Yasmeen Abdallah Part 2
Yasmeen Abdallah Part 2
The following is a conversation I had with Yasmeen about her work, life, and influences, along with images of her new works.
John: To get started, could you tell us something about your work and background as an artist, and if there’s any advice you could give young artists?
Yasmeen: I’m really fascinated by the mechanics of living things – our species in particular, and the reactions that are caused by human actions. I began to really tap into this more in my teens, as I was becoming aware of the normalizing of injustice and indignity at the micro and macro levels throughout the world. It was an overwhelming sort of epiphany. I had been aware of these things for years prior, but something awakened in me where I could not be subservient. I hadn’t really had much exposure to art at this point, just public school art classes and the occasional visit to a museum, but I would just draw for hours at home and make little assemblages before I understood what I was doing. There’s something very honest and special about a child’s state of play that I believe we should encourage, as observation rather than interjection, in the same way an anthropologist studies another culture. There’s a sort of self-soothing that I recall from my own childhood that comes from the state of play; we are unrestrained, without fear of judgement or approval. As adults, we often try to recapture that same headspace, and become frustrated when we are unable. But over time, our skills are refined, and we are taught to become self-conscious and self-critical of who we are and what we produce. I am interested in why, we as a species, adhere to this approach. It took me a long time to allow myself approval to trust my intuitiveness and not worry about the end result. I made art because it was a way to channel all my energy, thoughts, emotions, what I felt but struggled to articulate with words, into something constructive that took my thoughts and transcribed them into a visual language. I teach in the same way that I make my work: I provide certain parameters within which I encourage students to explore, stretch, and sculpt within, encouraging them to break the boundaries if they become too confining. I tell them not to worry about the end result, to just have fun on the journey. The only rule is that it’s a safe and respectful space for everyone. I encourage them to make what they feel, uninhibited by external pressures. If they’re feeling stuck, I offer them the same exercises I give to myself when I’m in a similar situation. Critiques are always intimidating, but I encourage a positive dialogue that can problem-solve and help to hone critical thinking skills. The conversations that occur during crits are often times very helpful, not just to the work, but in building up each person’s confidence and comprehension of what they’re doing, what they’re trying to say, achieve, and how to move forward. I tell them that failure is a misunderstood notion, that it’s actually a good thing because failing means we try, we commit to the action and carry it out successfully. Like life, sometimes the action goes in our favor, sometimes it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, it just means we are honing our skills more, prepping for round 2, when it will come to us that much more naturally. Each iteration is an evolutionary process moving forward toward a higher state. Just as we learn to walk, it happens over a lengthy period, developing our motor skills, our ideas, our perceptions and goals, figuring out what we want to say, how to say it, and how it will be interpreted by our audience.
To be an artist today may not be easy – juggling multiple jobs, struggling to survive, dealing with rejection, constantly working – but we were afforded the choice to do what we love, and that in itself is truly a privilege. I’ve worked in so many realms over the years, and one of the most consistent things I’ve gathered from all these experiences is the drive to make it work somehow, and looking back, how I couldn’t help injecting creativity into each job. It’s an unconscious act that is as involuntary as breathing, it cannot be suppressed. The drawings I would scrawl onto the checks I’d write up for customers at restaurants; the little office supply assemblages I’d make during my stint in medical records; the chalkboard art I’d labor over in my bartending downtime; the elaborate creative collaborations I’d make with my counterparts during childcare; the window displays I’d work on at the mall; crafting the numerous hair and makeup looks I’d perfected for all those heads attached to bodies over the years; the art of folding clothes in retail; the creativity of breaking down boxes and stocking shelves in a warehouse, they all taught me to have fun with whatever task I was working on, to find the joy in it and to do it to the best of my ability. Because we have a certain freedom to have some allotment of pleasure in the work we do, I believe that with it also comes a certain responsibility to appreciate it and to be mindful that not everyone has it as easy. As artists, it is our job to be attuned to the world we exist in, to be aware of the past, and what is happening not just in our periphery, but out of our reach as well. Throughout history, artists have been tasked with depicting societal aspects to the public, and that continues today. From early cave paintings to art commissioned by ruling families and governments, to artistic freedoms advocating for the rights of citizens around the world, visual art serves a purpose of educating various publics in ways that language and words alone cannot. There are so many ways and forms of activism, and art is in all of it. We are able to visualize histories, problems, solutions, hope, sanctuary. Art is one of the most accessible ways to educate, and I strive to integrate that as a personal practice because it’s a way to empower, start a dialogue, and open lines of communication and awareness. I have been engaged in activism in various capacities my whole life. Growing up, we worked with recycling and conservation, my parents were very attuned to social issues and global problems, I was helping to take care of the younger children in the neighborhood when I was still a kid myself, and was volunteering at a clinic in my teens. I started to attend protests under the second Bush administration. When I was in college, I was a student curator for the UMB Film Series, a free independent film program run by Chico Colvard, which is open to the public and focuses on artistic engagement and activism. I also did two historical archaeology field schools at UMass, with the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, and worked on the Hass Woods project. We learned about the histories of the tribes, and worked alongside some of the tribal members in the field, sharing meals, learning from one another, and developing a mutual respect and friendships through collaboration and dialogue. It was life-changing. It changed the way I thought about everything: life, purpose, contribution, responsibility, justice, resilience, determination. Sifting through debris in order to piece together the past, in order to determine the future. This process inspired me to apply this same approach to the debris we are inundated with everyday in our home lives, to revive the unwanted and elevate it into something special. Everything has potential. We carefully excavated, screened, and took samples back to the lab at the end of the season. I worked in the lab as we learned to analyze, treat, and care for the various pottery, metal, soil and pollen findings. They had to fight for federal recognition, to be recognized by a government that committed unspeakable acts and continues to do so. To sit idly by and do nothing is just as unspeakable to me. It is that same urge to create that I feel about injustice. It can’t be suppressed, it has to come out. It influences my work because it is all around us. Art responds to the environment it is created within, and this is the environment.
