This is the first installment of the Pink is a Color that Feels Like Love artist interview series. Pink is a Color that Feels Like Love features work by Delano Dunn, Damien Davis, and Brandon Dean.
Delano Dunn | Multimedia artist | Exhibiting in Pink is a Color that Feels Like Love from August 29 to October 15, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Lisa Noll
To begin, can you give some information on where you’re from and how you became interested in pursuing art?
I am from Los Angeles. I was born and raised there until 1997 when I came out for undergraduate. I went to Pratt and studied illustration. I did that for a few years then after doing a couple of jobs where I had to sue to get paid for, I wanted to start a studio practice. In addition, when you work as an illustrator you are subjected to whatever your editor wants, and you lose creative control. So, I found myself getting into a studio practice and that led me to where I am now. I went to graduate school in 2014 and graduated in 2016. In high school I was really into the arts and I did music and acting but the visual arts seemed to win out.
Are there other artists that you take inspiration from? Where can this influence be seen in your pieces?
I don’t particularly take influence from other visual artists. I get a lot of my influence from literature, music, the news, history… a lot of that plays into how I approach things. That source material dictates how I decide to go about something. There are artists I really like, like Mickalene Thomas. It’s more about their practice and how they are dedicated to what they do, how they are willing to push boundaries that inspires me the most.
What is the importance of color in your work – how does it frame or underscore your larger concepts and reflections?
Color is an amazing gate way. People respond well to color, whether it is the absence of color or the abundance of it. My choice is to have an abundance of color. I don’t know how that happened. I’ve always been someone who has done work with a great deal of color. For me, it’s two-fold; when you see a great deal of color, in most cases, I like to think people are going to approach that color. It’s inviting, it’s engaging. And with that, it’s kind of like I can trap you so if you are willing to engage on the level of strictly visual appreciation, then maybe you are willing to go a little deeper to see what the undercurrent really is. If you are going to talk about varying subject matter like drug addiction, civil liberty issues, violence, then you need to say to people ‘it’s okay, come over to this carnival so you can really see what’s going on behind the tent.’ One of the analogies I like to use is that it looks like a very enticing piece of candy or unbelievable piece of cake and your mouth waters and as soon as you bite into it you go ‘oh this is really bitter and it’s not what I thought it would be’, but at least you engaged, at least you got in there and I was able to suck you in and say ‘this is really what I was trying to tell you’.
In my blog about your work I wrote about female representation. Can you speak to the importance of female representation in your work?
My wife is an avid feminist. There was no agenda whatsoever but just knowing her and getting to know her I found myself going from being very into issues with the African American experience to also wanting to focus on feminism and the experience of women. When we had our daughter I thought, maybe I could produce a body of work for her or I can change my practice to show her that it doesn’t need to be just women who can contribute to this dialogue, but men can do it too. Not to appropriate this experience, but to say, ‘look I am on your side and I’m also going to contribute to this conversation’. So that is how I started to do work that, instead of always using the male figure, let’s use a female figure. Why can’t I communicate the exact same message but with the female figure? That took the message someplace else, some place deeper. I contribute a lot of that to my wife and a great deal of that to our daughter. Female representation is important I don’t think enough men do enough to try to understand what that experience is like.
One of your works, Jane Crow, references Supreme Court cases fought and won by the ACLU and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, on behalf of women in the United States. Regarding this work, studies have long shown that the judicial system in America creates a system in which African Americans are the most negatively impacted and disenfranchised, but mostly focus on African American men. What led you to begin thinking about and wanting to create an artwork that focuses on women, specifically African American women?
If you look back at the emancipation proclamation, you see that women are completely absent from it. None of the language is about it. It’s all about black men. If you look at the constitution, there is no language in it about women. If you proceed toward the amendments, it goes for a very long time before it gets into women, and even then, it’s like ‘are you really talking about women?’ And it’s kind of amazing, yet women held so much, and they do hold so much, yet they are clearly absent from a lot of the official documentation of the American experience. With African American women it seemed like a very glaring thing that when people talk about slavery or make a work about slavery you usually see this image of a proud male slave with a supportive woman behind him and that, to me, implies their experience with slavery is sort of second to men. You have black men whose bodies are being completely used as a tool but think about the experience of black women during slavery. You are forced to breed with other slaves to make more babies and your babies are taken and sold. While you are still lactating, you are forced to not only feed the black babies who are also yours, but you are also forced to feed the masters babies and you are also forced to be raped by the master. That is a hell of a lot to go through so why is it, again, considered second to the black male experience? It’s phenomenal.
Delano Dunn’s work is included in Pink is a Color that Feels Like Love at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, August 29 to October 15, 2018.
For more information on Delano Dunn, visit http://www.delanodunn.com/.
For more information on Pink is a Color That Feels Like Love and related events, visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery.
This is the sixth installment of the VOX LACUNAE artist interview series. VOX LACUNAE features work by Sobia Ahmad, Sera Boeno, Marta Gutierrez, Nilou Kazemzadeh, Jason Kuo, Kim Llerna, and Yuli Wang.
Marta Gutierrez | Multimedia artist | Exhibiting in VOX LACUNAE from July 18 to August 22, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Rina Goldman
Can you tell me about yourself, where are you from, what inspired you to start creating art?
