Muslim Sisterhood Co-Founder Zeinab Saleh On Building A Community For Muslim Creatives

6 min read

Having recently relocated to Dubai, rising artist Zeinab Saleh tells MOJEH about her current exhibition in London and her aspirations to expand creative agency Muslim Sisterhood in the region

In 2017 a series of photographs went viral on social media, depicting Muslim women with a rare sense of authenticity. Pictured in their natural elements around London and diverging from the stereotypical, light-skinned, hijab-wearing image of Muslim women that was in vogue at the time due to the global modest fashion movement, these photographs depicted women of all backgrounds — from Arab to Asian and African, photographed in front of fast-food joints, supermarket aisles and colourful jute carpets. Bright red eyeshadow appeared on the lids of some women, while others’ fingers featured intricate henna designs. These images marked the debut of Muslim Sisterhood, a collective that has since produced campaigns for brands like Daily Paper, Nike and British footwear retailer Office, and has been featured in international publications dressed in labels like Gucci, Marine Serre and horologer extraordinaire Vacheron Constantin.

Muslim Sisterhood co-founders Zeinab Saleh, Lamisa Khan and Sara Gulamali launched their creative agency with a photo series. (Photographed by Jeeba)

Zeinab Saleh, one of the three co-founders of Muslim Sisterhood, was studying at the Slade School of Fine Art at University College London at the time. “I had access to all of this software, these cameras, studios, lightrooms and darkrooms for photography, and could use these facilities for the series,” she tells MOJEH. Her fellow co-founder Sara Gulamali, who was also studying in London at Central Saint Martins, also shared Zeinab’s creative eye, while international relations student Lamisa Khan was in tune with the politics of visuals, completing the trio. “The three of us started taking photos of our friends in areas where we grew up, like Newham and Brixton — unfortunately these places are falling victim to gentrification, so it felt like an archive of some sort,” says Zeinab. When they shared the series online, Muslim Sisterhood was officially born as a creative agency and community platform centring Muslim women.

While Zeinab works to amplify the representation of Muslim women through events and campaigns by Muslim Sisterhood, she has also earned acclaim as an artist in her own right, and her work is currently being exhibited at Tate Britain in London. She tells MOJEH that she always had a creative streak as a child. “My brothers would ask for PlayStation 2 games, and I would ask for clay and art sets,” recalls Zeinab, who was born in Nairobi and moved to London as a baby. “I never thought a career in art was a possibility — I wanted to become a psychologist, because I was interested in why people are the way they are.”

Images produced by Muslim Sisterhood capture the diversity and creativity of Muslim women. (Photographed by Sara Gulamali)

This contemplative characteristic is evident throughout her exhibition at Tate Britain, which draws from her personal, daily surroundings. Paintings show prayer rugs slung over the door or laid out on the floor, and one scene, featuring a cat — which isn’t her own, but a neighbour’s that frequents her balcony — was inspired by an evening when she hosted her friends in her living room for iftar. “There’s this sense of looking into something and trying to make out what’s happening in the scene, and it’s not completely revealed to you at first glance,” she explains.

Zeinab was invited by former Tate curator Isabella Maidment, who visited her solo show at Camden Art Centre in 2021, and then a year later in Biarritz, France. She spent a year developing her body of work for the Tate exhibition, turning to a more pigmented colour palette than she was accustomed to working with. “After exclusively working with charcoal for a while, I wanted to challenge myself to use colour again,” says Zeinab, whose hues were influenced by her recent trips to Biarritz, Seoul and Marrakesh. Acrylic paint, charcoal and coloured pastels were her tools of choice, coupled with fabrics layered over the canvas to create imprints resembling natural creases. Two crescent-shaped benches topped with blue cushions sit in the centre of the space. “I designed the furniture to invite pause and contemplation and invite people to sit and take time with the work,” explains Zeinab, adding that the fabric used for the seating cushion mirrors the depictions of domestic textiles in her art.

There’s a meditative quality to Zeinab’s work, which is misty and dreamy, epitomising softness at a time when the art we consume often makes bold statements about the world’s harsh realities. “I think quiet and softness are really integral for private explorations of fears and ambitions,” notes Zeinab. “It’s very easy to see devastation, heartache and misery — you just have to look at the newspaper. I think in my work, I’m actively trying to create something that is counteractive to that.”

Zeinab’s The Sovereignty of Quiet, now on display at Tate Britain, was inspired by an iftar at her flat with friends and a neigbour’s cat.

One painting is titled The sovereignty of quiet, named after the 2012 book by African American professor Kevin Quashie, which explores quiet as a metaphor for inner life, and women’s paintings of home interiors as a form of quiet resistance. Zeinab names Lubaina Himid and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye as artists who have pioneered the way for future generations of Black British artists in the industry. But recognising that tokenism is a reality often at play, she prefers that her art be judged and grouped by its own merit — not because of her heritage, emphasising that no group is ever homogenous. This insistence on not only acknowledging but also celebrating unique identities within diverse representation is also reflected in the ethos of Muslim Sisterhood. Zeinab explains that when some clients request to have only one demographic of Muslims featured in their campaigns, the team always pushes back. “You can’t get away with that anymore; Black Muslims are everywhere — there are Sudanese Muslims, Nigerian Muslims, Somali Muslims and so many more,” she explains. Zeinab often oversees casting and styling: for an Eid footwear campaign this season, the ambience of the shoot was imbued with her own personal experiences and recollections of celebrating with family. Community events are also key to the platform — Muslim Sisterhood recently hosted an Eid dinner at The Hoxton in London’s Southwark, complete with BDS-safe gifting from brands like Lush and S’able Labs.

In Four Times, Zeinab invites viewers to contemplate her art and its varying meanings.

Leaving behind her London studio and wrapping up her Tate exhibition, which concludes on 23 June, Zeinab is now setting up base in Dubai with plans to find a new space to create art while also seeking regional projects for Muslim Sisterhood, bringing her vision for authentic representation through high-end visual imagery to a region rife with opportunity. “We’d love to work with brands in the Middle East that align with our ethics, such as Huda Beauty,” says Zeinab, referencing the UAE beauty mogul who has used her platform to speak up for Palestine. She adds that the creative consultancy is also looking at launching a talent management arm — one that caters to Muslim creatives. “We have our own needs and requirements,” she says. “We want to make sure if we’re going on set that there is a prayer space, and many of us don’t want to work with brands that support genocide.”

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  • Words by Hafsa Lodi
  • Photography by Bernice Mulenga