I now volunteer with several organizations as a visual arts committee member, curator and event coordinator, and teaching artist, all of which provide free programming to the public, centered around community engagement, activism, and art educational programming.
J: When did you start making art more seriously and what was the impetus for this?
Y: I’ve been working in art and various creative capacities my whole life, but I suppose I started to find my stride back in 2009/2010. I was doing a lot of painting and collage work at that time, and had begun to experiment with digital media. I was still in school at the time, so I was throwing all of my energy into creating. It was an amazing, exhilarating time. This is when I began integrating different elements and really thinking about spatiality and our relationships to the world through our bodies. The work from this time was more overtly political, a more youthful, punk rock approach to art-making. My love for the Dada and Fluxus movements were clearly evident! Over the years, the work seems to maintain that same spirit, and tackles the same subject matter, but through a more contemplative read. It’s quieter now, with more muted tones and a more subdued energy, but my hope is that it’s still provoking thought and challenging societal conventions. I have come to enjoy the mystery and inner dialogue that comes with having to unpack the work more slowly, and have adopted a more organic palette in recent years. Of course, everything shifts over time, so it will be interesting to look back on the evolution years in another ten years.
J: Has anything in particular in your background – where you grew up, your family, teachers, social issues, politics – affected what you make?
Y: I grew up the daughter of a Middle Eastern immigrant, in a place and time where it was not well-received. Ever since I was a young child, I was made aware that we were different. He became a US citizen, but his family were all overseas, and so I grew up never really knowing them, or the culture he grew up in. This sort of liminality between two cultures was something I always was aware of but never knew how to convey. I was a good student, shy and quiet, that read a lot and loved to draw. It was sort of my escape. I had friends and stuff, but I was always reminded that I was different. I was constantly reminded by my friends, their families, parents, teachers even. “Are you a muslim?”, they would ask in horror, some doing their best to be polite, others unable to suppress their horror. I would get asked a lot of offensive questions, and never knew how to answer them. I would get a lot of, “well, we like you anyway”. Others wanted to know where exactly my family was from, and why they were here. Not unlike what’s still happening today. It was exasperating to have to relay my entire ancestry over and over again. Eventually, I grew exhausted from trying to assimilate, and just succumbed to my destiny of being a misfit. My parents were practical, worried, instilling what they believed were good values. I think that shaped a lot of my core beliefs. I didn’t always agree with their politics or philosophies, but the underlying sense of justice and contributing, however small, to a greater good, was a cornerstone in my upbringing. So too, was a lack of family ties or cultural identity. I remember feeling torn as a child, between assimilating to the culture I grew up in, in a an effort to be “normal”, which felt like a betrayal to a lineage I had never known. The loss of my father many years ago further severed that link, and it was through my own personal search that I began to contemplate what he had lived through and how it had affected him. In losing him, I had lost a part of myself, and making art has been a way of navigating these waters. I suppose that at least in part, this molded me into who I became. The sewing in my textile pieces are about the self-stitching and suturing we do in order to survive on this planet. They are battle cries, but also humble acknowledgements of the bruises, stumbles, anguish we feel throughout our time on this earth. If we can survive them, learn from them, heal from the traumas we go through, we can stitch ourselves up and those experiences make us tougher, more resilient. They also make us more compassionate and attuned to the suffering of others. We have the choice to grow from pain, or succumb to it. I channel all that stuff into my work. I hope that this energy and action will help shift things in however small a way into positive change. Ending ignorance starts with better education, dialogue, safe spaces to learn, grow, and shed these institutionalized forms of prejudice and fear that is rooted deep within our species. We may not be able to transform the existing educational systems overnight, but we can provide alternatives in educating the public on our own terms. Visual art has the power to inspire and transcend far beyond geographic, linguistic, cultural, religious or ideological divides. It’s a universal language that speaks to the most fundamental elements of who we are. I suppose that’s how I became drawn to activism. We cannot solve problems if we don’t talk about them. Working with others in different aspects can be cathartic because you are able to share experiences and hopefully support one another. You are able to take whatever emotion you might be feeling and channel it into something positive, something constructive, that hopefully others will be able to benefit from.