I was born in Colombia, South America. Since I was a child I loved drawing, painting and playing with clay. I was trained as an Architect and then moved to USA and got a BFA at The Corcoran School of Art. These multiple disciplines give me the tools to create my ‘Alternative Whimsical Universes’.
What drew you to the particular trees that you reference in your “Flora Exótica Americana” series?
Finding a theme for my series is important for my creative process. FLORA EXOTICA AMERICANA is an infinite source of inspiration and it is a subject where I can combine the beauty of our natural species with their names, creating pieces where words and visuals complement each other.
Yarumo or Yagrumo or Guarumo or Guarumbo, 2017. Wire and fiber sculptures.
The colors and patterns used in the sculptures are not necessarily true to life, what drew you to those materials?
The subjects for my series are just a starting point for inspiration. My art is in constant search for abstraction. Freedom is basic for my creative process.
What was your goal with these pieces?
The goal with my work is to create alternative whimsical universes. Research is important for my inspiration and there is always a story, a name or an experience behind each piece. Then comes a process of playing with line, color, shape and finding the right title. I obsess with one theme until several finished pieces create an interesting and fun experience for me, and hopefully for the viewers.
Do you see your art as a means to communicate with those who do not speak the same language as you? How does language affect the way you create art?
Art is a language on its own, a universal language because it does not need translation. There is a tendency of explaining art works with words, it is not really necessary to me. It makes me very happy as an artist when viewers react to my work, it does not matter if they get something different of what inspired me. Freedom of interpretation is important for me too.
Where do you see your art going from here? Are you going to continue bridging gaps with your art?
I want to continue creating my Alternative Universes but in a larger scale. I want to see my art work bigger and in public spaces.
Marta Gutierrez’s work is included in Vox Lacunae at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from July 18th to August 22nd, 2018.
For more information on Marta Gutierrez, visit http://www.martaluz.com/.
For more information on Vox Lacunae and related events, visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery.
This is the fifth installment of the VOX LACUNAE artist interview series. VOX LACUNAE features work by Sobia Ahmad, Sera Boeno, Marta Gutierrez, Nilou Kazemzadeh, Jason Kuo, Kim Llerna, and Yuli Wang.
Nilou Kazemzadeh | Multimedia artist | Exhibiting in VOX LACUNAE from July 18 to August 22, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Rina Goldman
Tell me a bit about yourself, where are you from? How did you start creating art?
I was born and raised in Maryland by my immigrant Iranian parents. Since childhood, I always enjoyed artistic endeavors such as drawing random eligible writing on the wooden frame of my bed when I was probably around 6 or 7 years old. My parents also enrolled me in various art classes growing up at community art centers or Montgomery College. Besides those, I think what subconsciously lead me to creating art or being attracted to it was all the Persian art I grew up seeing and living with.
How did your work for VOX LACUNAE develop? Is it something you created for this show or had you previously been working with language and art?
I didn’t create the work specifically for VOX LACUNAE but when I saw the open call I knew my work would fit perfectly with the theme. The main focus of my work revolves around language and the meaning of things. When I was a student at the University of Maryland College Park I began to experiment with writing Farsi and translating it into art. Funny side story: I started incorporating Farsi calligraphy into my work when I had to take the language placement test at UMD. The first time I took it I was placed into intermediate Persian which was way above my understanding so I dropped out after the first class! I then made it my mission to test out of taking any Persian class. I began to read much more Farsi poetry and began to take the written words and repeating it on paper as a way of practicing, and that’s how style came into existence.
Within the exhibition, you have a collage, a carved pieces, an embossed pieces and an etching –that’s a wide variety of styles– what is your favorite to work with?
Now that you write it out, I do work with a lot of different materials and processes. I guess I enjoy seeing how the calligraphy is affected when it is incorporated into various materials or vice versa. Most of the work I produce is through printmaking which has so many different processes such as relief, intaglio, litho, and screen printing. I really enjoy experimenting and learning about new processes.
How does being able to speak a language other than English impact your artwork?
Farsi as a language is very poetic and expressive. The script that makes up farsi is also very free flowing and mysterious to me. Growing up in America I would always have to code-switch growing up. Switching from my American culture to my Persian culture. As a result, naturally, I became more accustomed to english and my American culture. When I write in English, I can immediately read what I wrote. In Farsi, I can’t do that, I still have to sound out each and every letter in order to read it. I can’t just look at a Farsi word and read it, I think that’s why I am attracted to writing in Farsi and not in English.
You use the geometric style of Kufic calligraphy when writing in Farsi within your artwork, what drew you to that style? Does it mean something to you?
This goes back to my interest in experimenting. While I was researching different calligraphy styles, Kufic calligraphy stood out to me because of how different it looked. It is characterized by its very geometric script. The writing is arranged like a maze, everything fits perfectly in a given boundary. Learning how to write in Kufi makes me feel like i’ve built yet another bridge between my two identities.
What do you wish for people (who do not know Farsi) to see when looking at your work?
