Inside iamuslima: An Interview with Baseera Khan

Baseera Khan just had her first solo show in New York City, iamuslima. Khan presented work that packages her social and personal identities with familiar spiritual objects and family archives. Her anxiety of deep rooted historical trauma matches her concerns with the politics of immigration in America. Khan’s method to create sculptural endurance performance works, all in relation to her body, attempt to manage and think through, “what’s next?”


iamuslima NikeID sneaker by Baseera Khan. Image Courtesy of the artist.

The first piece seen at the forefront of the exhibition was a pair of Nike Air Force One Mid-Top sneakers designed by Khan through the NIKEiD project. After hearing of a lawsuit against Nike for not allowing the word “Muslim” to be embroidered on these customized shoes, Khan sidestepped the blockade by altering the word. She calls this strategy “misspelling on purpose”, and had iamuslima inscribed onto the shoes instead, this manipulated word directly referencing Khan’s identity as both a Muslim and a woman. These shoes were also a document from her performance during the opening night of the exhibition where she walked around the space in the shoes, and then placed them atop the stack of acrylic boxes also seen at the forefront. These boxes were meant to function as an invitation for others to take their shoes off too.


Images courtesy of the artist.

She then proceeded to perform ablution with a bowl of black chalk nearby, readying herself to climb a synthetic rock wall installed at the opposite end of the gallery entitled Braidrage, leaving chalk dust footsteps behind. The rocks were made from resin molds of the corners of her body with chains and locks of hair embedded into them like DNA. Traversing vertically a white wall, via the corners,  Khan climbed as high as she could until utter fatigue, leaving yet another residue of black chalk against the wall. Traces of her presence remained throughout the entire run of the installation.

The Acoustic Sound Blankets placed in the exhibition were worn by Khan in several prior performances that speak about safe spaces and intimacy. Individuals were invited to come under the blankets with her, offering protection against assaulting sounds. There are Psychedelic Prayer Rugs — created collaboratively — colorfully designed by Khan and fabricated by people residing in Kashmir, India. After visiting the exhibition for an artist talk, I wanted to probe the artist further about the context of her practice.

Khan expresses the importance of community when making her work. I asked, with her work primarily exploring themes her own identity, being a Muslim queer woman of color, how then does she engage or build a community in the process of making work? How does this community then support the practice of understanding one’s own identity?

“There was a large group of people that came together to help me with this exhibition.” As a teacher at Parsons, many former students came together to help Khan with her exhibition. In return she would plug them into jobs or they were given school credit for their assistance. All of these students were also queer people of color,  which was important for Khan. “It gave me an opportunity to create an environment of people where, while we were making the work, we could have an ongoing conversation about our feelings and topics that extended beyond the classroom discourse.”


Psychedelic Prayer Rugs by Baseera Khan. Image Courtesy of the artist.

A longer arc of conversation took place when producing the Psychedelic Prayer Rugs. This idea, to travel to India and collaborate there, conjured when Khan’s father passed away and her mother came to live with her for some time. “I was trying to find a way for her to enter into my world,” continuing to practice engaging the community with her work. She took her mother to Parsons, toured the design classrooms together, and while Khan taught class her mother actually helped embroider designs for the Acoustic Sound Blankets. At some point they came to realize this task was not something they could do alone by hand. Thus, they traveled to India and were able to connect with artisans to help produce some of the embroidery in Khan’s show. This is when they discovered the ideas behind the Psychedelic Prayer Rugs.

Khan comes from a lineage of people that have always worked in pedagogy and textile construction. Teaching is what she wants to sustain her livelihood along side her studio practice. Her engagement in this way is most important, and if the work she continues to make sells, then she would be even more able to provide resources for the community she is surrounding herself with. “You start to learn about how to be a leader or how to truly be in a community, and how to form your own family.” Khan, as a teacher and a leader, is a strong example for students and artists to form more empathetic environments for people with religious differences, or differences at all, as she builds and engages her own community.


