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The Multifaceted Muslim Series: In conversation with Bariq Cobbs

Introducing:

This is the first article for the Multifaceted Muslim series, where I’ll be interviewing black Muslims to talk about their career experiences, upbringing and identity as a Black Muslim in America! This month, I had the opportunity to interview Bariq Cobbs, a visual artist and fashion designer from Philadelphia, to talk about his journey as an artist, and how his experiences growing up Black and Muslim influence his work! 

Bariq Cobbs Bio 

Entrepreneur and successful artist, Bariq Cobbs, has seemingly been holding a paintbrush in his hand as far back as he can remember.  At a young age, his mother recognized his gift, enrolling him in art classes in Philadelphia. He perfected his craft by sketching any and everything that moved him, finding himself gravitating towards comic book silhouettes and Japanese animation.  Later, mastering the art of graffiti, his hand-painted, African inspired shirts quickly evoked recognition from various celebrities. He left his artistic impression on apparel companies he co-founded; Tribe Vibe and Funky Roots, which were both popular urban brands of the late 80’s and early 90’s. He later went on to co-found a successful fashion brand called Miskeen Originals. His innate talent and sense of composition sparked  trends that have been imitated throughout the marketplace to this day. Meezan ArtCouture, an upscale urban menswear brand, is his latest endeavor.  As co-founder/ Art Director, Bariq spearheads the companies creative concepts which are translated into designs and sold on the market. The brand is sold in various specialty and department stores nationwide.  

When and how did you get started as an artist? 

Will Smith on the set of Fresh Prince in a shirt designed by Bariq

I had a little black book where I’d practice my graffiti and draw characters. Gradually, I started using my drawings as inspiration for clothing designs. People responded really well to my designs and they became quite popular.  In the early 90s I began putting my designs on t-shirts and formed a clothing line called Tribe Vibe. Will Smith even wore a shirt I designed on an episode of the Fresh Prince.

         I studied Animation and Film at university, and I found that I could not relate to a lot of the artists that we studied in the classroom. The curriculum was very Euro-centric, mostly Renaissance-era paintings and I did not feel a personal connection to it. One day, I found a book on African masks, and that really inspired me. I started incorporating themes from West African art in my own artwork, even creating my own masks. I fell in love with the art form and gradually began drawing sculptures as well. 

Can you tell us about the process of making your work?

In Dakar, Bariq Cobbs

Normally I start with a sketch of something I have seen, dreamt about, or imagined and felt inspired by. I start with a concept and then I make it into something concrete. I might use pencil or pen, and then gradually add color with acrylic paint  and fill out the details. Sometimes I will represent the same theme in multiple paintings, but use slightly different methods each time.

        Although I am a Black Muslim, my art is not only for Black Muslims to enjoy. I want everyone to be able to appreciate my work. My identity affects my perspective and the things I choose to represent in my paintings, but the themes of my work are universal.

Who are your biggest artistic influences?

  • Jean-Michel Basquiat
  • Keith Haring
  • Romare Bearden
  • Jacob Lawrence 
  • Willem De Kooning 
  • Picasso – (who was heavily influenced by African art  forms, but he never gave African artists their props) 
  • Mark Bradford

How does your work comment on current social or political issues?

I had the opportunity to host an exhibit at the Please Touch Museum between February and September of this year. The exhibit was called America to Zanzibar, and featured paintings that depicted scenes of everyday life for Black Muslims as a social commentary on the normalcy of our lives. I wanted people to understand that outside of our daily religious practices, Muslims are just like everyone else. My goal was to  provide a narrative on Philadelphia’s Muslim culture from an artistic standpoint, and highlight the style of the Muslim community. All of my subjects are dressed in traditional Islamic garb, but I used various patterns and colors to highlight the individuality that can still exist while adhering to standards of Islamic dress.

Louis Vuitton Mom, Bariq Cobbs

In terms of political issues, I noticed a growing trend amongst white celebrities of adopting black children. To me, these acts did not feel genuine, and it seemed like these black children were being toted as accessories rather than being treated as human beings.  I painted a piece titled Louis Vuitton Mom as my own critique on this growing phenomenon. 

I believe that art can spark conversations about important social and political issues. The subjects of my paintings are often Black and Muslim, but my art addresses themes, like love, for example, that transcend a specific identity. Recently a white man from Vermont purchased a painting of mine that featured a Black Muslim couple. He said that some of his friends and neighbors are extremely Islamophobic, and he hopes that by displaying my painting  in his house, his friends will realize that Muslims are not a group of people that should warrant fear. I hope that my art continues to cause people to reconsider their prejudices. Art is universal. 

How have your life experiences influenced your artistic style?

Ndebele woman and child. Source: Pinterest

99.5% of all my work is heavily influenced by African Masks. I’m also influenced by the Ndebele women, who paint their homes in colorful geometric patterns. I would describe my art as a gumbo, comprised of African, Aztec, graffiti, and pop art influences.  I think this gives my art a certain edge, because this is a genre that doesn’t exist. I’m also influenced by things I observe in my daily life, such as architectural patterns and photographs. I want to invite you into my world through my art. 

What does being Black and Muslim mean to you?

Being Black and Muslim is prolific. Black Muslims have represented Islam in America since the 1960s. When you think of Muslims, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X are two of the first people that come to mind. They represented Islam but also spoke up for the rights of black people around the world. They gave me a sense of pride as a young Muslim  because they made it cool to identify with something outside of traditional white American culture.

I think the Muslim community in Philly is really special. People give salaams with love. There is a sense of  Muslim brotherhood in this city which doesn’t exist in other American cities. The spirit of “want for your brother what you want for yourself” is very much embodied in Philadelphia. The Black Muslim community here feels like a familial environment. Every time I return to the city I instantly feel at home. 

In your opinion what is the key to a successful life?

In order to be successful, I believe you need to be the best Muslim you can. Make your 5 prayers, do good deeds, be present, represent yourself well as a human being, have good character, treat people kindly regardless of their differences, be pleasant and courteous with everyone, give people a good impression of Islam, and put your best foot forward in all your endeavors. 

You can check out more of Bariq’s work here.

If you or someone you know would like to be interviewed for the Multifaceted Muslim series, send me an email: sadiyahsabree@gmail.com

Sadiyah serves as the North American representative for Black Muslim Forum, providing stories and updates regarding the Black American Muslim experience. Sadiyah received her Masters degree in Urban Planning in 2018. Her academic research and personal interests revolve around community-led development initiatives in low-income communities of colour, in both the US and the UK .

The Multifaceted Muslim series: In conversation with Bariq Cobbs

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