In 2018, a trip to London’s street cool Camden Market reignited Shahzaad Raja’s suppressed childhood interest in artmaking. Amongst the artisans, Raja stumbled upon a collage maker hawking portraits of famous people. “I was intrigued by how it was such a simple concept but also very complex with all of the small pieces creating one recognizable image,” he says, recalling the moment that set his own inspiration into motion.
Without any grand plans, he began with a stack of magazines, Elmer’s glue, and a canvas. The process became a form of therapy. “It gives me a chance to really process my ideas and see if I can align that with the right images. This can take hours since I have to find the right material to portray the message properly.”
In pre-pandemic times, Raja used to peruse local thrift or book shops, but now his work is confined to the material he already has. He doesn’t see this as a limitation, but a reflection of the times that we live in. “I think that same concept [of relying on what we already have] can be applied to life in general.”
Raja’s work acts as a mirror for the American populous, allowing it to take a good hard look at itself. American immigration policies, war games, police brutality, and more recently, the politics of coronavirus, are popular themes in Raja’s art. Yet, the same mirror provides a glimpse of hope and possibility – how things can change for the better.
Volunteer work largely shaped Raja’s worldview, and eventually his art. In 2012, he visited his ancestral country, Pakistan, and taught marginalized children. After that, he mentored a Syrian family in their transition to life in his hometown of Chicago. “Both of these experiences showed me how resilient humans can be, to endure that struggle and tragedy but keep moving forward.”
In 2016, Raja also traveled to the small town of Tarboro, North Carolina to do relief work after Hurricane Matthew. The trip was organized by Islamic Relief, but the group partnered with local churches to rebuild homes. “I wasn’t sure what to expect going there but we were welcomed with open arms. Seeing Muslims and Christians coming together to help those in need was amazing to be a part of. That interfaith work really gave me a lot of hope that better days were ahead of us.”
Though these experiences definitely impacted his life, his vocal social justice politics are rooted in so much more. “It was the amount of injustice and corruption going on in the world that pushed me. Mainstream news will cover stories that follow their narrative, so a lot of important things that are going on in the world get left in the dark.” He acknowledges, that in particular, this applies to injustices against Muslims.
Art is Raja’s main form of protest. “I think art does have the power to spark social change – I want people to really think about the issues that are presented to them and hopefully that thinking can turn into doing, and taking action toward a certain cause.”
But with the state of world affairs and so many super villains leading the charge is “social change” even possible? We asked Raja to reflect on one of his pieces in particular, Silence Won’t Bring Peace. The artwork shows people protesting at different points in history. It’s equal parts inspiring and disheartening. One can’t help but remember: in regard to war specifically, people have dissented against every single war America has ever involved itself in. And yet, there are wars in progress and wars about to happen – and no doubt, America is or will be involved. So, we ask: If there anything that a normal person can really do?
Here’s what Shahzaad Raja has to say:
“Certain things will always be out of our control but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t stand up for what we believe in; or stand up for the silenced, underprivileged societies of the world.
Most social movements that changed history revolved around mass protest (civil rights, women’s right to vote, LGBT rights etc.) As far as war is concerned, I think anti-war activists can help shift public opinion and potentially alter actions of political leaders.
Especially with the amount of bloodshed and money/resources used on the never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, people are very reluctant to support another war. When the Trump administration launched a drone strike on Iran this past January, it seemed like we were on the brink of another war. Thousands of people were ready to resist and protests popped up all over the world. Luckily, that situation de-escalated and it is possible that the protests had some contribution toward that.
No major social change was caused by people staying quiet – all of them were caused by people rallying together and fighting for their cause. If protesting isn’t your thing, there are other ways to get involved – donating, lobbying, or joining an activist organization that is already working toward a specific cause.”