'Art truly saved my life,' he says to his students, to the young artists he works with, to his fans and to anyone else who will listen.
Najjar Abdul-Musawwir -- professor, artist and activist -- is more than the sum of those nouns. Listen to him for only a few minutes, and you'll start to understand just how much you don't understand about this complicated, thoughtful and talented individual.
He teaches so that he may learn from his students.
"They may understand what I'm teaching better than me; then, I become the student," he says.
He creates art for future generations, "for those young people who will come long after me."
And he works with what he calls "disengaged youth" and their families in an effort to add to the chorus of creative voices that he hears when he dreams of a better world.
Najjar's world has expanded exponentially since he was a child in Harvey, a suburb of Chicago, where he battled racism and abuse at school. He was a gymnast and budding artist when he was young, watching his father draw cowboys and raiding the school library for art books. Then art took a backseat in high school, when he decided to concentrate on his gymnastics, eventually earning a gold medal in a sport that was almost exclusively reserved for white athletes.
Still, the racism and abuse escalated until Najjar became disillusioned and disconnected with his studies and his training. In an effort to escape the physical and mental violence, he dropped out of school, started "getting into trouble" and was sent to prison.
Some would have given up at that point, but Najjar flourished. That's where he found his religion as a Muslim, and his calling as an artist. Najjar began to take many of the classes that were offered, learned how to learn, and earned several degrees. He found some mighty mentors behind those bars, ones who encouraged him and propelled him forward into a world he thought he would never be a part of -- the world of academia.
"I committed myself to reading and studying art for 10 years," he says. "I learned so much there, from so many great teachers, many from SIU, that when I was released, that's where I wanted to go."
Najjar threw himself into his classes at SIU, found even more mentors -- including painters Robert Paulson and Michael Onken and printmaker Joel Feldman -- earned his Master of Fine Arts degree, won many prestigious awards for his art, including the Rickert Ziebold Trust Award in 1992, eventually became an associate professor in SIU School of Art and Design and received the Judge William Holmes Cook Professorship Endowment in 2009. Today, he teaches several classes, serves on academic committees and boards and creates works of art that have been exhibited internationally and honored with a long list of awards, commissions and invitations to exhibit and lecture all over the world. The most recent exhibition of his work internationally was at the Biennale Arte 2013 in Venice, Italy.
“Art truly saved my life," he says to his students, to the young artists he works with, to his fans and to anyone else who will listen.
Despite his dizzying schedule of classes and engagements, Najjar remains a prolific artist, driven to create works that illustrate his culture, faith and experience through abstract language and a variety of materials.
"I've always felt that abstract painting is the most profound because, in the real world, we live in the abstract. We don't really know everything. We only know part of everything," he says. "A woman can lie next to a man for 50 years and still not know him. It's all an abstract."
Najjar's work includes his Garment Series, African Stool Series, Breast Cancer Series, Detroit: Best Kept Secret Series, and his current work, his Banjo Series. He has written essays for books, online magazines and exhibition catalogs and was quoted in the text, “Rethinking Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education” by New Museum, 2011. He has also conducted several workshops on using charcoal as a wet/dry medium, and he is currently writing a book on that technique.
"I have been very fortunate," he says. "But I also made sure that I was ready when opportunity presented itself."
Najjar describes his art as a mixture of motion, passion and feeling, a reflection of his search for reason, resolution and possibilities, and his need to experiment.
"I start with an idea, then I let it simmer in the knowledge and memories that make me who I am. I let that mixture of inspiration and direction do its thing and let the work happen. It's that content, fueled by creativity, that determines the outcome."
Najjar teaches this creative process, as abstract as his artwork, to his students.
"I'm an educator. It's my job to plant the right information within my students, like seeds that hopefully will blossom during the course of their life.
"Above all else, I teach them to keep it real, to find what excites them, what's important to them, what gets them up in the morning and keeps them going, and then to let that passion guide them in all of their creative work.
"Anyone can teach technique, and imitation is nothing more than immaturity. I try to empower my students, to teach them how to find their inspiration and how to have the courage to do your own thing, to keep it real."