I understand that the meaning of my work can be hard to understand, especially when the viewer cannot read Farsi or decipher the words. I would like viewers to take in the effect that I create with the calligraphy, and if i’ve done a good job of presenting the work, they will be able to feel the emotions I felt in the process. For an example, Sal-e Bad almost looks like a maze with no real exit point. It feels tight and suffocating with no open space. Release in contrast, is light and airy, the prints gently billow as they hang from the wall. The work allows for a moment of reflection and rest.
When creating Sal-e Bad (The Bad Year), why did you choose to do a blind embossing instead of a print? What does blind embossing represent to you?
Sal-e Bad was created after a difficult phase in my life. The poetry reads:
“The bad year, the windy year, the year of tears, the year of doubts, the year of long days” – Ahmad Shamlu
For this piece I took those words and arranged them in a repeating and mirrored Kufic style. By using this poem, which I related so deeply to at the time, helped me close a door on that chapter of my life. Through my work, the repeated writing, in a way has become a mode of personal healing. This leads me to explain why I chose to do a blind embossment instead of a inked print. When I was experimenting, I wanted to try doing a print with an exaggerated indentation. When I pulled the blind embossment off the block I was immediately taken by the light and shadow play. In certain light sources the calligraphy fully reveals itself to the viewer why in others, the print looks like a blank unused piece of paper. This alludes to the hidden struggles we go through throughout our lives. Sometimes these conflicts are physical and in view while some can be internal and unseen. The blind embossment was then the best chose in representing how I felt during that time.
Can you tell me a bit more about your piece Release? What drew you to create such a contradictory piece?
Release was made before all the other pieces, and was created in response to the 2016 Republican Primaries. This event opened my eyes to the very real distrust and prejudice pressed upon people of Middle Eastern background. Just like I state in the previous response, the prints were a way for me to reason and work through my issues and emotions. The poetry I used for this piece reads:
“You will not deserve the name of human, if you are indifferent of others pains.” -Saadi
The act of repeating these words endlessly over the surface of the plate allowed me the time to really think about what this poem meant to me. I learned that the poem is not just about the people I felt needed to hear this, but also my reaction to the things they said. How can I be setting myself above these people when I too was feeding into the hatred. So this poem really became a mantra for my growth as a person. I still have times when I let my emotions get the best of me, but this poem always comes to mind when necessary and I remember the meaning of the piece and that helps ground me.
How do you feel your use of language within your art works to fill a gap in our understanding of different cultures?
Growing up, I never really saw anything connected to my Persian culture outside of my home and family. I think it is extremely important to represent yourself and your culture to the outside world in order to demystify presumptions of one’s identity. I think including farsi calligraphy helps normalize Arabic looking text and imagery. I believe that most of the distrust and hatred stems from our fear of the unknown. From my own experience, i’ve found that being present and a proud middle eastern woman helps rewrite the age old stereotypes of my people and neighbors.
What inspires you to create art? Where do your ideas come from?
My inspiration comes from wanting to represent my rich culture as a way of honoring my ancestors and family. It’s a way of learning about myself and growing as a person. My ideas comes from my environment, things I read, images I see, my friends and family, artifacts I find around the house. Anything can potentially inspire the creation of work.
Where do you see your art going from here?
I have absolutely no idea! All I know is that creating art is an integral part of my life and I will continue to do it for a very long time!
Nilou Kazemzadeh’s work is included in Vox Lacunae at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from July 18th to August 22nd, 2018.
For more information on Nilou Kazemzadeh, visit http://www.niloukazemzadeh.com/.
For more information on Vox Lacunae and related events, visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery.
This is the fourth installment of the Vox Lacunae artist interview series. Vox Lacunae features work by Sobia Ahmad, Sera Boeno, Marta Gutierrez, Nilou Kazemzadeh, Jason Kuo, Kim Llerena, and Yuli Wang.
Artists Jason Kuo and Yuli Wang | Exhibiting in Vox Lacunae from July 18th to August 22nd, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Cristy Ho
I’d like to start by asking some basic questions. Where are you from? Where have you studied? What do you do?
Jason Kuo: I’m from China. I got my bachelors from Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts. I went to graduate school at Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. I’m part of the faculty at SLLC and I teach Chinese language and traditional art, such as calligraphy and painting.
How do you two know each other? Have you collaborated on anything before?
Jason Kuo: We’re colleagues (Jason Kuo and Yuli Wang are both faculty members at the University of Maryland). Yes we have, we’ve collaborated on Shanghai visual arts research.
The Vox Lacunae exhibition explores the connection between language and visual art in various cultures. Could you elaborate on how these two things are intertwined in Chinese culture?
Jason Kuo: In Chinese calligraphy, language and aesthetics are both important. From ancient times, there have been many changes to the script. The earliest form of the language is pictography, which is more similar to visual art. Writing calligraphy and painting both use the same brushes so the lines and strokes are basic elemental forms in the culture. In Chinese culture, the people think painting and calligraphy constitute one entity.
Now, I’d like to discuss Lotus. There is such a beautiful use of positive and negative space. I love how delicately the leaves in this painting are angled, and I love how elegantly the flowers in this painting flow upwards, representing growth. Is there a particular reason why you were drawn to painting this plant?
Yuli Wang: I wanted to explore vertical composition of the plant and more importantly to highlight the beauty of the brushstroke lines. The lotus plant has big leaves and colorful flowers, so the visual effect of the dot-line-plane aesthetics can be experienced.
