Interview

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Hajar Alzerma is a Saudi Arabian Moroccan singer-songwriter living in California. She just released the song Melancholy – a single from her upcoming extended play (EP) Late Bloomer. She also just graduated with a Masters in Environmental Engineering from Stanford University. She enjoys music, traveling and photography. She is an advocate for the intersectionality of art and science and a firm believer in the importance of self-expression and self-exploration.

Your cultural background and interests exist on the intersections between Saudi and Morocco, art and science. Can you tell us more about them and the impact of intersectionality on you?

Being at the intersection of things meant things were always a little messy. It meant that I never quite felt like I belonged anywhere. BUT it also meant I was constantly exposed to new perspectives. My mother is Moroccan and my father is Saudi, so while I grew up in the Eastern Province of Saudi, I spent 3 months every summer in Morocco. Seeing things through those different lenses made me super curious, and I think that trickled over to academics. Curiosity is at the core of being a good scientist, as well as exploring the arts. I sought refuge in things that needed figuring out. In a way, it distracted me from having to figure myself out – distracted from my personal messiness. I threw myself into music and all the different perspectives it narrated. It helped me navigate the cultural negotiations I had to make in my lifetime – everything from being a mixed kid in Saudi to a Muslim in America.

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Including music, what forms of art do you practice? When did those practices begin, and how were they initiated?

Anything that you engage passionately in becomes art. At least that is what I believe. In the traditional sense, I would say that singing/songwriting is the art I practice the most. I dabble in photography, mostly when I travel. But I also view life as art. I couldn’t tell you when it started, but I always have. I think it is the Moroccan in me. Moroccan culture is just so expressive; my mom’s side of the family has always been so colorful. My mom and grandma were artists in the kitchen. My grandma played the drums and listened to Arab classics, and my cousins sang and played the guitar. It was in my genes to fall in love with music. I was also lucky enough to have parents that never said, “no.” If there was something new I wanted to try I was allowed to – whether it was music theater or using my Eid money to buy keyboards (which I never learned to play well).


From personal experiences and surrounding observations, what led you to the conclusion that together, art and science can be sources of innovation?

When I graduated college, I took a gap year and lived in Vienna, where my parents were living there at the time, and it was life changing for me. During my undergraduate studies, I majored in biology and economics – subjects that are traditionally structured, rigorous and “scientific in thinking.” When I moved to Vienna, I took it as an opportunity to immerse myself fully in art. I found myself exploring museums, taking up photography, investing in my ever-present love of music, and enjoying the art of life and nature. I realized that “art” and “science” weren’t all that different. Both were deeply creative and equally rigorous. As humans, we have somehow moved into this space of specialization, but the more I explored the history of things like the Renaissance or the Islamic Golden Age, the more I realized how all these various fields were connected.

In your latest Misk talk, Art & Science: How Intersectionality Breeds Innovation, you challenged scientists to channel their inner artists, and for artists to do the same. Why is such call for action crucial?

A lot of times, we fail to see creativity when we think about science. We also fail to see rigor when we think about art. We need to rethink that. It is crucial for the advancement of people. One cannot exist without the other, and both are needed to complete a full picture. Scientific advancement means nothing if we cannot communicate it or make people connect with it in the way people connect with art. Scientists can also draw from an artistic creative outlet to come up with creative solutions for novel problems. Similarly, art cannot move forward without science – music is waves and frequencies and physics, sculpture and visual art are metals, materials, and waves of light that create color. It is important to understand that, yes, the specialized language of these disciplines may differ, but more often than not they overlap.

When artists and scientists come together, magic happens. New ideas are cultivated. Even misunderstandings through conversations can lead to novel ideas through questions and perspectives that would otherwise go unexplored.

How do you think individuals and platforms alike contribute to the implementation of such philosophy in education generally?

