How Digital Artist Sara Shakeel Uses Crystals to Communicate

a black and white photo of sara shakeel on the right and the office hours logo on the left
How Sara Shakeel Uses Crystals to CommunicatePhoto courtesy of SS
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a photo of sara shakeel with her name and the date above and the office hours logo below
Photo courtesy of SS

In’s monthly series Office Hours, we ask people in powerful positions to take us through their first jobs, worst jobs, and everything in between. This month, we spoke to Sara Shakeel, a multidisciplinary artist who took off after she began posting sparkly, crystallized digital art on Instagram. Her signature aesthetic has brought in more than 1.3 million followers on the platform and has led to opportunities with brands like Reebok and Lancome. She even collaborated with Chance the Rapper on his 2019 album cover. Born in Pakistan and based in London, Shakeel is now the featured artist behind the 2024 Muslim Women’s Day campaign. Below, she opens up about the day she created her very first Instagram post, how crystals have become her “words of choice,” and the wildest—and teariest—moment of her career so far.

My first job

The first job I applied for, they rejected me, because they said I was overqualified. At the time, I was becoming a dentist, and I realized I’m not good at organizing things. So I applied for this administrative job at a gym. They were like, “But you’re a dentist. Why would you want to come be a receptionist?” I was like, “Because I’m not good at a few things, and I want to skill up.” And they just rejected me. But the first job I had when I was becoming an artist was a commission for the jewelry designer Sue Gragg. From that experience, I learned to value myself as an artist. Sue made me understand that. When you’re starting out, people try to take advantage of you, but she didn’t do that. I’m forever grateful for her.

a q and a with sara that reads my best career advice stay humble, regardless of what happens in your life stay rooted my dream job i haven't done yet to create an architectural marvel my go to email sign off kind regards but with people who know me, i always say love how many alarms i set just one i'm a very light sleeper, so i don't think i even need an alarm at this point
Photo courtesy of SS

How I started creating art

I literally remember the day. I was in my room, and I had nothing else to do. I downloaded this art app on my phone, and I started putting images together, making a piece of art, and I posted it. If you go really deep on my Instagram, you’ll see my art was relatively dark. It starts with a dark tinge, a lot of blacks and blues. That first post, I remember I had 23 likes, and I thought I made it. I literally ran out of my room and said, “Mama, 23 people on Instagram liked my picture!” My mom was like, “What 23 people are you talking about?” I was like, “You don’t know. These 23 people are my special people.”

The advice that took my career to the next level

Back when my husband was my boyfriend, I had a few thousand followers. He said, “Sara, you have such a good following, and people love your work. Why don’t you sell prints and have proper projects and contracts?” I was like, “Really, you can do all of that?” He said, “Yeah, I’ll teach you.” Not asking for anything, he just taught me, and he opened my mind to something bigger. Unfortunately, women have not been given that opportunity to think that big. When I was in Pakistan, I thought, oh, the women in Australia or Canada or America are so liberal. They’re living their lives. But when I came to this part of the world, I saw that they are suffering. It just shows differently. I have a daughter, and from day one, my mindset has been to tell her: “You can do fucking everything you want to. There’s nothing that can stop you except for [your own mind].” That [idea] took me everywhere. People say the sky is the limit. But now, for me, I don’t even have a sky. I have the whole fucking universe.

a q and a with sara that reads my open tabs youtube, dall e, because i'm learning a lot of ai recently, midjourney, and facebook my go to workday snack coffee, coffee, coffee, and coffee how i refocus after a stressful day my south asian people will really relate to this i watch a bollywood movie my power accessories i love really chunky earrings, rings, bracelets, watches i take a maximalist approach
Photo courtesy of SS

Why crystals are so meaningful to me

I remember my grandmother used to collect Swarovski figurines back in the ’70s and ’80s. She used to go to Switzerland and collect them, and she had this huge cupboard where she used to keep them. We were not allowed to touch, but I remember I used to look at them, and they were so mesmerizing, seeing flowers and animals and fish all crystallized in a way I’d never seen before. That has always stayed in me. Also, as a South Asian, we have a lot of crystals in our everyday life; it’s a thing in our culture. Then, crystals became my tool. The shine and the sparkle, I communicate with that. I never create out of the blue. I always have a story or a message I want to convey. So for me, crystals are my words of choice.

On being a Muslim woman in the arts

There are very few women artists and very few who are internationally recognized. For me, having a platform where I am so worldwide, I feel I need to be more prominent when it comes to being a Muslim artist. At the end of the day, I’m a human and a woman. But if you go deeper, I am a Muslim. I do fast, I do pray, I do have my Eid moments and all of that. I’m a very traditional and religious person in that sense, but that doesn’t affect the art I create. I want to bring that balance of how I can be a woman artist, a Muslim artist, and in general, a badass artist who is creating crazy stuff.

The craziest moment of my career

Last year, I was selected to contribute to the Disney [Create] 100 collection, and I created a crystallized poster of Alice in Wonderland from the archives. There was this small, intimate opening, and I didn’t know that Pharrell was coming. He has been a huge inspiration for me for a very long time. I saw him, and he was looking at my work. Someone introduced me, and he said, “I know you, I follow you.” I was like, give me two minutes, I’m going to go cry. I literally went and started crying. That was the most amazing moment of my life. Being from Pakistan, I never thought in a million years I would be able to see Pharrell in front of me—and he’s telling me he knows my work. For me, it’s a different experience. It’s just unreal.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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