Lotus looks modern, while also being very reminiscent of old traditional Chinese art. How does your painting style compare to the typical traditional painting style in regards to the techniques and materials that you used?
Yuli Wang: Good point. The lotus I painted has a traditional feeling but is different from traditional because of the materials used. Traditional Chinese painting uses rice paper or silk or dried leaves, but I used fabric and didn’t use traditional brushes but fabric marker. So in this piece, I used modern techniques and tools with traditional intentions to connect the traditional and modern in a practical way. It’s also more suited for modern aesthetics needs.
The materials you used here also seem to complement the idea behind this painting. The semi-sheer fabric background allows light to shine through, emphasizing the greens and blues you painted. Could you explain the significance of light in this artwork and how it may relate to Buddhist concepts?
Yuli Wang: There is no connection to Buddhist concepts. I didn’t think of religion when I was painting this. I just liked the intrinsic beauty of lotuses. In this Chinese calligraphy-based art, there exists traditional influences and more importantly, I have added Western style techniques regarding color. Different layers create different colors, through which dynamic variations of colors can be observed. At different times in the day, the sun can cast different colors through the painting. This is my style.
Now I’d like to discuss the materials used to create the calligraphy piece Buran/No Pollution. Is there a reason you used a fox hair brush as opposed to other types of brushes? Is there also a reason why you chose to paint on red paper?
Jason Kuo: Buran is speaking about a state of purity rather than no pollution. It is a purity of spirit, the purity and simplicity that is sought after. There are different brushes for different purposes. It’s the calligrapher’s choice of what to use. It’s also related to which script is being written. Some scripts require specific bushes. Black on red is traditional Chinese style.
There are many ways to write both of the characters in this piece, and you chose just one expression of “buran”. Is there a reason why you chose this one expression above the other ones?
Jason Kuo: The two characters bu ran are taken from a classical Chinese phrase chu wu ni er bu ran, meaning “emerging unstained from the filth” and referring to the potential for spiritual rebirth in Chinese and Buddhist philosophy.
What artworks, artists, or calligraphers would you recommend to someone who is new to Chinese culture?
Yuli Wang: For calligraphy, I would recommend Wang Xi Zhi, Yan Zhen Qing, Liu Gong Quan. For artists, I recommend (Zhu Da) pseudonym Ba Da Shan Ren and Xu Wei. For artists, Zhu Da’s bird and fish, Xu Wei’s ink grapes.
Lastly, are there any paintings or calligraphy pieces you are currently working on?
Yuli Wang: Yes, I have painted lilies and ducks as well as different lotuses and birds and peonies.
Jason Kuo’s and Yuli Wang’s works are included in Vox Lacunae at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from July 18th to August 22nd, 2018.
For more information on Vox Lacunae and related events, visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery.
This is the third installment of the Vox Lacunae artist interview series. Vox Lacunae features work by Sobia Ahmad, Sera Boeno, Marta Gutierrez, Nilou Kazemzadeh, Jason Kuo, Kim Llerena, and Yuli Wang.
Kim Llerena | Artist | Exhibiting in Vox Lacunae from July 18th to August 22nd, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Kat Mullineaux
Before we get started talking about your work in Vox Lacunae, I’d like our readers to get some more information about you. Where are you from and how did you become based in Washington DC?
I grew up in Maryland but went to undergrad in New York. After a few years working at an arts non-profit, I went back to grad school for my MFA at MICA in Baltimore. From there I found teaching opportunities in D.C. and have now been in D.C. for five years.
You received your MFA in Photographic & Electronic Media from a university not too far from UMD: MICA in Baltimore. Were you always interested in photography as an artistic medium or did this interest start after your time in undergrad? Have you always been an artist?
I have been interested in photography since I was a kid. Most of my family members are artists, actually – we’ve got a painter, a print-maker, a musician, a writer, a filmmaker, and me! So, almost every medium is covered! I regretted not majoring in Photography or Art in undergrad, but I was always making my own work. I decided to pursue it seriously by going back for my MFA.
In your prints you take a 3D form of writing meant for the blind, Braille, and flatten it into 2D images that are transformed with dynamic colors, making them a feast for the eye in an ironic twist. What draws you to photography of something like the braille text in the prints from your series “Ekphrasis”?
The idea for this series emerged from a lot of thinking and reading in grad school – my program at MICA changes the way that I think about the medium. It made me more thoughtful, more critical, and more informed about its history and implications. Photography has always been characterized in dualities (art/document, truth/fiction, etc.) For my thesis project, I wanted to both address my frustrations with the medium (how it strips something from the subject, how it can never fully transcribe even though we accept it as the most truthful artistic tool) while simultaneously celebrating it (in the flattening, it creates a digestible, aesthetic, permanent art object, which is proof of this “truthful” medium’s inherent subjectivity).
Also, why braille? Do you have a connection to this sort of language/transcription or the blind community? Is your interest aesthetically based? Or is it both?
Right – I guess I didn’t exactly answer this question of “why Braille?” in the last question, did I? Well, in thinking of the best way to communicate this duality (powers/limitations of the medium), I thought about what subject matter would allow me to strip away its utility but in doing so create a new, previously unrelished aesthetic piece. I was thinking a lot about vision, language, text, codes… Braille came to mind. The work is less about the use of Braille by the blind community and more about what it allowed me to say about photography and 2D art-making.
