From Prison to Professor – The Life & Times of Najjar Abdul – Musawwir

by Dr. S. Alexis Anderson


Malcolm X sentenced to 10 and served 6. Najjar sentenced to 20 and served 9. Malcolm learned to read and write in prison. Najjar realized he couldn’t read when he landed in county jail.  Both introduced to Islam by fellow inmates. These are just a few of the parallels that come to mind when thinking about the life of Malcolm X and Najjar Abdul – Musawwir. In his 1964 speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet” at King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit, MI where he shares his black nationalist philosophy, Malcolm X said, “We’ve not seen the American dream, but we have experienced the American nightmare.”  Najjar experienced the American nightmare and used the lessons to create his version of the American dream.

Many of us have that defining moment. That moment where we know what our true passions are. Some of us don’t figure it out until later in life, while others know early on. Najjar was introduced to art at around 7 or 8 years old by his father, a factory worker, and an older cousin. He reflects, “I remember him at the kitchen table. I said Dad show me how to do that. The cowboy looked so cool. It was leaning over, and he had his cowboy hat covering his face. He was kind of leaning over the horse and horse was walking.” He pauses for a moment and says, “And my cousin Alvin. He would do this grid upscaling technique with a photo.  The idea of being able to look at something and make it look just like the object but larger- with just the use of a pencil was fascinating to me.” He went on to say, “Neither were artists but what they were doing appealed to the creative artistic side of me. It made me feel alive.” Najjar has always seen art as a way of figuring out the world, a way of seeing it in a stimulating way- and that is evident in his mixed media where he skillfully depicts the places and ideas at which culture, faith, and history intersect. Art has always made him feel connected to the world and thereby understand it more. It is this childlike wonder and enthusiasm that continues to drive his work and his teaching today. 

Of course, we know being introduced to a thing and falling in love with a thing are not the same thang.  Najjar realized he was head over heels about art a few years later in 4th grade. He remembers the experience as if it were just yesterday, “The teacher had us color Crayola on paper. All these colors. We put black ink on top and then scratched it. Aw man. It was mind blowing for me. It was almost like scientific execution. You know, like a scientist discovering penicillin.” It was definitely the moment he fell in love with art. 

My 90-minute conversation with Professor Najjar was what I imagine it feels like to sit in one of his African American Art History classes at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Just a couple of minutes into our chat, Najjar’s zeal and passion for both life and art could be heard and felt. He sees himself as a simple man, and I didn’t really see that at first. As the conversation continued, I realized he was in fact a simple man, but in the way woven quilt blocks are simple. A fusion of fabrics woven together in a pattern that appears complex to the naked eye, but a closer look reveals a very simple method of construction.  As the conversation continues, he continues to weave together the pieces of his life that created the husband, father, son, artist, and educator he is today. 

Like many growing up in the 60s, Najjar was bussed into a white neighborhood for school. His love for Bruce Lee films coupled with impromptu martial arts and gymnastics lessons from a martial arts enthusiast in his neighborhood would lead him on to be a gold medal winning gymnast – even in spite of being the ongoing target of racist abuse at the hands of his very own team members. During his junior year of high school, more racially motivated actions on the part of school administrators resulted in Najjar ultimately deciding to drop out of school altogether. As is often the case with idle minds and idle hands, he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong crowd – and then prison. He served nine years and 1 month of a 10 -year sentence. When asked to talk more about what happened after dropping out, there was a brief hesitation. A hesitation that suggested, for a moment, that even though he had transcended, he was still not fully at peace with the consequences of a youthful decision gone horribly wrong.   

Allahu Akbar are the words that would change the trajectory of Najjar’s life.  The words that caused him to pivot. While in the county jail, he overheard what he describes as “funny sounds” that he would later learn meant God is greatest and were chanted several times each day by a gentleman in a nearby cell.  He continued to hear the words each day and often observed the gentleman in what appeared to be a praying position. Intrigued, he began to ask questions and was introduced to the world of Islam. Like Malcolm, Najjar too realized, upon his arrival into “the system” that he was functionally illiterate, so he immersed himself in every book he could get his hands on while simultaneously learning to read, study art, and continue his education. The gentleman was gone two weeks later, but he left an impression that would last a lifetime.  

