to help people like persons with drug dependence to relieve themselves through art. “Art is a form of therapy and it can be healing, and it was healing for me, so I think it can be for them and I want to do it for others,” he said. Saheed has gone on to make a mark not only in Sri Lanka but also internationally; he is a recipient of multiple awards from around the world, including the JA Jewel Award (New York 1996), the Golden Apple Award for Innovation (New York, 2001), and several awards just last year.
On a closing note, Saheed shared that he hopes Sri Lankans would embrace art on a wider scale than they have so far, providing that we need more art museums and galleries for people to visit, explore, ponder, and be inspired. He said that while there is an abundance of talent and great potential, that environment needs to be created for those diamonds in the rough to truly shine.