I wonder then what your thoughts are on the inaccessibility of the language in your prints to most. By taking away the 3D nature of braille those that usually consume the text cannot do so, and on the flip side, those that visually consume the artworks are held out at arm’s length by most people’s lack of ability to read braille. What do you think about the distance between art and viewer? Do you enjoy the mystery that is attached to this distance?
Yes, exactly – this tension is very important to the work. Both audiences are unable to fully, completely access the work. It’s not to be cruel or to make something specifically inaccessible to a group of people. The tension is more about recognizing the role of the photograph as both limited and powerful at the same time; the Braille is a tool for highlighting an instance in which the photograph flattens something 3D to the point of rendering that thing useless, but in the process turning it into an object of purely visual admiration for someone else (presuming that most sighted people cannot read Braille, but can appreciate the patterns, colors, etc. seen in the large prints). Viewers are supposed to feel a bit tense, even frustrated, trusting that the title of the piece accurately describes what’s happening in the Braille text that they can’t appreciate verbally, but hopefully can appreciate visually.
I love the way your images are a series of layers. Transcription of familiar texts like The Giver in your piece “I think it’s what you call seeing-beyond” Jonas said brings in intimacy and nostalgia that surprised me. As you engage with the touch of red that begins to absorb the bottom of the image, the text depicts the character of Jonas describing the color red–something that was unfamiliar in his life of black and white. How do you think the back and forth between popular literature or whatever is being transcribed affects the visual experience of the pieces?
You said it well – layers. That’s also what I appreciate most about the work. First I took the text that I wanted to describe or visualize (usually it had some relation to art, photography, or vision). Then I knew that I was going to be transcribing the passage into Braille and re-photographing it, so I thought about how the colors, lighting, and printing could just hint at what was contained in the passage. For this one, the seeping of red into Jonas’ black & white life looked to me like the reddish light leak that often happens by mistake in analog photography – so I caused a light leak. (Sidenote: some of the texts were kindly printed for me the the National Federation for the Blind in Baltimore, where I had been doing research for this project, and some of them I learned to hand-punch myself.)
The colors in “Ekphrasis” (a word meaning the description of a work of art) are intense and saturated. What does this use of color do to the braille–to the language?
For me the color was another tool to hint at what was being discussed in the passages, another clue for the viewers who presumably cannot read Braille by sight – Van Gogh’s painting contains a lot of green, the night sky can take on shades of navy blue, and there really is no way to describe “Red” other than with itself…
“Ekphrasis” was created in 2012. Would you mind telling me a little bit about what your art has consisted of since this series?
This was my MFA thesis work, and to be honest, it’s visually quite different from what I’ve been doing since then. After grad school, I started teaching and taking summer road trips – my friend, who is also an artist, and I have taken three road trips so far all around the country. Most of my work has been focused on the human relationship to place and landscape, and how we assert ourselves upon the landscape, especially in the American West.
What is on the horizon for you artistically?
I have a collaborative project with my friend and road-trip partner, Nancy Daly, opening in Tennessee in September and traveling to Florida in April. I also have a show coming up next year at BlackRock in Germantown that will be all new landscape-driven work from my most recent road trip.
Any last thoughts you would like to add about Vox Lacunae as a whole or your work in the show specifically?
It’s been a wonderful show to be a part of – everything in the show addressed the theme in a unique way, which is what made this group exhibition so cohesive and thoughtful. Thank you for including me!
Thank you very much to Kim Llerena from the Stamp Gallery. We wish her the best in all her future endeavors.
Llerena’s work is included in Vox Lacunae at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from from July 18th to August 22nd, 2018.
For more information on Kim Llerena, visit http://kimllerena.com/ .
For more information on Vox Lacunae and related events, visit https://wp.me/PG50y-fi .
This is the second installment of the Vox Lacunae artist interview series. Vox Lacunae features work by Sobia Ahmad, Sera Boeno, Marta Gutierrez, Nilou Kazemzadeh, Jason Kuo, Kim Llerena, and Yuli Wang.
Sobia Ahmad | Artist | Exhibiting in Vox Lacunae from July 18th to August 22nd, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Erin Allen
Before we begin talking about the works you have in the exhibition, let’s get to know you. Where are you from, what’s your artistic background, and how did you get into art?
I was born and raised in Pakistan and moved to the US when I was 14, a little over a decade ago. I studied Studio Art and Behavioral and Community Health at University of Maryland, College Park. I wanted to work in a field that served people. I didn’t really think art was a way to serve so didn’t actively consider becoming an artist until after a personal encounter with an illness. I began taking some art classes. I quickly realized how art became a safe space, a sanctuary, that allowed me to explore my multifaceted identity of being an immigrant, a Muslim, and female in the US. I found it not only therapeutic emotionally, but also saw that it allowed me to communicate larger issues beyond my own existence, like socio-political ideologies and how those affect community and personal narratives. I felt a strong pull to dive deeper, so I got two degrees: Behavioral and Community Health and Studio Art. Later, it became more and more clear to me that art IS a way to serve people. I’m also really drawn to how art can allow for collective healing in the face of adversity.