Acoustic Sound Blankets by Baseera Khan. Image by Maxim Ryazansky and courtesy of the artist.

Many of the materials used reference the body, and are re-used and employed in different ways. The Acoustic Sound Blankets, for example, have many iterations, engaging a community and creating safe spaces. I asked Khan, how do the materials evolve and continue to reference your body and other bodies?

Khan feels very assaulted by sound, admitting to having an astute sense of hearing which makes her sensitive to it. The acoustic blankets are a soft space that minimize the sound coming at you. They were “A micro geography you could slip underneath, to have reprieve from sound violations, from sound terror you hear everyday– you know, the city is crying and vibrating constantly.” Her interest in understanding military architecture led her away from the exploration of physical architecture of a space and instead brought her focus to how sound controls populations of people, like the call to prayer. “Sound is a way we are controlled; it is a cue to do certain things; it is very pavlovian. I wanted to repool myself and find my own affinity groups. Instinctually, the way to do that was to create a vacuum” for these sounds.

She would invite people underneath an Acoustic Sound Blanket in these performances, activating a space of intimacy. She would gauge interactions based on their comfortability, offering to sing to them, mostly. The acts would continue as well as the two people engage by looking at each other and hugging, turning the micro geography into an intimate environment. She even wore one of these during the women’s marches that occurred in New York around the time of the inauguration.


Images of Khan wearing an Acoustic Sound Blanket at the Women’s March in NYC. Images courtesy of the artist.

Along with these performances is an aspect of a “social construction of how we have expectations of each other, in regards to all the chaos happening in response to class and race.” Khan told me, “I wanted to do something and be present, but I didn’t want my body to be present. To mask myself in this kind of acoustic geography was a way for me to be present, you can hear my voice, but you cannot see my body.”


Braidrage by Baseera Khan. Image by Maxim Ryazansky and courtesy of the artist.

In regards to the rockwall, Braidrage, there was an idea formulated here about performance and endurance with exercise wielding a way to combat the anxiety from deep rooted historical trauma. I asked Khan, how is exercise a part of the your daily practice and your artistic practice?

Khan asked herself “How can I sustain myself making work that gives me something in return? I want to have fun, I want to be social, I want to be healthy.” This spawned from an unhealthy relationship she was having with her art practice. She was interviewed for the 2010 Whitney biennial, but she realized the work did not build a community and that the paintings she was making at the time left her hands, were misinterpreted and she felt had become instruments for neo-liberalism. She decided to go to graduate school at Cornell to study, and while she still made a lot of work, she did not engage like before, leaving the fourth wall up. “Exercise became the thing I learned was what I needed 2014 as I watched my father and brother and mother’s health devolve. Toxicity is not a normative narrative, I think it is linked to colonization and displacement and the patriarchy and I wanted to do something about that and control that narrative in my work. And if I wasn’t doing that I didn’t want to make work.” In this way, she explains in her bio, strategies for decolonial practices.

Khan attended the Skowhegan residency soon after this realization which played a large role in pushing this idea. The residency facilities had a sound booth which led her to the creating of the Acoustic Sound Blankets as well as other performances during the residency. The environment of the school in general promoted exercise. “I was so healthy…I started to employ exercise in artistic ways as a way to manage trauma…and I do projects based on exercise as a medium.” The gym became the studio, where Baseera could use running as a medium and then used climbing in Braidrage; the performances becoming about endurance. Presenting the artist’s body in two forms in Braidrage exemplifies a colored body traversing a vertical plane, pressed up against a white background. “I wanted to see what a woman of color looked like pushed up against a white wall, and see how far she could go.”


Baseera Khan in front of Braidrage. Image courtesy of the artist.

Woman’s Work: A Conversation with Misty Gamble on Decade

Blue Sunday

Blue Sunday by Misty Gamble. Ceramic, pearls, rhinestones, beads. Image courtesy of the artist.

