Despite its floral pastels, David Najib Kasir’s Uptown mural is about the horrors of war
The lightness in the mural near the Wilson Avenue L station is meant to draw people to its image of a father holding the lifeless body of his daughter — a comment on the lives lost in the Syrian and Afghan wars.
It features an image of a father holding the lifeless body of his daughter. Kasir says that’s a reference to the countless young lives lost in recent years in the wars raging in Syria and Afghanistan.
Despite the subject matter, he says he uses color and flowers to draw people in, much as, say, Britney Spears drew listeners in with “candy-sounding” music in the early 2000s whose lyrics belied the upbeat sound.
“Britney Spears, what she’s doing, she wants you to like it right away,” Kasir says. “She’s drawing you in by the sound. That’s kind of what I’m doing.”
His mural, which he painted last August and titled “Ratio of Daughter in Less Percentages,” is one of dozens featured in the Clifton Avenue Street Art Gallery just off the CTA’s Wilson Avenue L station.
Kasir is the son of a Syrian mother and an Iraqi father. He says that, through his art, he tries to raise awareness about the suffering many have faced as a result of wars in the region and also to spotlight Middle Eastern culture.
Like he does with the Uptown mural’s geometric shapes, which he painted so it looks like there are zellige mosaic tiles, though there are no miniature tiles in the piece.
At home, he has a drum and a backgammon board that feature a similar style. “It was always around me, my whole life,” he says.
Kasir, 44, was born in Chicago. His family moved to Syria for a time but returned when he was around 5 years old, and he grew up in Skokie and elsewhere in the suburbs. His first language was Arabic.
His culture plays a big role in his work, but he says he didn’t always feel comfortable embracing his upbringing.
“When I was growing up, we were taught to be embarrassed of where we came from,” says Kasir, who has raised two daughters and now lives in Milwaukee. “If you watched movies when I was a kid, we were always the bad guys. We were always the one who were uneducated or barbarian-like or abusive, or we were terrorists.”
Kasir says he aims to “recapture a lot of that heritage” with his work and push back against harmful stereotypes.
In the Uptown mural, he says he drew from the kinds of floral designs that might be found in a Persian rug.
He says the hands that reach down from the top panel were the final touch for the mural and were in response to the war in Afghanistan. Around the time he was painting the mural, American forces were withdrawn, and the Taliban took over. He saw images and videos of families throwing their kids at U.S. soldiers, desperate to save them. The hands he painted were intended to symbolize “trying to catch them” and protect all of the children in Afghanistan.
He painted the girl without discernible facial features, continuing the shapes that make up the rest of the mural on her body to create a more abstract image.
All that’s seen of her father are a hand and his shirt. You can’t see his face or body.
That’s because, Kasir says, “I would be a ghost without my daughters.”
There are red blocks around where the man’s neck would be — a reference, he says, to beheadings and hangings that came amid violent government crackdowns and atrocities by militias that followed the Arab Spring uprisings against government corruption and social injustice in the Middle East.
With most of his art, Kasir says he chooses titles tied to math in homage to algebra’s Arabic origins.
“Everything comes from the Middle East,” he says. “It’s sort of my way of reminding people to try to swipe away at these negative narratives or stereotypes they have been building on us for decades.”
Chicago’s murals & mosaics
Part of a series on public art. More murals added every week.