In Mirror, you display “the often under recognized fluidity of the Muslim female in relation to Hijab.” Can you speak a bit more about the way that the intersection of these identities impacts your work?
Mirror is a very vulnerable piece. I made it at a time when several questions about selfhood were arising within me and I was trying to reconcile my various identities – an artist, a woman, an immigrant, an American, a Muslim, an individual caught between vastly contrasting worlds. One night I was in my studio during the Honors Program in my last year at UMD and I was experimenting with putting the hijab on and taking it off, and rearranging it. I was by myself and I didn’t have a mirror. I began to look into the camera, seeing it almost as a placeholder for a mirror. This later became as if I was looking directly at the viewer. The camera becomes the viewer. I was not planning to share the video, but made the decision to. It now feels like I’m inviting the world into my personal space, and I’m inviting you into my personal dilemmas. So, speaking to your question about the fluidity of identity: as a Muslim woman, and as an artist, there is a certain expectation, not only from your own community but also from the art world to uphold your identity as a Muslim woman in very specific ways. There is a certain way a Muslim woman is supposed to look. You’re oppressed or you’re too liberated; you are always labeled. So while making this video, I was thinking about the dualities and dichotomies of existence and identity in that way, but also fluidity of personal beliefs. I’m really interested in the varying symbolism of cultural and religious items and articles and their associations with identity within personal and political contexts. Once considered a symbol of oppression due to Western hegemonic influence, the headscarf now has become a symbol of political resistance. Identities are in constant flux, whether due to internal or external factors. Right around 2016, I made the decision to not wear the headscarf. That was a very personal decision – neither a political statement, nor a religious one. It was a deeply spiritual decision, where I felt like I wanted to embody modesty and my relationship with the Divine in an authentic way and I began shedding layers of expectations that didn’t serve my personal spiritual quest at the time. Yet, I mourned the loss of a part of my identity for quite some time. I’m not sure what the future holds. Again, identities are ever-changing.
Given the political climate surrounding religious headdress, how do you believe showing the intimacy of donning Hijab in Mirror, and reflecting that onto the viewer, helps convey the risk of this everyday action to a Western audience?
I suppose the risk here is not directly about violence in the current political climate. I’m not overtly referencing that. The connection to risk is subtle – I guess it’s the risk of being misunderstood. It’s almost an invitation for the viewer into my deeply intimate struggles of forming and questioning identity, rather than convey the political relevance of the headscarf today. That being said, the work will never be apolitical, no matter what my intentions were while creating. I think social, cultural, political landscapes, as well as people’s personal, inner landscapes, will always play a role in how someone – be they “Western audience,” or a Muslim woman – understands or relates to the work. I’m not just speaking to a Western audience; I’m also speaking to Muslim women. I’m speaking to my mother, my own community as well. Taking a personal practice into the realms of public performance is a way for me to use intimate struggles of identity and belonging to draw connections with larger conversions about womanhood.
So in Mirror, the screen itself acts as a way to reflect back on the audience, thus making them very much a part of the work. Similarly, in Fate, you juxtapose a very permanent material like ink onto transparent plexiglass, adding changing shadows and other impermanent aspects to the work. What role do the mediums you’ve used in these pieces play in their political and cultural significance?
I’m really interested in intersections of art, activism, and womanhood. Most of my work sits at that intersection of how can art become a tool of raising awareness about issues of social justice, as well as communicate about identity as a female, as a woman. Most mediums that I’ve used in my work are very feminine and delicate, and conceptually they speak to the themes I’m exploring. The ink in Fate is permanent, but the plexiglass is transparent; when light is reflected on the piece, it shifts the shadows of my hands – the palm line becomes stretched or they shrink, referencing the ever-changing nature of identity. In Mirror, you don’t see a physical mirror, but you are the mirror that I’m looking into. Here, the viewer’s gaze itself becomes a medium. By choosing to title the work “Mirror”, I’m using what is considered a feminine object for beautification as a medium to challenge notions of womanhood. The delicate chiffon fabric in When Denied Home We Build a Memory Palace is also using this same idea of letting the materials and mediums communicate the concept. The chiffon is not hemmed; it was cut hurriedly. Threads are coming out of it. It references impermanence of home for an immigrant, both physically and metaphorically. I’m referencing injustices on both personal and broader levels. When denied a physical home due to unjust policies – ranging from persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan to US foreign policy of drone attacks in Asia, Middle East and Africa to, most recently, the Muslim Ban and overall structural racism and institutional discrimination in US – you begin searching for a home that’s not tangible. You begin carrying home in images, memory, and language. So speaking to the immigrant experience, I collaged my own memories of my childhood home and wrote repetitively in Urdu on the chiffon to create a home that cannot be taken from me – a memory palace. The medium may be delicate, but it holds a lot of weight due to several layers of strong political and cultural references. So, I’m using the mediums to materialize the connections between deeply intimate struggles of belonging and the larger conversations about the intersection of art, womanhood, and social change.
How does the intersection of fate and self determination culminate in your work?
