Sama Alshaibi on
Creativity and Alternate Narratives,
Socio-Political Issues, Environmental Concerns and
the Gendered Effects of War and Migration
Sama Alshaibi - photo credit: Zakiriya Gladney
Sama Alshaibi’s art propels empathy and reflection, a work that stems from the artist’s lived experience as well as a dedication to questioning spaces of conflict, historical accounts and the status quo.
Her art is charged with critical political narratives and socio-political issues, whilst visually being poetic and transcendent. This duality comes through much of the artist’s imagery, found in both Alshaibi’s photography and film nourished by her performance art and use of the body to convey an array of important notions.
War, violence, exile, migration, identity, political and environmental refuge, the gaze, othering, are all themes Alshaibi engages with. A profound artist, who places nature, landscapes at the core of much of her work’s exploration, bringing to the forefront our attention to environmental issues including the water crisis across the Middle East and North Africa and to thinking about the links to land in relation to belonging. Her works on gender, conflict and history, compelling the viewer to reassess how women have been depicted, as well as diving into the notion of identity cultivate layers of depth and concern across a thorough, captivating and powerful body of work.
Sama Alshaibi pushes through the limits with her projects, whether with photography, film, performance art and within her monographs, the force of her art is felt alongside her passion to transpire the themes and notions she delves into, as well as sharing divers narratives.
Alshaibi’s art will be exhibited at MENART FAIR with Ayyman Gallery, as we await to view her albumens and photogravures from the project ‘Carry Over’, we spoke to Sama Alshaibi on her path and her work.
At an early age you were taught photography by your father, alongside art carrying a visual appeal, at which point did you realise the power the arts hold as tools for expression, thoughts and activism?
I was introduced to the work of Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, and other black women photographers in my undergraduate studies at Columbia College Chicago. Also, it was the first time I became aware of the Atlas Group/Walid Raad. It was my earliest introduction to conceptual work, the body, fictional narratives to speak about social and political conflict conditions, and personal history. As there was still no internet or artists' websites available to research international work, what was introduced to me in my classrooms and the local Chicago museums and galleries laid the foundation for me to understand that my body, history, and creative impulses could narrate alternatives to what was commonplace in the media and popular culture. Artists that spoke from their own subject position, or constructed spaces to imagine and look back and forward opened up the possibilities of what a camera and a print can be used for.
Throughout your photojournalism studies, you wanted to be a war photographer and war journalist, what took you into the path of conceptual art? And how does the medium of photography, film and performance art, speak to you and form your work?
I went to college in the mid-’90s, before artists and cultural institutions widely used the internet. I enrolled at Columbia College (an art school) to study photojournalism because war and its aftermath were the defining experiences in my life and my mother’s when she was a child (she was a Palestinian refugee in 1948). All the issues I faced growing up––violence, flight, dispossession, migration, loss of language/culture, poverty, and being undocumented––traced back to war. Yet, in the United States, the impact of US military and foreign policy (especially in the Middle East) was truncated in the press, and the human cost was distorted or rendered invisible. I hoped that I could bring attention to what concerned me as a young person, especially the horror of watching the genocidal impact of the US-led sanctions (1990-2003) on Iraqi civilians. Over time, I realized that I was not a photojournalist and that systemic issues in US media reporting, including what and how topics are covered, were beyond any individual’s authority. I didn’t want to contribute to a system that would compromise my ethics and values. I saw photography, film, and performance art as a means to have agency in what and how I can challenge in the image history of photographs, films, and other representations of the Middle East and North Africa, while also having room to speak to concerns that plagued my community. It wasn’t a decision but a series of events in my life, some small and some significant (such as being in the US as an Iraqi through the aftermath of 9/11), that guided me onto a path where I came to understand myself and the possibilities that existed in art. My earliest works at Columbia College Chicago had all the traces of what I make now. I was lucky to have mentors who recognized that my work was conceptual and that the war photojournalism track was misaligned with what I wanted to say through the camera and body.
