In Conversation with Sama Alshaibi
This past weekend, Zane Bennett Contemporary Art sat down with 2021 Guggenheim Fellow Sama Alshaibi for a live talk to discuss her artistic practice in advance of her upcoming solo exhibition Sama Alshaibi: Four Series, opening at our Santa Fe gallery on February 25th. Below are a few excerpts from the conversation; you can find the full video available on our Instagram @zanebennettgallery.
On how process contributes to meaning:
“The purpose of going towards albumen and photogravure was investigating and interrogating an image history of how the West photographed the Middle East though the timeline of invention, technology, and print and media processes across photography and moving images...
Albumen became fascinating to me because, yes, it is an early processes of photography of the later 19th century, but why did it hang around so long as the print process of choice in the Middle East and North Africa when the invention of photography and printing kept shifting and changing all over the world?...Even in its time, [it looked] antiquated, like the past, nostalgic, and because that’s what Europe was selling, this fantasy portal to the so-called “Orient.” The fantasy of this land [was] that it was distant, far away, and even distant in time, where it’s not as complex. There was a hankering for a more primitive, simple life where women’s bodies exist for the pleasure of men."
"I thought I had to learn the [albumen] process. Doing the process itself teaches you something about what was happening. One of the main things that I learned that gave me insight is that the process is so unforgiving! I’m not surprised that the construction sets of the so-called “Oriental” studio with all the props were used over and over again…you understand sometimes by just material process how subject and content come be to be reinforced by process. There’s limitations.”
On her most recent project “Carry Over”:
“Conceiving of the project Carry Over, it happened because of the confrontation I was always dealing with in my work as an artist that often uses my own body. I was always in the West being read through a very specific lens. No matter what I was doing or the intentions of it, I would always have some portion of my audience [for whom] I would have to answer to Orientalist questions, like why I was veiled or not veiled in a particular image…I had to be the very subject of the oppressed Arab female. This conditioning has been formed over at least a hundred years of image practice. I could not un-code my body from being an Arab female, so I just dug into it. If I’m dealing with that, let me go to the origins of this problem and how many ways can I layer in critiques and questions...
[Regarding] the props of the “Oriental” scenes—the hookah, the water vessel, the ethnic costumes, the oriental rugs, nudity, veiling, all these kinds of ideas—I created absurd sculptures that were either dysfunctional or didn’t make sense. They were large and carry the burden and weight of the image history over the body."
"The albumen or photogravure acts as a seductive portal and you feel like you’re going to get what you think you know you’re going to get, and then you’re dealing with the image of this very strong representation of the female body, the direct gaze, the confrontation, and then this absurdity over the head.”
“I was lucky to be in Chicago [during undergrad at Columbia College] in a very diverse city where contemporary photography was a prime subject…I got to see works by Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems—who blew me away using her figure—talking about narratives of family, black love, and all the kinds of ways black representation didn’t happen in the media either…I was using my body, but then I was like, ‘this contains narrative, and story, and there’s a performative element.’ It helped me think through it....
…I guess it was somewhere in grad school that I started to put the pieces together…I realized pretty quickly that the motif of the female body was a site in most visual cultures in the Middle East, especially in Palestine where the female embodiment is the motherland. It really represents the national struggles towards liberation…I realized that’s a really powerful tool that talks about liberation, autonomy, freedom, power, relationship to land, access, refugee status, mobility. These are things I’m interested in and there’s a history for it in painting, in political posters, and so it just gave me extra permission that I needed to get away from thinking of my body as self-portrait. You’ll see a lot of projects, like Silsila, where I don’t even show my face; it’s just the figure and that goes back and forth depending on what I’m dealing with. The ones that are more confrontational with the face are because I am dealing with immediate imagery and context, versus the body as a figure is as a messenger, mover, or site.”
“People have this outdated idea that artists who are teachers are not able to make it into the real world of being an artist and that’s why they choose this other kind of life….[For} most of the artists I know that are professors, teaching is a really big part of their practice. They love to do it. Being in a rigorous academic setting or a creative art school is like living in a think tank all your life. It’s social, it’s stimulating intellectually, people are coming and going to give talks and do projects, there’s cross-collaboration, you’re being fed by young students who see the world in ways that are challenging—they keep you on your toes….I find it extraordinarily rewarding to teach….[universities are] the one place you can challenge the authority around you, and be able to talk and say the things you want to say. To me, that personal freedom is so important to move a society forward.”
On how her practice has evolved over the past 10 years:
“I cycle a lot in my work. I get into a concept or idea and I really put everything into it for a few years, then I’ll move onto something else, and then it kind of comes back. Often, I think there is a repetition and cycling in my work because my work is so tied to conditions of the social-political sphere between the West and the East, especially the Middle East and the United States. These things keep recycling through history…it reemerges in different ways…
“If anything, the major shift is just the confidence. I have more confidence...”
On why photography became her medium of choice:
“…One, I just always loved the family album growing up. Why it became important, I think, was seeing my mom peeling out all the family photographs from the family album as we were plotting our escape from Iraq…and how she took those pictures, and we had to walk with just basically the clothes on our back…so they were all sewed into our clothes in case we were caught. When I was young, I always asked her how she knew to do that, out of all the things you were going to try to keep when you were going to leave everything behind. It was something that she talked about: her family regretting leaving Palestine, how few of those things that meant something to them, they took the keys to their homes, and the deeds to their homes, but those things were worthless as they were never allowed to go back to their homes in Palestine...All they had were a few pictures and they were such containers for identity, memory, proof…and their value really rose. I always knew there was something really special about photographs…”