The invitation to peer inside women’s underwear is hard to resist. Strewn across the gallery wall, the ceramic artist Misty Gamble’s confrontational “Blue Sunday” stimulates a reaction of curiosity and repulsion. Shaped like they were just removed and left crumpled on the floor, the ceramic panties expose a strip of fabric rarely glimpsed in a public setting, sparkling and colorful with costume rhinestones pasted to the private interior. The installation suggests a body, and the inner functions of a body, without introducing the figure herself. A simultaneous desire to approach and avoid means “Blue Sunday” successfully interfaces with our own sexual desire, since we are not looking at newly shed intimates, but baked clay in disguise as lingerie. We find ourselves in the physical Uncanny Valley where the subjects of “Decade,” ten years of Misty Gamble’s agitated feminine expressions, become real enough to raise questions.

Forevermore by Misty Gamble. Ceramic, flocking, Ralph Lauren gold metalic paint. Photo credit: E.G. Schempf

Forevermore by Misty Gamble. Ceramic, flocking, Ralph Lauren gold metalic paint. Photo credit: E.G. Schempf

Our meeting at YJ’s offers an interestingly contextual  view of bright white BRIDE text in the window across the street, a falsely angelic glow advertising wifehood like a sought-after brand in the dark evening. It’s an appropriate backdrop for a conversation with an artist who spent her life thinking about desire, traditions, and what it means to be female. Across the small table, Gamble recounts the creation of her huge wall installation, “Forevermore.” “This was finished in 2016, but it took a year and a half and a lot of hands to make. ‘Forevermore’ is only a fraction of what we actually produced in the studio,” she lays her hand on the image of the lilac ceramic wedding cakes between snaking gold ribbons, installed vertically on the Leedy-Voulkos main gallery wall. “I did these in the symbolic colors of bridesmaids: lavender and white. I criticize conventional ideas of what makes people happy, such as being a bride, having glamorous weddings, the notion that more is always better.”

More is better in the case of the installation. Almost every piece in the show employs the use of multiples to overwhelm an idea and drive the viewer to consider what limits we will go to to have excessive wealth and status. At a distance, “Forevermore” becomes an illusion of wallpaper that has sprung up out of the second dimension. The gold material woven between the lilac cakes outlines an unmissable vulvar shape, locking in the inseparable bond between societal decadence and primal desire. Ceramic wedding cakes direct the conversation to a ravenous hunger for social authority, and one of the means of acquiring it.

Excessively adorned hairdos and desserts exude a passion for wealth, status, and sexual parading. Figures are grotesque and out of proportion, but still decked out in facsimiles of the finer things. Gamble’s unflinching criticism is rooted in her formative years. Rather than damn outright the norms of wealthy Palm Beach and Los Angeles trophy wives, Gamble adopts the role of cultural anthropologist to observe the ways consumerism and lifestyle are inextricably linked by status, which changes color and shape in each location. Palm Beach is garish and bright. LA is fashionable and severe. “I used the Kardashians for some of my research to find out what women of a certain status want from the world. But it’s odd to be commenting on it, and to come from it, make work about it, satirize it, and want to sell it,” she considers. “I always knew I would make the work I wanted to make, and nobody was going to stop me, because the only thing I want to be is authentic.” Authenticity itself is under the cultural microscope of Gamble’s studio. The disheveled piles of pastel pumps borrow imagery from every women’s department store in the nation. The artist’s name in a Kate Spade-esque font inscribed on the inner arch denotes factory-processed shoes at an affordable price. As style consumers, we too can wear cheap and reasonable heels out into the world, provided we don’t mind them coming apart after their factory set sturdiness has worn off. Lucky for us, fashion is easy to replace.

