Saba Chaudhry Taj '04 was recently awarded the Joyce Wilkins Pope Grand Prize at the Raleigh Fine Arts Society's 41st annual N.C. Artists Exhibition — the largest annual all-media juried exhibition in the state — for her work "Laila in Orchids."
Taj's artwork was chosen from among more than 1,500 submissions by exhibition juror Nat Trotman, who serves as the Guggenheim Museum's Curator of Performance and Media. The award, the exhibition's top honor, is named for Raleigh Fine Arts Society charter member Joyce Wilkins Pope, grandmother of current Ravenscroft trustee (and Taj's classmate) Joyce Pope '04.
"It's such an honor to have my work recognized in this way and to be part of the exhibit with artists whom I admire," Taj said of the award. "It's incredibly affirming to put my work out there and understand that people are connecting with it."
Taj received her BA in Art Education from NCCU and her MFA in Studio Art from UNC-CH. "Laila in Orchids" is part of a collection of work she is undertaking as the post-MFA Fellow for the Documentary Diversity Project at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, whose focus is, as CDS director Wesley Hogan has said, "to diversify the nonfiction storytellers of this country, so that in 20 years' time they will more accurately reflect who we are and the astonishing range of experiences and backgrounds of Americans living in a global world."
"Much of my work deals with identity and power, as I've found artwork to be a tremendous vehicle to bring attention to social issues, tell stories, and connect us," Taj said. "My practice includes mixed-media collage, sculpture, performance, garment-making, poetry and, of course, portraiture."
She added that her love of "dance, poetry, music, and visual art" goes back to her childhood.
"I can't remember wanting to be anything else but an artist," she said. "I started taking visual art more seriously in high school and developed a portfolio with a focus on portraiture in AP Art ... Joyce Fillip and Steve McGill were hugely important to my development as an artist. They believed in me and said so. Both planted these seeds of confidence that I come back to when my determination waivers."
Fillip emphasized how original Taj's work and perspective has been from the start.
"Saba showed a talent for drawing as a young art student and was already dealing with content that was emotionally charged," she said. "She exhibited her paintings of Muslim women in the Fine Art Gallery here at Ravenscroft a few years ago. When she spoke about her artwork to our students, I remember how impressed they were with her ability to paint and the sense of humor in her work at the time."
The piece at the Raleigh Fine Arts Exhibition is a portrait of Taj's wife, Laila, and is part of a series to expand representation of her community.
"My project is a series of surrealist, mixed-media paintings of queer Muslims," she said. "They are rendered in acrylic and oil paint, and the pieces are adorned with all types of materials, including glitter, rhinestones, sequins, fabric, silk flowers, and so forth. In the series, the figures are partially covered by opaque paint, masking portions of their faces and bodies. Their gaze always remains clear and present, looking directly onto the viewer.
"It is important to me that this project does not attempt to define these individuals or this community as a whole, but is more of a loving gesture of our existence."