Saad Moosajee
Photo by Lucas Vasilko
Emerging Masters

Saad Moosajee: “You have to resonate with it”

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Short Profile

Name: Saad Moosajee
Place of birth: United Kingdom
Occupation: Artist, video director

Saad, as a visual artist and director, what would you say makes an image emotional?

I think for me, it's where you see something that you connect with and understand. You have to feel something and resonate with it on a level where that’s familiar, maybe you’ve experienced in some way, even if it's beyond description, right? And then, I think where it becomes most interesting for me, is to shift it or manipulate it… Playing with or distorting this thing that we do understand, that does resonate with us, I think can create an emotional impact.

How do you go about that?

Well, the cover I created for Thom Yorke’s “Last I Heard” video, which I also directed, is a good image: it’s just group of kids skipping through fire — it’s very simple. But it also almost looks like they could be on Mars or something, and everything is incinerated around them. But their posture is very playful. So for me, that can be quite emotional because you don't really know… It does two things. You wonder about them, their backstory, who they are and why they are there, but then it's also just an image that hopefully strikes you, that you might like to sit with afterwards, which is probably the thing that I'm most like drawn to. We're just trying to create images that stick with people.

Is there a recipe for reaching that connection through visuals? Or perhaps it’s more a question of the right image at the right time?

I think that for the music videos that I’ve worked on, the ones that are most emotional are, like you said, just the right marriage of hearing a really great lyric or beat, and responding to it with the right image at the right moment. The moment where the song and the video come out, the way the image speaks to the audio, the way that the lyrics speak to the image… It’s an audio-visual experience. That synthesis can be really powerful. Personally, I never was trying to make emotional images! I think it just like happened, that it resonated with people. And then people brought it up, so I actually tried to make emotional things, and it didn't really work.

Thom Yorke's Last I Heard, video by Saad Moosajee.

It’s almost like the second you start thinking about that particular vision too much, you lose your grip on it…

Yeah, it’s a very logical breakdown. The things I’ve tried to make emotional end up not being emotional at all. For me, it’s better to just let it happen. I think I've also gravitated towards a very specific type of music which is quite lyrical and very expressive, very poetic. I like to work with music videos, because I consider the stuff that I like to do as being very cinematic, like in Lil Nas X’s “Tales of Dominica” or Joji’s “777.”

Is there a balance that you have to strike between poetry and expression, and actual narrative storytelling?

Sure, I mean, I studied the surrealists a lot. Dali, Ernst, Magritte, for example, are all such huge inspiration. It was the other worldliness and the suspension of reality that I immediately gravitated towards. But something I think might represent my work better is magical realism literature, like Jorge Luis Borges and Haruki Murakami. I gravitate towards that more because it’s more subtle surrealism, I would say. You could almost miss it sometimes, if you’re not paying attention. And I like that because I think how much you do also plays with the viewer to some degree… I like to play with that balance, and I think if it's too surreal all the time, then I would lose my opportunity to get that emotional hit we were talking about earlier.

It sounds like you’re really thinking through the lens of a film director, figuring out how to lead and guide your audience through imagery and sensation.

I think that is probably where the director part of me comes in! But that was kind of an accident because that's the part where I'm fully self taught. I did study art and design at Rhode Island School of Design, but the film animation stuff I've done; that's all self taught. And I think that just changed my process, right from the beginning because nothing I've ever done has been a traditional way of doing something.

“I used the Internet to solve the problem that I had no creative community around. I’m the first artist in my family! I’ve always been the oddball.”

Tumblr played a big role in your artistic upbringing, right?

Yeah, I was pretty young when I started making art. I was just working with Photoshop and collaging things together… I just kept kind of going down that path of collaging stuff, and eventually I found things like Tumblr and DeviantArt. I was kind of raised on that! And then through IRC chats, I found a network of people who were also doing the same thing as me, just collaging images in Photoshop. They turned me on to the 3D software Cinema 4D, and it was like, “Okay, well, I can do anything with this!”

How exactly did you learn how to use all these new programs? At the time, there must not have been any YouTube tutorials to help you figure things out.

Yeah, there were no resources at the time to learn it. I think it was right before the YouTube tutorial era, so it was very difficult to learn stuff. Then I went to art school, and eventually worked with Pixar for a bit, where I learned a lot of my technical foundations… But prior to that, I don’t know, I guess I had just never really experienced something that was so compelling, that I just became obsessed with practicing Photoshop and building worlds in Cinema 4D! And then I met a couple of people who were in their twenties and they had stumbled on the same train of thought as me. My mom definitely thought all these people were going to kill me! (Laughs) But a lot of them became very successful artists!

You’re a true child of the Internet.

In a certain way, yeah! I just used it to solve the problem that I had no creative community around. Through my IRC community, I discovered creatives like the DVEIN studio in Spain, designers like Stefan Sagmeister, and digital painters like Dylan Cole. You know, the area I was in, there was no way to discover like-minded people doing the same thing as me. I'm the first artist in my family! There's no one else. I've always been like the oddball I think in that way, but they're very supportive. I don't think I would have made it this far without them, my parents were probably my biggest champions early on. But yeah, I’m the only one in my family who chose this path.

Did that impact your perception of yourself and your work?

I guess it made me a little unsure of myself, like how am I going to be the only artist in my family and not end up in my parents basement or something? (Laughs) I really didn't want to perpetuate those stereotypes. What helped was I freelanced a bit before art school, which was quite encouraging. But I think the fact that how I started was so reverse-engineered, so to speak, meant then I never felt the need to do anything in a prescribed way, you know? I used to feel like, okay, this is a great way to express myself, there are no limitations on this thing, like, no one understands it anyway so no one could put it in a box, right?

A still from the video for Joji's 777, directed by Saad Moosajee
A still from the video for Joji's 777, directed by Saad Moosajee

It was like a license to create and do your own thing.

Right, and I was making my own processes from the very beginning, which is quite unusual in this field, because it's so technical. But the craft is as important to me as the experimentation, and it was really important in finding I think a balance between the two that worked for me. But you know, I was always fairly different than everyone around me, like I was the only South Asian person almost everywhere I grew up. That’s why I loved this quote from Earl Sweatshirt, he said: “The role of fantasy in liberation is huge. We are tasked with creating something that we can’t really see. Building the plane while it’s flying.” It was cool to read that because sometimes people think fantasy is not impressive or not artistic, more low-brow…

They think about dragons and unicorns.

Right, and I think the kind of stuff that appealed to me was always ethereal and otherworldly and fantastical; working with the suspension of disbelief. So for him to say how much he appreciates that kind of thing, it was huge, it was nice to see I’m not the only one. Especially with digital art. People often questioned its artistic integrity, especially early on when there was less education around it. The art curriculums in many of my earlier schools prioritized traditional methods, which often made it difficult to teach students interested in alternative techniques.

What spurred you to keep going despite all of that?

I feel like it was mainly driven by almost this blind passion! I was just focused on, “Okay, I'm obsessed with the way this medium looks, I just have to keep doing it.” But now, I feel like I'm just getting started to some degree. I feel like I got an opportunity, and I take it really seriously. And I also feel like I'm excited about being able to just try to lift up other people around me, and groups like Reconstructed, Kajal,, that have given artistic space to our community. I think there are many South Asian creatives who do amazing things, and they're getting more of the attention they deserve now. I want to have a part to play in that in some capacity.