Born in Pakistan and residing in Phoenix, Safwat Saleem’s multidisciplinary art explores the experience of being an immigrant father with equal measures of joy, sorrow, and resistance.
In Rough Translations (2023), Safwat Saleem teaches his daughter Urdu. In the recording, the flowing calligraphic script flashes in white on the black screen as she pronounces each word, and then defines it in English. “Goomrah,” she says. “Goomrah means lost or when you don’t know the way.” They continue on. Ignorance. Jhoot (lie). Democracy. Boozdil (someone who is afraid).
In Rough Translations, language is an expression of belonging as well as loss. Saleem’s own parents spoke the regional Punjabi. He grew up favoring the national language of Urdu. Now, in the U.S. his daughter mostly speaks English. His work explores the experience of being an immigrant father with equal measures of joy, sorrow, and resistance. Born in Pakistan and residing in Phoenix, Saleem’s multidisciplinary art offers viewers a faint but traceable map of his life, where each new day marks greater assimilation (and naturalization and path to citizenship, as in his piece 7,103 (2023) where 7,103 tally marks chart the days he spent in the immigration system) as well as a growing distance from his origins.
In Oral History (of us) (2022) Saleem has recorded poetic—and funny—retellings of Pakistani history and, one surmises, times of colonization by the British. “They took our food and made it their own. While they were at it, they took our jewels, resources, freedom and agency. They tried to take our mangoes but—HA!—good luck suckers. Good mangoes won’t grow anywhere else. The joke was on them,” Saleem recounts.
After listening, viewers are invited to throw the tapes into the trash. Cultural loss, then, is distilled into an act. History, and hours of story, gone in the space of a gesture. Oral History—and much of Saleem’s work—challenges us, too. No matter who we are, we are faced with questions that matter: is letting go necessary to belong? Can new vocabularies exist alongside the old? And can we find the way, obscure as it might seem now, to a future where even our most painful memories are a foil to the present?