Tan Hands by Misty Gamble. Ceramic, resin. Photo credit: Dan Wayne

Tan Hands by Misty Gamble. Ceramic, resin. Photo credit: Dan Wayne

The same fascination with the lifestyle of the rich and vapid amplify “Tan Hands,” a series of nineteen hands sticking out of the wall, showcasing gaudy faux diamond rings, in a manner a woman with such a rock might exhibit to her friends. Prim and dainty, fingers stiff and angled down to give the admirer a better look at the towering stone atop a gold band, “Tan Hands” explores the culture of pride that comes with following convention. But even with a rotation of studio assistants through the years, Gamble cast her own hands for the piece, uncovering another layer of personal history in the procession of wives-to-be. “I’ve been one of them,” she says, flexing her retired piano hands. “I’ve come from these worlds, but I was always the outsider.” As an outside observer, Gamble’s comments could be misconstrued into bitchiness if one neglects to consider the intellectual analysis the artist subjects herself and her topics to. None of us are really outside the reach of pretty things, of being liked by our peers. “Tan Hands,” like other work in the show, examines a type of solution to our cultural insecurities in a personal manner.

Betsy After School by Misty Gamble. Ceramic. Image courtesy of the artist.

Betsy After School by Misty Gamble. Ceramic. Image courtesy of the artist.

Misty Gamble grew up in Los Angeles, where the lines between culture, class, and kitsch are more blurred than in the Midwest. While she was pursuing her MFA in San Francisco, she earned the reputation as a troublemaker in the male dominated ceramic program. “I did different things to antagonize my professors. I set out to make work that was so beautiful and terrible in its horrendousness, that it couldn’t be avoided. Women are told throughout their lives: be pretty, be smart, get educated. But for god’s sake don’t make any waves.” The figures in “Decade” evoke a visual puppetry without the strings, but the gesture of her subhuman figures recall the unsettling weightlessness that animates a marionette. Metaphorical strings attached to each woman and woman-like caricature are socially imposed by the greedy clamoring of society to have more, to prove more with frivolity. “Sweet Terror” came out of this drive to challenge what society expected of women and women artists. The childlike figures in “Sweet Terror” are at once humorous and terrifying, like demonic waifs escaped from a personified version of daily insecurities. The green teen on roller skates, “Betsy After School,” reacts to her environment by messily eating dessert in the middle of the floor, one hand stuffed underneath the folds of her pleated skirt. All the figures in “Sweet Terror” linger somewhere between real and imagined, on the cusp of becoming human, but denied by their desires and the imposing expectations of the environment they were born into.

Gamble’s ten year retrospective is presented at the perfect time, and every piece in the show is worth seeing. Today, femininity is continuing to be redefined by strength and courage, and the bold figurative work in “Decade” is a reprieve from the enigmatic conceptualism that dominates a male-driven scene. “People are so scared and fearful, and that’s the last thing we should be right now. I’m going to keep making this work because I won’t be bullied,” Gamble says of recent political events and the timeliness of the show. I nod in agreement, recalling the stoic busts “Decadence” and “Luxuriant,” two perfectly styled figures whose hair denies each a chance to speak or listen.  

Misty Gamble “Decade: Selected works from 2006-2016” is on view through April 1st at Leedy-Voulkos Main Gallery (2012 Baltimore Ave, KCMO  Hours: Thurs-Sat 11-5)

iPhones & Rembrandts: A Conversation About Advancements with Catherine Futter

Catherine Futter, the Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, spoke to me about her process of planning exhibitions and finding her personal inspiration to preserve the traditional methods of art institutions, while also being cognizant of the prevailing trends in museums and the contemporary art scene in Kansas City.  Sitting beside the Bloch Lobby Info Desk, she revealed the extensive planning that comes with being the Director of Curatorial Affairs, while discussing how she views the Nelson-Atkins as both a place of academic inquiry and one of inclusion in the current political climate.  Being on the board of Charlotte Street, as well as holding a high position at the Nelson-Atkins, Futter expresses interest in how technology and the advancements of society contribute to the accessibility of art, specifically in an encyclopedic museum setting.

Photo by Brennen Zerbe

Photo by Brennen Zerbe

Rebecca Swanson (RS): How many years have you been working at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art?