J: Your work is so broad in terms of what it encompasses. I’m thinking of your physical sculptures and installations, but also of your teaching, workshops, activism, etc. Do you see all of these connected and do they feed each other?
Y: I do think they feed each other, absolutely. There is a symbiotic relationship between them. The physicality of creating sculptural works, especially installations, is about human interaction with space, time, memory, tactility, our scope of emotional intake and output. The works are made with human interaction in mind, built with a scale intended to create certain dynamics with its viewer. I learn so much from these works, and the generous conversations visitors have with me about them. It is a continuous cycle of creating, conversing, figuring out what to do in the next iteration. I apply the same approach in the way that I teach. I believe that process is so important. Refining ideas and skills, experimenting with a wide variety of media, turning failure and disappointment into opportunities to deviate from the plan often leads to something great and unexpected. Enjoying the work you do, that joy is contagious and carries over onto those around you and into other areas of life. Because each discipline inspires me in its own way, it carries over when I turn my attention to the next. For me, each one is about the other. Art, for me, is activism. Activism is education. Education is activism. I teach art, so art is education. All three are about connectivity, and the desire to find others who share the same passions, convictions, energy. I love how each informs and nurtures the other in this amazing cyclical way.
J: I’ve always been fascinated with how your works pull us into them, so that we see how their made – attached, mended, wrapped, etc. How do you think about process when looking at materials to use in your works, and how do the processes that you utilize transform the materials into art objects. And why are you interested in this transformation?
Y: The transformative aspect sort of evolved from two different lines of thought. The first is from a philosophical perspective: I’ve always been transfixed by the ideologies societies develop, particularly surrounding religiosity. Regardless of what the specifics are, many ascribe to a notion of being reborn in some way. It is such a fascinating concept to unpack.
The second part is growing up in a household where nothing was wasted, everything was reused. My father was always transforming trash into inventive new utilitarian contraptions. This was also before recycling had caught on where we lived, so to the outsider, it was unusual. But I grew up learning to be resourceful and mindful of the environment. And now that we are at an impasse and our planet is in crisis, it is also an effort to highlight the potential in these discarded materials, to take what is already in existence and use our creativity to resurrect them and reduce the introduction of more problematic materials into the world. There is also something so inspiring, so uninhibited about approaching something that already has a history. They remind us that all of our little, seemingly mundane actions matter. They are chapters in a longer story that is still being written. We have the privilege of adding our marks to it, which I find much more satisfying than starting totally afresh.
J: Where do you get your titles? Do they come before a piece or after, or both?
Y: That’s a good chicken-or-egg question! Sometimes the titles come first, and I’ll create work in the image of the title(s). Other times, I make work and come up with the title after. Often enough, work will remain untitled until I have to submit it for a show or an application, and come up with something on the fly. A lot of times, usually when I’m in a waiting room or on a long train ride, I’ll start thinking and jotting them down to use later. When I go back, sometimes months later, I’m surprised that I thought most of them were good enough to save, but usually there’s a couple in there that aren’t bad. At the very least, I often get a good chuckle when reading through them. Lots of satirical humor in those titles.
J: I know from some of them and from talking with you that your interest in horror plays a large role in your work. How is this the case and what is it about the horror genre that intrigues you?
Y: There are so many elements that I find intriguing about the realm of horror, and the macabre in general. I appreciate the exploration of the human psyche that is created for us, and the fact that we willingly decide to take a journey that will scare us. We are aware that what we are seeing is fake – an imaginative, artistic rendering, even if it’s based on real accounts. Yet, we still scream on cue and recoil with glee. It is a unique sensation that I find fascinating. I also really love dark comedy, something that can make you laugh and cringe at the same time. The predictable setups and tropes that we have come to know so well, perfectly executed with healthy doses of camp and scare factors. It is a powerful way of holding a mirror up to society. There’s something so compelling about that recipe. Halloween is by far the best holiday, I cannot get enough of it. This feeling in the air, thinking about the histories it is associated with. Walking through haunted houses is one of my favorite annual traditions. I also love the horror music genre, bands like Misfits, Cramps, Necromantix, classics like Monster Mash, film scores, soundtracks…
Dark humor, horror, and punk rock are something that I definitely channel and incorporate. I would say that my work is about bringing people together, but through considering the undersides of humanity, and in a sort of tongue-in-cheek, campy manner that embody much of the aesthetics of this realm.
