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Artful Muslimah: Hafsa Khizer of ‘Traumatic Stains’

Brooke Benoit interviews Hafsa Khizer about her photographic healing project.

Brooke Benoit: I really didn’t ‘get’ what the Traumatic Stains project was about when I very first saw it. The photographs looked to me like da’wah posters you regularly see on Facebook or Tumblr but then I looked closer and realised they were much more lucid and conceptual. You say these images are “realisations that have healed my soul.” What was the impetus to make these very personal images and share them in such a public forum as online?
Hafsa Khizer: ‘Not getting’ the project is, not surprisingly, totally cool because I get that from a lot of people! I don’t really know why people still get confused with the project. Being an artist in other fields, I’m familiar with it having something to do with the lack of appreciation for art in general. And other times, I’m not sure really; in the about section of the website, I write: “Traumatic Stains is where I’ve coupled my love for Islam, Self Development, and Conceptual Photography. I document the different stages of loss, grief, sadness, hope, and healing. I make photos of realisations that have healed my soul. They might heal you too.”




And it is pretty much as simple as that. I’m a photographer and I have a passion for self development. Anything – a thought, a phrase, an ayah, a conversation or a realisation – that has healed me, especially through our beautiful deen, becomes burned in my mind as an image and I try to recreate that epiphany in a visually appealing piece of art using photography as my medium. It is my hope that the images will touch someone else in the same way they do me. I have always felt that there is a lack of creative artistic expression in the Muslim world; I find it very limited to Islamic calligraphy and silhouettes of masajid at sunset… so if you don’t connect with my art on a deeper level, I am still okay with it just being a piece that visually stimulates you, coming from the heart of another Muslim.




BB: Yes! I wasn’t expecting to see public art with Muslim imagery; this is a part of what you have accomplished through the work. You have described Project INDY as “my photographic initiative to promote healing from trauma and anxiety”. Can you speak to how you or anyone goes about the process of healing – the change before or from which the self-actualisation or images are inspired?
HK: That description is irrelevant to me now. Initially, my first ten pieces raised awareness about the commonality of issues like depression, anxiety, PTSD within the Muslim community and that simply having faith was not a ticket to good emotional health if one has experienced trauma. The same way faith doesn’t make you a veterinarian, but schooling does, one has to learn emotional intelligence; it’s going to take time, practice and effort to heal, not just faith. The articles would attempt to guide the reader to authentic emotional awareness by describing the issue and why one may be feeling pain. I believe being genuine, unapologetically yourself and honest leads you to self discovery and authenticity. After validating that, one can have iman and – God forbid – also experience depression at, say, the death of a child or PTSD after a toxic marriage or from being sexually assaulted as a child or other traumatic events. I would offer a few healing tips from my own journey, often referring readers to a few resources on more information. The end of the article would always refer the reader to life coaches who I believe are doing astounding work in their fields for further inner work. A friend and fellow writer from the Ask Megan column, Megan Wyatt was linked in many photos. I find that in her work she is able to hit the core of emotional pain within minutes and values authenticity in self-discovery. But for the past two years, the project has taken a different role. I took 2 years off, walking away from my life at one of my lowest points, with the intention of embarking on a journey to take a cover to cover study of the Qur’an, searching for any and all healing lessons from the Divine that would touch my soul. I realised that God was speaking to me in every ayah, in a light I had never seen before, even while looking. I’m glad He allowed me to find Him.





Most of my photos are now being prepared for my first book, When Tears Don’t Dry – Little Lights on Your Journey to Healing – A moving photographic collection of ayat on hope, from one woman’s cover to cover study of the Quran, so the project has changed much from this initial structure and focuses now on only the stand alone image and the ‘realisation’ that was the basis for its inception quoted underneath. I find that there is so much power in this approach and so much beauty in letting people find themselves in the image and take whatever they need in order to reach inside and touch their most rich and intimate inner experiences with acceptance on their own path to healing, authenticity and growth.


BB: People are very excited to see you putting voice and imagery to some of the things they are struggling with, especially as Muslim women. Can you tell us what have been some of the high points of your audience’s reaction as well as some of the struggles you face creating such da’wah and art?
HK: Alhamdullilah, I generally find appreciation for this work. The three things I’ve struggled with are models, publicity and financial aid. Finding willing Muslim models (after shifting the project from self-portraiture to adding colour, new faces and diversity to my images), embracing that trauma touches us all, has been an understandable challenge. I generally like the work to speak for itself, so doing successful publicity or marketing has been a personal challenge for me!



BB: Who are the models in your photographs and how long can it take from having the idea to create a specific image to getting it posted online?
HK: Some models are people that have found the project and personally reached out to help, others are professional models. I often go through this collection and pick out some of the most profound lessons and draw the first image that comes to mind. Other times I carry my sketchbook with me and as soon as I have an idea I draw it out. It can take three hours or a few days, from idea to final image, because while shooting and editing it sometimes takes a different shape, and then it’s up on the site. Now, most of my images will only be published in the book and won’t make it to the site.


BB: The ‘Reminder Series’ is made up of sweet little paintings with henna designs and calligraphy of Islamic maxims, such as hadith or Qur’an that sit on a easel and can be used as home decor as well as a reminder. How do you choose the content for the series and what is your favourite reminder?
HK: The Reminder Series is my small pay it forward attempt at sharing what I learnt – they are reminders for me first and foremost that I collected in the two years I spent delving into His Book, searching in His Perfect Words, in His Light – everything in the Book of Allah is Profound – so they are all my favourites! They’ve been hand-painted onto canvas, glass, candles, etc. and inspire dhikr through art.








BB: Where can readers view your photographs and other art?
HK: My art is available at www.hafsakhizer.com and insha Allah so will be my upcoming book: When Tears Don’t Dry – Little Lights on Your Journey to Healing.







Brooke Benoit is an artist, writer, and editor who thoroughly enjoys curating a collection of sisters’ unique and inspiring stories every month for SISTERS Magazine.