Creative Fusion: Azziz Muhammad / East Cleveland

Visions and Revisions

Azziz Muhammad is a visual artist and community activist who grew up in East Cleveland. Comfortably seated in a window at the main branch of the East Cleveland Public Library, he spoke with CAN about his work as a part of the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion Data Cohort.  The view along streets near the library is mainly one of advanced rustbelt ruination, but the library itself is a very different matter. That mansion-like 1916 building and its sleek 2005 additions make up the chambers of the still beating heart of East Cleveland’s library system and, one would like to think, of East Cleveland as a whole. Despite suffering the worst that collapsing local economies and racial prejudice can throw at it, there remains more to the decaying city than anyone has managed to measure, or contrived to represent as either fact or fine art.

Azziz, who receives his BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art in spring, 2019, is a natural for Creative Fusion’s project. Among the series of drawings and mixed media studies posted on his website are images that spring from life in the city. They speak of psychological and physical harm and anxiety, yet often with an imaginative warmth that takes over, delivering its own message. One subhead on his site reads: “Suffering and Change.” The drawings there range from a slice-of-nightmare vista depicted in View of Bombs from Space Station, to the chiaroscuro ink drawing Young Hearts, where elated teen faces pursue the night, out late on a city corner. Azziz renders slices of life, but often as if seen in a waking dream. In a watercolor and charcoal painting on grained wood panel, titled Products, a few jars and bottles of different sizes are outlined on a billboard overlooking a city bridge. Lower down a man in a hoodie and a woman in a “come up and see me sometime” pose push forward toward the viewer, out from the thick street-level atmosphere of the smoggy brown town.

“Portraits,” another subhead, reveals a somewhat different side to his work. Twenty fluid studies of human faces, mostly executed on toned paper (yellow, shades of blue, red, black and white), depict faces of men and women, young and old. Some are almost cubist, others are compiled from a whirlwind of short, coiling lines. The flowing planes of nose and cheek, forehead and chin, are like vectors of recognition. Azziz uses chalk or pastel, charcoal, ink, marker, and watercolor in these quick studies, though never more than one or two at a time. The overall impression they give is of abstract presence, divorced from the ephemera of mood or character. Azziz observes how a face can float in the mind like a mask, balanced on a pedestal of neck and shoulders, emptied of most social or physical context (though one face does have a necktie and sportcoat). In that way his drawings are meditations on the nature of human recognition, and the phenomenon of projection; we’re all programmed to see and “read” faces not only in our own species, but to a greater or lesser extent in every eye-nose-mouth configuration on earth. Some of our strongest urges propel us toward recognition, identification, and empathy. Why does this creative identification-connection so often fail to happen, out on the street, in the classroom? What goes wrong?

Azziz intends to conduct his own fact-finding mission, interviewing East Cleveland residents directly about conditions in the city. He plans to talk to students about education and other issues that affect their lives, and to residents in federal housing near his own home on Terrace Road about a variety of environmental concerns. There’s no shortage of those, in a city where hundreds of businesses, apartments, and houses stand empty or abandoned. At last count the city was down to about 17,000 citizens (from a peak of about 40K half a century ago or more), served by a handful of overworked police officers, an underfunded fire department, and a tax base that might as well have broken off and sunk in Lake Erie. Azziz will cooperate with Daniel Gray-Kontar during some phases of his participation, but he intends to produce more drawings in his already urban-oriented, imaginative series. “They’ll be mixed-media drawings on large panels or on paper, measuring around thirty-three inches by forty inches.” Exhibition venues will be announced.

For more information about Creative Fusion, now in its tenth year, and the other participants in the Data Edition, contact Also visit Instagram #CreativeFusionCLE.