J: On that note, your works have always struck me as sensory investigations into the body as a sort of protective container, like a cocoon, and simultaneously as a living thing that processes what’s inside of it, eventually pushing it out. Is this way off or not, and where do these ideas come from?
Y: You are totally on the mark! I could not describe it more perfectly. Yes, there is definitely a push/pull effect that is in constant motion. I think a lot about dichotomies and dualities. The body as protective shell, and also the incredible well-oiled machine that operates in such a way that it is in constant motion: involuntary actions occurring, mending itself, defending itself against viruses and germs, producing whatever it needs or is lacking. It is infinitely amazing. And yet, we often take them for granted, pushing them to the limits until they begin to deteriorate. And then trying to mend them once the damage is done. This cycle is so ingrained into human behavior. All over the world, there’s various forms of violence, abuse, destruction. Throughout history, bodies have been revered, painted, sacrificed, slaughtered, hunted, burned, hung…these incredible machines, housing intrinsic mechanics, it’s amazing that they/it/we exist, and yet they are treated as disposable items. Scientists experiment with A. I., genetic modifications, DNA…it’s mind-boggling. The moment we get a cut, we begin to heal. The moment we catch a cold, it starts working overtime to rid itself of it. When we sleep, it is still hard at work. The body asks so little, and puts up with so much. This is fascinating to me. There is something also so moving about the organic forms of the body: the ways in which it contorts, the subtle shifts between muscle, bone and fat. The microscopic dots of pores, the lines that stretch across skin. Flesh itself is such a charged realm. It keeps our organs intact, protects us from the sun, acts as a cooling system, constantly regenerating and keeping things in check. But it is also politically charged. Pigment, wrinkles, suppleness, calluses, scars, birthmarks, they dictate so much about who we are and what we are “worth”. The body is such a central part of our complicated historical narratives. There are always casualties, continuously sacrificed, worshipped, brought into the world, taken out just as quickly. Bodies represent virtually every action of humankind. How can something so astounding be treated so cavalierly? Over time, literally and metaphorically, we are stretched to our maximum capacities, pulled so taut that we sometimes split. We are mended and rebuilt, but it is never 100% the same. We can always repair the parts that break, but it is only restoration. It will never again be in mint condition. Sometimes things get better over time. Sometimes they deteriorate, leaving behind a beautiful patina in their wake. It is sad, it is predictable, it is inevitable. We know it, and still, we are always taken aback. The body still reacts to the knowledge the brain computes with confusion, denial, grief, alarm, devastation. We bargain to keep it going as long as possible. We regret that we took it for granted. We try to preserve this living gallery that is the body, that houses the archive that is the mind. I am astounded by all it is capable of, and how lucky we are that we exist at all.
J: How important is it that your work involve viewers as participants? And this brings us back to my earlier question about your socially engaged art, activism, and teaching – do you see a separation between your art and your life?
Y: Human engagement is a big part of it. The work is meant to invite and envelope the viewer. I consider tactility and the immersive nature to be important elements of the large scale works and installations. To experience something firsthand is so different than through video or photographs. The best documentation can do is allow one to imagine the experience. To become a part of the work is an entirely different element altogether. I often make work that I would have liked to experience as a kid. I channel that being, and wait until the end to edit. It’s freer and purer that way. That’s just how I work and try to live. Of course we have to balance it all out responsibly, but I think I incorporate those aspects into teaching in a similar way. Balancing experimentation and freedom, allowing a mess to be made, there are no mistakes that can’t be fixed. Just make sure to leave time at the end for cleanup, and always leave the place better than you found it. In terms of activism, I think it is less about that state of play, and more about the responsibility of being considerate and careful in the delivery of the message. While art can be activism and activism art, it’s really important to consider the issues, who it is affecting and how they feel, how best to resolve the issues, and how opposition may react to it. We see day after day this reactionary antagonizing happening on all levels, from the DIY, all the way to the White House and on the International stage. A lot of energy is wasted and misdirected when we fall into that trap. I tend to work with more local, grassroots organizations on the community level, where you can see the effects of the work we do, and have dialogues about how to create positive change according to what each community needs. I’m not opposed to working with larger organizations, I just believe that it needs to be organized, with clear missions, and I think it’s important to know who you’re working with and their views on the issues.