Concepts of fate, and references to cultural or religious practices serve as starting points for a lot of my work, but I think my work doesn’t end there. It allows me to draw connections for a larger audience and raise questions about how can we talk about complexities of selfhood, hyphenated identities, and trans-nationality, which is all politicized. I’m also really interested in how can we transcend expectations and really explore fluidity. This is almost a spiritual practice for me, which I’m currently trying to explore through art. I’m not sure if I’ve really figured out what it all means. But questioning is the key, both in art practice and my spiritual path: questioning every cultural, religious, or socio-political assumption or expectation that is thrust upon us. Through inner exploration, I’m trying to reimagine concepts like fate, faith, individual agency, and their relevance to larger social, religious and political systems.
A quote from Obaidullah Aleem (“How are they to know the depths of your sorrows/ those who only meet you on the surface.”) reoccurs in your works. What drew you to his writings?
This is going back to intimate struggles and how those sit in the larger context of community narrative and not just personal narrative. My dad used to listen to his [Aleem’s] ghazals. When I was fourteen, I found a book of his Urdu poetry in my dad’s bedroom once. Some of his work references persecution of the religious minority group that my family belongs to, which he was also a part of. He also commented on the political system of Pakistan in his poems. Yet, most of his work is about human passions, of love, attraction, loss. Growing up in a somewhat, I would say, conservative Muslim family, his work inspired me to show up as myself and not as a representative of any community that I belonged to. I began identifying a lot with how he used his art to not only raise awareness about social issues but also unapologetically embraced and shared his human desires of love. Some of his poems, I think, are unapologetically sensual – this was something I was not used to seeing at all in the community. It wasn’t until years later that his work informed a little bit of decision making for me – I decided that I want to liberate myself from the expectation and burden of being a representative. I also realized that my work is can be deeply intimate, vulnerable, and at times sensual, (though it’s different for a woman) and simultaneously political.
Are there any other artists that you take inspiration from?
I’m really inspired by Mona Hatoum’s work, and I’ve also been recently studying works by Ana Mendieta, Walid Raad, and other artists whose work is about displacement, geography, language, and history. Recently, I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about James Baldwin’s writings on the creative process and I’m finding them deeply spiritual. They’re helping me draw connections between my art practice, my personal narrative, social-justice, collective healing, as well as my personal spiritual quest of knowing Divinity and myself.
In relation to the overarching theme of this exhibition, how do you think art can bridge the gaps that are inherent in language?
Language, in this context, can have various connotations, not just another tongue. We all speak various languages – social, cultural, religious, political languages. Art itself is a language and it’s universal. I’m a strong believer in the power of art for social change. I believe that art allows us to question, to rebel, to provoke, to answer our own questions, but also elicit a certain response from others. I think art speaks to the humanity of an individual. I really think that visual art, or art in general, can really help us leave the concept of “the other” behind and understand each other on a deeply human level.
How do you see your art in relation to the other pieces in the gallery?
I think what’s really remarkable about this show is the depth and the variety of cultural backgrounds of artists and how the element of language appears in very different ways – from explicitly written, to very subtle. I really enjoy how I learned about the artists’ cultural backgrounds and connected with them on an intimate level, past the visual aesthetics. It’s interesting to see Mirror as the only video in the show, in which the reference to language is sound, not written.
Is there anything else you’d like to add? Upcoming projects or plans?
My practice is increasingly becoming socially engaged. I’m currently working on a project about Muslim immigrants called “Small Identities.” Circling back to what you said about how art can bridge the gap between languages or cultures, I’m thinking about how can we use art as a tool for activism. How can art not be elite, but a community experience? I’m collecting ID photos of Muslim immigrants, transferring these photos onto Islamic-shaped tiles, drawing contemporary interpretations of Islamic architecture and Islamic art to speak about identity and home. I’m responding to the Muslim Ban through this deeply personal and simultaneously political project. It’s an ongoing project and I’m now conducting interviews with people who decline to submit their photos. It’s kind of becoming this time capsule of documenting fears of my immigrant Muslim community.
If you would like to submit an ID photo, or share why you do not feel comfortable doing so, please contact Sobia at MuslimImmigrantsArtProject@gmail.com.
Sobia Ahmad’s work is included in Vox Lacunae at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from July 18th to August 22nd, 2018.
For more information on Sobia Ahmad, visit https://www.sobiaahmad.com/.
For more information on Vox Lacunae and related events, visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery.
This is the first installment of the Vox Lacunae artist interview series. Vox Lacunae features work by Sera Boeno, Sobia Ahmad, Jason Kuo, Yuli Wang, Kim Llerena, Marta Gutierrez, and Nilou Kazemzadeh.
Sera Boeno | Artist | Exhibiting in Vox Lacunae from July 18th to August 22nd, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Erin Allen
Before we begin discussing the works you have in the exhibition, let’s get to know you. Where are you from, and what is your artistic background?
Born and bred in Istanbul, Turkey. I moved to the States to attend Dartmouth College where I double majored in Neuroscience and Studio Art with a focus in sculpture.
Does your experience with neuroscience ever come up when making your pieces?
Yes. Definitely. I would say at various degrees, from pieces that are directly inspired by neuroscience texts to those that borrow a scientific research methodology in their conceptualization. Even in terms of formal decision, I find myself thinking about perception of different colors, biases towards text vs. image, abstract vs. formal content etc.