Between Two Rivers, photographs
Medium: Digital Archival Prints, editions of 5+1AP. Size: black & white images 20 in x 30 in; color images 42 in x 28 in. Year: 2008-2009 and 2016
Your experience of exile, migration and refuge, are also themes you deeply explore, using your body as a visual aid to bring those notions forward in art. What does the body represent or symbolise for you?
What the body symbolizes for me today has evolved over the years of my practice. In Carrie Mae Weems’ work, I saw the potential for the figure to tell stories and reflect the challenges, experiences, and joys of black life. In undergraduate school, I started to use the body because it was the only way I first knew how to talk about women, migration, and the aftermath of war. No one I knew in Chicago shared my identity or previous life history. So it was just a practical tool and medium, especially given my history in performance, singing, and theater work. When I went to graduate school, I started to learn that the depiction of the female figure functioned as a site for Palestinian national liberation struggles––the embodiment of the homeland. I began to think of my body tied less to my self-representation but that of a shifting protagonist or site. For example, in specific projects, I’ve explored how the symbols of dispossession and the Arab female body functioned together through historical photographs to re-address, disturb and interrupt tropes that continue unconsidered. In others, she embodies transport, hauling, and moving, or reflects her diasporic and migratory position.
And how does it link with the environment you place it in? Be it through rituals like in ‘Together Apart’ or in a landscape in your other works?
The land and environment are critical components of my work. Our relationship to the built or natural environment, in terms of resources, security, or cultural identity (to name a few), often is tied to some aspect of our identity. Citizenship, or lack thereof, was a driving force in my own life. Without US citizenship, precisely because of my Iraqi national identity, my presence on US soil was considered a violation. Until I became a US Citizen, I also had no access to my mother’s homeland of Palestine. ‘Together Apart’ reflects the migration movement of those who lose the ability to live on the land they were born to and what that citizenship affords them. The figure adds and removes garlands of flowers around her neck, reflecting the universal ritual of greeting travelers or saying goodbye. However, she is alone in this ritual usually conducted between loved ones. Eventually, the garlands overwhelm her, signifying continual migration. For many eco or political refugees, the new environment and land are hostile, elusive, and alien. It leads to a transitory relationship with what surrounds you, a kind of temporal position reflected in the fleeting gestures of performance work. In other projects, such as Silsila, the land is the protagonist. The figure, also performing rituals in the Middle East and North Africa's desert and water spaces, appear impermanent. Our bodies' precarious relationship to our natural resources––we need land to survive, yet we insist on destroying it––is an enduring paradox.
Medium: Video Art with sound, ed. 3 + 1AP. Duration: 2 min 10 sec, with sound. Year: 2017
In ‘Silsila', you retraced the steps of Ibn Battuta, seeking deserts and endangered water sources of the Middle East and North African region, how did this project develop, and what were your travels like? Through art you are awakening the world to the water crisis. Much of ‘Silsila’ feels reflective, what does the desert reflect for you? What are the climate concerns and environmental issues you highlight which echo through your work?
Silsila first began with me in a place of questioning our personal contribution to conflict, as in how our earthly suffering, because of our ego and the desire for meaning in life, really creates a spiritual crisis. The desert is a space for introspection for me, but it isn’t always a peaceful space to be in such heavy contemplation. That is when I started reading, meditating, and considering the idea of a spiritual journey, or an awakening that happens when one is profoundly seeking knowledge and wants to transcend their suffering. This was a period of crisis for so many of us who hail from the Middle East and North Africa. War after war and civil unrest layered over the historical trauma our people, families, parents, and ourselves have endured for decades. Sitting with artist friends I had so much in common with, yet watching the arguments over political ideologies and whose claims or politicians were correct. It was exhausting. It also felt that this was the only kind of work the world wanted from us. Trauma narratives. Disaster. Loss.
Jarasun Yaqra' li-l Mawt (Death Knell), 2010 - part of 'Silsila': 42 photographs (digital archival prints and c-prints mounted to Diasec) and 8 videos (either projected or "floating" in custom-made black Plexi boxes). 2009-2017.