Because he had earned his GED while incarcerated and began his undergraduate studies in his late 20s once released from prison, his nightmare slowly began to evolve into a dream.  Malcolm X believed he learned more in prison than he ever would have learned from a traditional post-secondary education and Najjar’s own prison studies were quite intense as well. With less distractions, they likely might have been deeper than his traditional post-secondary studies.  In spite of these truths, I still can’t help but think, Prof Najjar’s life is just one version of what Malcolm X’s life might have looked like had it not been cut short at 39. 

Today, Najjar’s life has come full circle. He’s teaching waitlisted sections of African American Art History; while He’s no longer practicing gymnastics, he does stay limber by dancing to the likes of Luther Vandross, Public Enemy, neo-soul, and smooth jazz while creating art.  When I asked about family life, Najjar’s tone shifted from that of creative, fun, Art professor, to Daddy. His tone became reverent and there was just the tiniest of tremors in his voice as he talked about his wife and four daughters and their unwavering support. It is support that involves physically helping him in the studio, keeping him motivated, and simply telling him how proud they are of him.  He goes on to share how his daughters often tell him what an inspiration his life is to them – a detail that he still seems to marvel at just a tiny bit. In that moment, I knew that while his worldwide acclaim, a host of distinguished recognitions such as an endowed professorship and invitation from the MacArthur foundation mean a lot to him, it is the words of love and support from his family that motivate him the most. As he talked, and very carefully tried not to share too much about his family, without realizing it, his careful word choice said more than one million words could have conveyed. As he continued to discuss family, he added one more piece of burlap fabric to a very complex woven quilt, that will continue to grow as the years roll on, and it’s called “The Life and Times of Professor Najjar Abdul Musawwir.”  If you listen really closely, you can hear Jill Scott, his favorite neo-soul artist, in the background singing her hit tribute to Black men – “Brotha” It goes, If nobody told ya brotha, I’m here/ to let you know that/You’re so wonderful/You’re so marvelous/ You’re so beautiful/You’re splendid/You’re fabulous /Brilliantly blessed in every way…. 


Najjar Abdul-Musawwir is an internationally acknowledged artist who has exhibited in the United States, Africa, Asia and Europe. He currently works as a Full-Professor of studio arts and art history in the School of Art and Design, Africana Studies, and Core Curriculum at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, IL. Abdul-Musawwir teaches 2D studio practice, professional development, and art history. He has been the host to WSIU PBS TV show, EXPRESSION, and Board Member to the Illinois Association of Museums.


Abdul-Musawwir has received distinguish acknowledgments, and among them are:  invitational Artist-n-Residency at the Esther Mahlangu Foundation, Mthambothini, South Africa; Invitational lecture at the University of Warsaw’s American Studies Center, Warsaw, Poland; Self-Residency at Smithsonian Museum of African Art Warren M. Robbins Library, Washington, DC; Artist-n-Residency/exhibit at N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, Detroit, MI; invitational Artist-n-Residency/exhibit at Tuanku Fauziah Museum and Gallery, Penang Island, Malaysia; Art Basel Miami with Black Art In America at Brisky Gallery, Miami, Florida; 2-5-Oh! Surprise, Sadness and Struggle in the Mound City at Salon 53 Gallery, St. Louis, MO; Visions of Our 44th President at Charles H. Wright Museum, Detroit, MI; Underrepresented Minorities Art Exhibition at the Center for Diversity & Inclusion at Washington University, St. Louis, MO; invitational solo exhibition for Fine Art Gallery at Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey; Black Creativity Exhibition at Illinois Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, IL; TELLING TALES: Narrative Threads of Contemporary African American Art at Mitchell Museum, Mt. Vernon, IL; and Panafest Art Exhibition at Cultural Art Center, Cape Coast, Ghana.

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