Catherine Futter (CF): I’ve been here fifteen years this March.

RS: When you’re planning an exhibition, what is your process?

CF: First off, I ask what the idea will be.  From there, it’s proposed to the director, who then decides if it’s going to go forward or not.  Then if it is, he developed it more fully. After that, we have a group that’s called the strategic leadership group, who consist of education, administration, presentation, curatorial, finance, HR, fundraising, external affairs.  So they are given a presentation about what the exhibition would consist of and how big it might be, all while thinking about the schedule and the budget.  Then, it goes in front of the full curatorial division, who might have some feedback.  We get together what we call a “core team,” which is made up of an interpretive specialist, the curator, and designer who are the central core of the exhibition.  From there, we expand it to a larger group who handles external affairs, such as fundraising for it, graphic design, public programs, etc.  There is a progress report at 30% and another at 70%, which is typically wall colors or graphic design, proposed fonts.  After that feedback, they go away and finish the project.  

RS: So it’s a pretty elaborate process?    

CF: It’s elaborate, and takes us a long time to do projects.  A typical, big exhibition will take us around 5 years.  If it has a catalog, it has to go to press about a year ahead of time.  You need to handle that, plus the idea stage, plus the fundraising stage, so it is rare but we sometimes do exhibitions quickly, but quickly in our mind is around a year out.  We have an exhibition schedule, so we know now what we are doing until the end of 2019.  If something drops out for some reason or something gets added, we have to adjust but exhibitions kind of get locked into their schedules.  

RS: What would be the factors in those schedule changes?

Photo by Brennen Zerbe

Photo by Brennen Zerbe

CF: Sometimes we can’t get other venues.  We take traveling exhibitions, and sometimes we develop our own.  For instance, maybe we want something that’s going to travel and we can’t find other venues that might be a reason that the museum is now taking the full, financial burden of an exhibition as opposed to sharing it amongst other venues.  No exhibition comes free, as you can imagine, just as installation costs money, insurance costs money, so they all have budgets.  Large budgets.

We have Forty-Part Motet, which is a sound sculpture by Janet Cardiff.  The sculpture explores sound and music in an immersive experience unlike any other. We also have the photographs of Dave Heath, which are really beautiful and poignant, and very human in both their portrayal of the individual within the context of groups.  Admittedly, I was born pretty soon after he took many of those photographs and I grew up in New York City.  Many of the photographs are of New York, and I keep looking for my parents in the photographs, and I gather that I’m not alone in finding that very human thinking that you might know someone in them.  You make a really strong connection to them, as individuals who are part of a larger community.  He himself had a very hard life, so he really found art as a way to connect with people and find his voice.

Photo by Brennen Zerbe

Photo by Brennen Zerbe

RS: Are there any things in the current culture influencing you right now?    

CF: Absolutely. We are focused on making stronger connections to the community by promoting the fact that this is a free institution where you can come and see millenia of art for free. We also represent many communities here with the art that is in the collection.  It’s about opening that up, and letting it be a major message that we are here for all people.  We are also thinking about being a place where you can take solace while also having hard conversations about diversity, multiculturalism and globalism, all of which are big issues right now.  We are talking about increases in technology and it’s rapid acceleration. For example, the iPhone is only 10 years old, but imagine a world without it.  It’s almost inconceivable, and there is probably something else that will be released soon that none of us have thought about that could change the world, which we see happening more and more frequently.  So it’s about thinking about how the museum will adapt to that, and have it be a place of tradition, a place of the present, and a place of the future.  So we try balance those things, and try not to be a place of dead art.  We want to be a place where you can connect on many different levels.  We don’t want people to think we’re a place that’s ten years behind, we want people to see our relevance to today.  

RS: What typically motivates you personally to make a show?

Photo by Brennen Zerbe

Photo by Brennen Zerbe

CF:  I am very interested in the way that people interact with art in other ways besides just visually.  I’m interested in participation, whether that means conceptual participation, or purely physical.  We’ve had an exhibition where we’ve had a designer present a wavy floor, so people could sit on it, roll on it, and literally interact with it.  We had another exhibition where people became owners of a cup, and that cup was on view with their name on it, so they were lending it to the museum.  In that way, they participated through ownership, participated as lenders, participated in contributing to the history of the museum.  It also related to the permanent collection, even though they were done by contemporary artists. Therefore, it goes back to things provoking our participating.  For example, classical music reminds me of art, and vice versa.  So it’s about how we can have people not just look at a painting, but think about ways they can interact with it on a bunch of different levels.  

RS: So in a way, you’re trying to make art more accessible by reaching out to various kinds of people?

CF: Yes! Exactly.  We all connect on different levels.  For example, if I looked at the Lee Krasner painting that’s on loan over there you and I see completely different things.  What you may see is color, what I may see is motion.  Those aren’t exclusionary, but we’re also talking about finding our own interests in the same work of art.  You may hate abstract expressionism, but I love abstract expressionism.  You bring all of this stuff to it as a viewer, so you have to connect with it on different levels.

Photo by Brennen Zerbe

Photo by Brennen Zerbe

RS: Do you take an interest in the Kansas City art scene, or do you focus more on art on a national scale?

CF:  I’m on the board at Charlotte Street, and it’s something I support in many ways.  I go to first fridays a few times a year, and I try to go to gallery openings.  I’ve done studio visits with artists here, like in the Charlotte Street residencies, and I try to be available to artists if they are interested in me doing a studio visit.  I love doing it.

RS: Would you ever be interested in showing a Kansas City based artist?

CF: I think what we would say is, “if an artist is good, it doesn’t matter where they come from.”  The answer is yes, and we have some Kansas City artists already in the collection, and we are always interested in building that collection.  I also feel like we think that there are other museums in Kansas City that do that better than we do, so then it’s about how we compliment each other, not compete with each other.  The Nerman now has a Kansas City room.  The Nelson has always been individualized.  What you see here, you can’t see in other museums.  Whether it’s historical art or contemporary art, you see something different than other galleries.  We don’t want you to see the same thing when you come to the Nelson-Atkins.     


Damali Abrams Shares Self-Healing Strategies as a Radical Act of Resistance

Hope-Lian Vinson speaks to Damali Abrams The Glitter Priestess about creating spaces for healing and transcendence as site for liberation.

Damali Abrams is a Guyanese-American artist whose work engages with self-help as a radical means towards self-healing in response to the sociopolitical forces that undermine Black wellness and preservation today. Using performance as a vehicle for herbal remedies, Abrams promotes self-care as a ritualistic act, bringing together Afro-Caribbean mythologies and Black American pop idols to inspire sites of  joy, celebration, and collective healing. Abrams’ role as the Glitter Princess challenges audiences to take part in alternative and even transcendent realities where the threshold between realism and idealism blur. In a community where tragedy takes precedent, the use of the Black imaginary functions as a tool for liberation for the Black community and its survival today.

And She Lived Happily Ever After by Damali Abrams image courtesy of the artist.

And She Lived Happily Ever After by Damali Abrams image courtesy of the artist.

HOPE-LIAN VINSON: In the oversaturation of violent media depicting police shootings, what has been your process in promoting self-healing as a response to social ills in your artistic practice?

DAMALI ABRAMS: In addition to offering healing remedies through, I am also offering workshops at community organizations and I have created a performance piece where I share herbal remedies to soothe anger and anxiety, which was performed at the opening of ¿Qué Pasa, USA?. My approach is to share what works for me in my own self-care and healing practice. All of my art is about healing as well.

Glitter Priestess Mad Tea Party by Damali Abrams image courtesy of the artist

Glitter Priestess Mad Tea Party by Damali Abrams image courtesy of the artist

HLV: Since its popularity in the late 20th century, self-help is criticized as an industry which survives off the ineffective methods and misleading claims of self-sufficient practices. As an artist whose works revolve around self-help, what role do you see your performances having in relationship to the global movements of today, specifically with black empowerment, liberation, and healing?