Ma Lam Tabki (Unless Weeping), 2014 - part of 'Silsila': Chromogenic print face mounted to plexi Diasec. 65 inches x 98 inches
I started to think of the desert as a shared common identity that surrounds us and moves without considering territory and belonging. I started reading Ibn Battuta as a guide, a seeker, and a person of genuine curiosity. I worked for years without sharing the work I was making in the deserts across the MENA region. Then, finally, I began to understand that what I was doing and learning in the desert was unearthing a story of continuity and historical common cultural identity. But my time in the desert deeply impacted my connection to the communities that I lived amongst, and the story of the end of freshwater, the end of their villages and oasis, and ways of life was rushing quickly in. My project developed and shifted because of my time there. Anywhere you spend time and are deeply listening, it can’t help but impact you. So I brought the story of the eco refugee into the fold and told another story about what is happening in the desert. There are many layers in Silsila. The ecological one, the spiritual one, the idea of the desert as a metaphor for life and as a teacher. In our deserts, three monolithic religions were born. Civilizations rose and fell. And ordinary people walked for pilgrimage or to find a well of fresh water.
Sihr Halal (Permissible magic), 2014
Diasec Print, 65 2/5 × 93 7/10 in,166 × 238 cm - part of 'Silsila'
Dār al-Islam (Abode of Islam), 2014, - part of 'Silsila'
Forms, shapes, patterns and gestures inform your imagery as well as the entities you dive into. In 'Silsila' some of your photographs are presented in the shape of a circle, In ‘Negative’s Capable Hands’ ,the hand’s focus and its repetition are a vehicle to discuss earth’s destruction, and in other art projects, patterns transpire and the circle also appears. Do you set out to have a visual focal point or a shape, or does it reveal itself as you engage with the art?
It is about a visual repetition mimicking a historical one. The natural recycling of life and death gives me comfort. It is a positive complement to the way humans never learn and repeat the cycle of war and destruction. In Silsila, the elements of Islamic aesthetics and motifs were very considerate, but they all reflect aspects I found naturally in the landscape. Maybe that is how the earliest Islamic artisans found their way to the mathematical and Godly ones. I don’t know. The forms just come out of me. Sometimes I don’t see that I use the circle again until I’m finished with the work. I think most artists have visual patterns that repeat in their work. Mostly mine are intentional, in a metaphorical read, but they also can disrupt the way we know how to see the photographic image.
Mā Ijtamaʿt Aydīnā ʿalā Qabḍah illā wa-Kānat Muʿaṭṭalah (What our hands joined was broken), 2014 - part of Silsila
Sabkhat al-Milh (Salt flats), 2014, Diasec Print, 47 1/5 in diameter, 120 cm diameter, part of Silsila
Negative’s Capable Hands (27 photographs)
Medium: digital archival prints. Size: 20 in h x 29 in w, ed. 6. Year: 2007-2010 . "The photographs from “Negative’s Capable Hands” depict the modern human experience tied to the destruction of the earth's bounty/body. The imaginary green lines that reflect real-world safety zones of some, and annihilation zones of others, play off the metaphoric symbols of the earth’s scarce resources competed for by the body politic: the irrational spilling of red invading the barren earth; food sources hoarded/wasted/begged for; the nation depicted as whole/divided/diasporic; and war crimes buried/justified in territorial rivalries."
What is your creative process like? Do you think of a concern first, or does art guide, where nature lends itself as an influence rather than a tool?
I don’t have a linear process that repeats itself from project to project. The only consistency is walking and not judging my instinctual decisions to write something, jot something down, or snap a quick picture to trigger a reminder. Daily walking in my town or in locations I want to work is how I stay consistent in daily bodily practice, but I don't have a daily studio practice. I have little exercises like just paying attention to what I hear for an hour or touching surfaces as I wander around town. I love urban walks just as much as I enjoy being in nature. I also lose myself researching in archives, both personal and historical ones. I don’t overly plan and then make something strictly from a proposal, writing, or a design. That isn’t me. I follow my institution, I experiment, but I’m also deeply engaged in reading and research. Together, they start piecing my work.