Kelimeler Kıyafetsiz (Words Naked / Are Not Enough) is directly influenced by gender-related power struggles throughout history in Turkey. Could you speak a bit more about the historical context of your work?
I think of Kelimeler Kıyafetsiz as text research: an ongoing collection of quotes extracted from current Turkish mainstream media, which refer to women or use the word in them. This collection of quotes has now become a mini archive of representation of women in current day Turkey, representing the conservative push in my motherland over the last decade and a half. The text is embossed in concrete on to archaeological forms that denote that while the immediate subject matter is contemporary, the omission of women from representation is neither a new story nor one that is exclusive to Turkey.
Formally speaking, the different editions of Kelimeler Kıyafetsiz monuments are inspired by archeology; by monumental artifacts that have historically glorified men, namely Orkhon Inscriptions –bilingually inscribed Turkic artifacts erected to glorify 8th Century Göktürk Princes–, Assyrian Reliefs – bas-relief panels eulogizing kings who once sat in the now ancient palaces of Nineveh by depicting them as lion hunters–, and lastly the obelisk of Pharaoh Thutmose III – a phallic monument displaced and re-erected in Constantinople as a marker of power and conquest. Ornaments are inspired by corporeal punishment devices, namely scold’s bridles (google it!), muzzles and gags that have been used to silence women and other oppressed groups. Such monuments and objects are ubiquitous in different context, cultures and histories.
While gender is a primary lens within the work, the other context that I situate the pieces in is colonial history and concurrent Western ethnographic museology. Most of these Eastern artifacts I mention are shown in Western institutions in a way that create a power dynamic between the global East and the global West, and essentialize the cultures they have been taken from.
Ornaments IV-VI are sexually charged pieces that all deal with prohibiting speech in some way, either through caging the mouth or gagging the wearer. Where does sexuality fit into the narrative you’re illustrating?
Sexuality is a big part of identity, especially that of gender identity so I believe that a discussion of one without the other is an incomplete story. With that in mind, the popularization of BDSM and erotic gagging is a fairly recent thing. The history I am pulling from here is not one that is purely sexual or erotic; It is one that made use of such objects for corporeal punishment, for the oppression of women who “nagged too much” according to their husbands, etc. I do like the appropriation of such oppressive things by oppressed cultures as a form of empowerment, like gags in sexual liberation. Oppressive words have been adopted and turned around by the groups they oppress in similar ways.
Your work juxtaposes beautifully intricate and feminine-looking bronze sculptures with roughly textured, more stereotypically masculine-looking concrete wall pieces. What is the meaning behind the juxtaposition of these mediums?
The Monuments came first, before the Ornaments. The end-game is a post-gender outlook, however these were loud and rough and in your face so I couldn’t help but start seeing them as traditionally Male – with a capital M. After all, even though the first people who used writing were women, writing has been a platform that women have been historically excluded from. At the same time, as I was handling the collection of quotes, I kept coming back to two quotes that situate Turkish women as not an equal but a complementary counterpart to men, and as the ornament of their home. So I became really interested in creating a not equal but complementary counterpart to the works. Similar to the Monuments, I was looking for historical forms that reflect such sentiment. Tezhip is a form of Ottoman illumination style that is used to ornament the pages of handwritten manuscripts. The parallel was clear: like Turkish women ornamenting the household, Tezhip ornamented the house of the word, the page. Applying this stand-in for the Woman on to forms that do the opposite of record and monumentalize, that silence and punish, like gags and scold’s bridles made all the more sense. It was also important for me to propose these gags as Ornaments, and within that, draw attention to the hard and soft ways in which such silencing occurs.
In Monument II, you’ve utilised both Turkish and English on the panels, while also leaving some devoid of words. What’s the thought process behind this decision, and what’s the significance of the phrases and excerpts you’ve included?
Silencing and omission are things that I think about, especially in terms of recorded history. The voids on the monuments are gestures towards this omission. Most of the time information is denied to us. I use this denial as a part of my work. Formally, the incompleteness winks to archaic artifacts and their museum displays. The aesthetic both poses the question of what is worthy of being unearthed and displayed, and creates a modern day historical object, much like the antiquated conceptualizations of women in the contemporary world.
Given the political climate surrounding media and censorship in both Turkey and the United States, what do you think is the role of art in discussing these issues?
I think the Artist has a way of making connections in non linear ways; stir up and reveal things that might not be apparent at a first sight, including our own biases. Great art might even establish a platform around itself that is a timeless safer zone for discussion. I think such things are rare in climates of censorship, which is one of the reasons why art is so valuable.
Are there any artists that directly inspire your work?
I am not sure if directly or not, but artists I have been thinking about include – and are not limited to – Jenny Holzer, Shirin Neshat, Louise Bourgeois, Marwan Rechmaoui, Issa Genzken, Walid Raad, Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz.
Is there anything else you’d like to add? Upcoming projects or plans?
I have a show coming up at the Menial Collection in Baltimore titled Counterweight with two phenomenal women artists from the Middle East who work with concrete. The opening reception is August 10. Would love to see anyone and everyone there.
Sera Boeno’s work is included in Vox Lacunae at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from July 18th to August 22nd, 2018.
For more information on Sera Boeno, visit http://www.seraboeno.com.
For more information on Vox Lacunae and related events, visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery.