A Self-Portrait & Reflections on Identity

"Self Portrait" in progress
"Self Portrait" in progress

4 am. Jet lag. I write this post from the comforts of my mom's apartment after a 14-hour flight back to the Western world. I've had much to be anxious about on my return home after over a year. But as I left my current home in Abu Dhabi, I began to realize just how unsettling some of my anxieties were.

I began this painting on Friday morning and completed it throughout the day. Saturday, I sat fussing about it after considering several things to change and improve, but ultimately I decided to leave it as it is. It is my entry, my self-portrait, and the cause for much self-reflection.

Much of it is surrounding the irony of the self-portrait itself. In January, I pronounced my commitment to completing 30 paintings in 30 days and that I would attempt to paint just faces. Naturally, my own face should have been included in the mix, if not the first of my many paintings. However, I struggled to come to terms with the impossible task of my self-portrait and all that it could be. After all, how could I reveal to you a true image of myself, when a big part of me is always hidden?

And though I finally picked up the brush 3 days ago, it was not without great contemplation. Being a graduate of sociology, I am no stranger to discussing identity. As such, I found myself having a conversation in my own head as I painted this piece:

Is our identity shaped by what people see of us publicly?

Does our public image determine what we feel internally about ourselves?

And ultimately, does my decision to wear a headscarf reduce the complex nature of my existence as a daughter, wife, sister, citizen, thinker, writer, artist, traveler, and whatever else, to the one-dimensional caricature of the modern Muslim woman?

Perhaps, since I became a "muhajiba" (woman who observes hijab) one autumn evening 6 years ago during a 4-month study abroad stint in London, I have become used to inhabiting multiple places and identities once. Other people's projections seem to be ignited with the mere sight of "that thing on my head" and I have grown accustomed to the harsh reality that the light fabric draped ever so carefully above my head hangs heavy with burden, fear, and admonishment. I am no stranger to this.

But, as I stared into the form of my own reflection, I no longer saw myself. I saw the people that came before me. My grandparents, namely, and the rich stories that have made up my family history.

My ancestors are gloriously painful characters, figures etched in time forever marred by the unfortunate eras in which they were born. Hailing from the South, the plantations, the farms that bore the fruit of American prosperity, they are soft, strong and tortured images in my head formed at a tender age of curiosity.

My maternal great-great grandmother was an American Indian. Her children's children's still reside in the farmlands of Virginia. I often smile when I kiss my grandma's cheeks, her copper skin, red like the clay dirt that my mother used to play in as a child, spending summers "down South". As a kid, it was my sole responsibility to brush her long shiny waist-length hair, first black, then peppery, and now silver. I can still feel the grease of a 99 cent jar of petroleum jelly sliding through my fingers as I brushed her hair from her head to the seat of her wooden chair.

"Self Portrait"Β 

"Self Portrait" 

Like any portrait, the eyes are the most important, and most difficult. When I drew my own, I thought about how these eyes do not belong to me alone. I share the same strong gaze of my paternal grandfather, A. Lovelace, a stern man with a troubled childhood from the Carolinas. He would migrate to New Jersey on his on as a teenager, orphaned. He passed away before I was too young to form many memories of him, other than me sitting as a kid in our kitchen, the same kitchen my dad grew up in in Vailsburg, Newark, New Jersey.  I still remember him giving me after-dinner mints from a heavy glass bowl even though I didn't have dinner.

My skin, my eyes, my hair, though covered all weave together reminding me of the little fragments of my own American History. When I think of my predecessors, I wonder, would they be proud of me today? Would they recognize me as one of their own?

I don't know the answers to these questions but it seemed fitting that they came when they did. Returning home and spending time with family grounds us, reminds us of who we are and where we're from.

"Self Portait" 24x20" acrylic on canvas
"Self Portait" 24x20" acrylic on canvas

Admittedly, I'm self-conscious at times. I know I shouldn't, but I wonder what the world sees when they look at me. I try not to think about it too much, obviously, as these thoughts can be debilitating. My return flight home reminded me just how uncomfortable I can feel at "home" vs. being a foreigner in the UAE.

But, I ask myself, am I my self portrait? No. I think I am much more than the two-dimensional painting of myself, and one-dimensional narrative of one facet of my human experience.

Thank you for reading.

P.S. Painting myself was really enjoyable! Even though it is a serious, maybe moody rendition of myself, I enjoyed capturing the more serious (albeit dominating) side of my personality. It's not a perfect painting, but it's me! I hope to do more in the future!