As I’ve grown older, I’m much more comfortable being unsure and vague as I work for the first months or even a year. I let the work be my guide, and then after time, I’m so submerged emotionally, spiritually, physically, and mentally that everything I see or do reflects on my work and vice versa. Strange and beautiful connections are made, clarity comes, and I can’t leave the studio, editing station, or the production field. It has its path. I create the conditions for it to appear by not stopping ideas or trying to judge what I’m doing too prematurely. But, ultimately, the conscious me is not in charge. Not till the end, anyway, when I can finally sit back and see what is there and it is time to edit and refine. Sometimes that takes a while. Years. I understand my work much better years after I make it. I understand it more after new projects are born. I give myself the right to talk about it differently as I move through life. Art is not a static moment made in the past. Our understanding of it changes as we change and as the world changes.
Through artworks such as ‘The Cessation’, we see you shining a light on both women and justice, can you tell us more about this work, about art documenting political moments, and do you see art as a power that can reclaim rights, where art’s approach can formulate a different/better path for the future?
Art can’t reclaim rights, but I hope it can make a good case for them. I think we can show alternatives and imagine otherwise. We can help people experience the status quo differently. The Cessation is about the disappearance of women from public and social life in Iraq after the US-led invasion. It documents the lack of official investigations, which contributes to the denial of justice for the victims of a period of brutal assassinations perpetrated on Iraq’s intelligence class. My project focuses on the women professors, deans, and leaders who were murdered. It is a puzzle, but it draws from all the actual cataloged data that is out there. Unfortunately, no one ever was punished for these crimes. It also centers on a bronze water fountain and public sculpture made by the late artist Mohammed Ghani Hikmat, a friend of my father and my uncle's best friend. I interviewed him before he passed away, and he told me feminist stories deeply embedded in all of his public works across Iraq. The Iraq he was raised and lived in was not Iraq capable of the brutality women face today and the lack of accountability for all the crimes and eroded rights ushered in this era. But Iraq is hopeful again, even though it meets so many challenges. I’m so honored and grateful that I was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2021, which paved the road for me to work in Iraq after a 40-year separation. The Cessation is my first step into telling and visualizing a narrative from non-literally texts and data.
To tell women’s stories, from Iraq, Palestine, anywhere, is at the heart of my work. It isn’t all of my work, but it is my largest motivation.
The Cessation – Al-Takwir, The Folding Up
Date: 2019. Medium: neon, aluminum, acrylic, palm fronds, water, copper, terracotta, and sound. Size: dimensions variable
Originally commissioned and produced by Artpace San Antonio. Documentation of installation exhibited on the rooftop of Artpace, San Antonio, Texas, 2019 and Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, AR (State of The Art exhibition), 2020.
You delve into the notions of identity and the gaze, alongside power and perceptions, whether examining patriarchal or orientalist frameworks. Could you share with us about some of the artworks that approach those notions of gender politics, as is portrayed in ‘Carry Over’ and inserted in ’Between Two Rivers’.
Historically, photographs of the so-called Orient, or what we now refer to as the Middle East and North Africa, were produced and collected at the size of postcards. The women subjects often depicted in these images appeared physically tiny and inconsequential. It is also essential to recognize that the invention of photography itself coincided with European imperialism on a global scale. When we look at images made in the Orient, these photographs showcase an unequal power relationship between the West and the societies under its domination for over a century. The unequal dynamic between colonizer and colonized is seen in depicting women’s bodies, their physical size in print, and what they were or were not wearing. Women had little power to control their representation. As subjects, they were photographed in very cliched and consistent ways—isolated, lacking a social context, and docile. They were made to be experienced as sexually consumable.
I use either the same print materials of those eras or other devices to signal that I’m commenting on a particular image history. Whether it is clothing, objects of the 'oriental scene' made in a photography studio, or as in the case of “In Between Two Rivers,” the gestures and poses of images that went viral through popular media, I believe the audience can tell what I’m critiquing. I use subversive methods like humour, absurd scale, dysfunctional objects, scarification, and the gaze to interrupt an uncritical formula for producing otherness.