The best way to implement this philosophy is by people not limiting themselves by exploring every curiosity they have and not sticking to a single lane. It is scary to try new things. It is scary to pivot. Once you find what you are good at, you are encouraged to put blinders on and specialize. You can implement this by allowing yourself to dabble. Take a photography class, go to the science museum, have nights where you and your friends that study different things just talk about what they’re working on, make mistakes, “stupid” questions, use the voice you have to talk about ALL your interests.


Should your audience expect the release of other singles following Melancholy? What other science and/or art projects are you currently working on?

Absolutely! I am currently working on an EP called Late Bloomer that I hope to be out this summer! It talks about the insecurity and discomfort of “taking the path less traveled.” Some of us take a little longer to find our way but understand the liberation that comes with living your truth. I hope people can relate to it and are inspired to find their voice and try new things. I also just graduated with my Masters in Environmental Engineering from Stanford University, so in a way I have completed one of the most challenging scientific projects in my life so far. I hope to use the summer to expand on this thinking. I know it in theory, but I have a long way to go in thinking about how I can implement an intersection of art and science in practice.


You can follow Hajar on Instagram for more of her work.

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Amaal Alhifzi is the founder of Breathe by Art, an initiative aiming to promote art healing in our community. She is an architecture undergraduate student, with a concentration in art and architecture history. Amaal is interested in studying the depth of the relationship that connects humans and art, and they have utilized it as a communication tool throughout history. Besides art healing session and classes, she is currently working on various free projects under social entrepreneurship.


Tell us more about art healing.

Unlike art therapy, art healing is the process of providing simple and soothing techniques of making visual art in order to make the artist and client relieve stress, connect with their inner voice, and generally express and cope with emotions nonverbally.  


How was your journey in this field initiated?

My journey started when I was required to work on a high school graduation project. I thought that I was going to invent something called “art therapy,” but I was shocked to find out that it was not only an existing professional field, but it was also taught as a Masters and PhD at prestigious universities. After doing more intensive research, I found a simpler, more approachable, and less intimidating field called art healing. I took intensive short courses online and abroad to be able to host my own sessions and workshops beyond the grad project.

How would you describe Breathe by Art?

Breathe by Art’s vision is to make art healing easy and accessible for everyone. It is a social initiative that promotes are healing and teach people tools they can take beyond the sessions and practice it on their own. It started as a research paper, then small workshops focusing on mandalas (a certain art healing technique), then with the encouragement of the Humming Tree Community, where I was an intern at the time, I was able to expand Breathe by Art to become a community. The sessions not only included unique art techniques, such as collage and mandala making, but also includec open mics, and special guests who talked about their own ways of healing and connecting with themselves.

How has Breathe by Art helped you personally in aspects of mental and psychological health, and what was its impact on your surroundings?

The initiative alone did not impact my emotional and mental health directly; the community it created did. The sense of unity it allowed to create, and the impact it is making on people’s personalities is what I consider rewarding. As children, we all loved to draw, up until we were told -mostly by adults- that art had certain standards that we needed to follow. In our art healing sessions, our main goal is to remind people of the power of art and its effect on our wellbeing, in hopes that we all bring our kindergarten unapologetic artists back to life again. On a personal level, I can say that in the process of founding Breathe by Art, it was the one who found me. At a specific stage of confusion, my research pushed me into reading about sacred geometry, which lead me to end up studying Architecture.

How would you describe our community’s reaction to Breathe by Art? Can we persuade people with the importance of art healing?

In a world that moves so fast, people are starving for slowing down and discovering themselves. Society was very welcoming and supportive. From the very beginning, people either came in with excitement or skepticism. In both cases, they came out with unforgettable experiences. It may not have been about art itself, but the thrill of breaking the fear of the blank paper.

What are your next steps?

The plan for 2019 is to get more professional feedback and mentorship on art healing in order to keep developing the content and agenda of the sessions. On a larger scale, I am working more to learn the link of space and emotion, which deals with art, healing, and architecture.