Say Nothing, 2008 - part of Between Two Rivers, photographs. Medium: Digital Archival Prints, editions of 5+1AP. Size: black & white images 20 in x 30 in; color images 42 in x 28 in. Year: 2008-2009 and 2016
" “Between Two Rivers” re-empowers the image of Iraqi women, who were subjugated to the ‘selling of the war’. The notion that women in Iraq, who once enjoyed the greatest freedoms of the Arab world, would be liberated by war under the guise of democracy is countered. Tribal tattoos, scarification and historical Iraqi identity markers are subverted to speak about the once proud cradle of civilization; the photographs mirror the language of violence by physically altering the artist's own body through theater cosmetics. The protagonist's gaze reveals her resistance, paradoxically performing the dysfunctional Iraqi reality within the image of resolve. "
Water Bearer II - part of “Carry Over” ; supported in part by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (Beirut), Arizona Commission of the Arts (Phoenix), the Project Development 1st Prize Award from The Center (Santa Fe), and Artpace International Artist Residency (San Antonio). The project is printed with three different techniques: Albumen, Photogravure with blind embossing, and Gumoils.
Albumen print on Somerset Satin white 100% rag, 21 in x14 in, unique prints
Photogravure print, blind embossing with transparent ink relief rolled on Stonehenge White 100% rag, 25 in x 20 in, ed. 8 + 3APs
Gumoil print on Somerset Satin white 100% rag, 20.5 in × 13.75 in, unique prints
Gamer II - part of “Carry Over”
You will be exhibiting at Menaart fair this May, which works are you showing and can you tell us about them?
Albumens and photogravures from Carry Over! These are all traditional and historical print processes of the late 19th century. I think I answered a lot about Carry Over already, but what is special to me is that audiences can see the history of the photograph in those images. I’m subverting and re-calibrating the subject of how women came to represent the Middle East and its supposed inferiority in that history. The representation of women is powerful in those works. Sometimes you can go back and make it right.
Eternal Love Song - part of “Carry Over”
pictures courtesy of Sama Alshaibi and Ayyam Gallery
images © Sama Alshaibi
Interview as part of a series Art Breath x MENART FAIR
In 2021, Alshaibi was named a Guggenheim Fellow in Photography. She is Professor and Co-Chair of Photography, Video and Imaging at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Holds a BA in Photography from Columbia College Chicago and an MFA in Photography, Video, and Media Arts from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her monograph, Sand Rushes In, was published by Aperture, NYC and debuted at the 55th Venice Biennale. She has been featured in several biennials including the Maldives Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale (Italy), the 21st International Art Biennial of Santa Cruz de la Sierra (Bolivia, 2020), the 13th Cairo International Biennale (Egypt, 2019), the 2017 Honolulu Biennial (Hawaii), the 2016 Qalandia International Biennial (Haifa), and FotoFest Biennial, Houston (2014). She was also selected as one of 60 artists for the ‘State of The Art 2020’ (Crystal Bridges Museum of Art/the Momentary, Arkansas, 2020), and recently held solo exhibitions at Ayyam Gallery (Dubai, 2019) and at Artpace, where she participated as the National Artist in Residence (San Antonio, 2019). Alshaibi received the first prize Project Development Award from the Center (Santa Fe, 2019), the 2018 Artist Grant from the Arizona Commission on The Arts, and the 2017 Visual Arts Grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (Beirut). She was awarded the prestigious Fulbright Scholar Fellowship in 2014-2015 as part of a year-long residency at the Palestine Museum in Ramallah, where she developed an education program while conducting independent research.
The Bride Wears Orange, Video
10min 52 sec, 2009 - "In “The Bride Wears Orange”, Alshaibi performs the struggle of the incarcerated body: the video mixes between scenes of torture—reminiscent of prisoners of war—and the imaginary space of dance in which the human spirit yearns for freedom. "