DA: I see my work as a contribution to those contemporary global movements. My work incorporates a critical eye towards mainstream self-help while simultaneously acknowledging its revolutionary possibilities. When I was in grad school, performance artist and faculty advisor, Faith Wilding, guided my research towards the roots of contemporary self-help culture; going back to movements in the 1970s like the Black Panther Party and feminist consciousness-raising groups.

Any political movement can only go as far as the individuals involved in it. If we have low self-esteem or low self-worth and feel undeserving of progress due to internalized oppression, it is very difficult to move forward individually or collectively. Similarly, if we are afraid to be vulnerable or have unresolved emotional issues, it becomes difficult to work with others. That is why I focus so much on self-healing. Being healthy is a radical act for groups of people who have to fight for the right to exist, now and historically as well.

GO by Damali Abrams. Image courtesy of the artist.

GO by Damali Abrams. Image courtesy of the artist.

HLV: Your current work brings together pop celebrities, mythology, and Afro-Caribbean folklore to create fantastical sites that invigorate the imagination. How do you see these sites manifesting and evolving over time?

DA: My intention is to create immersive environments where we can completely transcend our current socio-political and personal realities; I want those environments to be spaces for healing, dance parties and meeting spaces. I have spent the past few years applying for residencies and funding for immersive video installations. LMCC (Lower Manhattan Cultural Council) approved the project for their Governors Island residency, but the space was not conducive to that work and instead inspired me to create the collage and video installation That Old Black Magic (Happiness Spell #1) which is in the exhibition ¿Qué Pasa, USA?. I am still looking for a space for the immersive installation.

HLV: What are the limits and possibilities of imagination in your work? Looking at your Youtube channel, some of your performances—whether it be self-help videos or a demo for glittery shoes, reminding me of Dorothy and her teleporting slippers—ask audiences to participate in  virtual reality, or at least in a transcendent one. What role does optimism or transcendence have in your past or current work?
DA: My work is totally about transcendence. Thank you for noticing that. I think the only way real change can happen, whether on a personal level or a societal level, is by transcending our perceived limitations so that we can begin to imagine alternative realities. If Harriet Tubman never had visions of freedom, she would never have thought to escape, let alone go back for hundreds of others. The intention with this work is to create a space of liberation for the imagination. A space where we can transcend tragedy and injustice in order to begin imagining alternative futures, then manifest them!

Informal Studio Visit: Anna Van Gheem’s Ongoing Discovery

Maddie Murphy met with Anna Van Gheem — a 2017 BFA candidate in the Kansas City Art Institute’s Fiber department to discuss her playful and larger-than-life collection  from the 2016 West 18th Street Fashion Show, Wild Summer, and her current thesis work.

First hearing about the annual Kansas City fashion event from a classmate, Anna Van Gheem remarked, “I thought, [the show] is outside of school, I can reach a larger audience. I recommend that anyone do it, it’s such a huge platform. I sort of had to be a secretary for myself. It took so much time planning. I had never made enough items for a collection before.  To make five really coherent looks was difficult at first. I probably changed my mind at least ten times for each look. Sitting in the [KCAI Fiber] gallery, staring at and playing with different combinations. I asked anyone and everyone walking by what they thought, and those outside perspectives helped.”


Anna Van Gheem’s Studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

Perusing her Instagram account, then glancing at Van Gheem’s studio space amidst a pile of sparkly fabric swatches, she embodies an enchanting and refined sense of style. Her past work hangs neatly on a rack, while materials and more tests were found piled on her studio desk, overflowing the long-arm quilting machine. Mood boards and scraps of inspiration collaged the wall behind. Van Gheem’s work is a more extreme version of her philosophy, a juxtaposition of silly and satirical but still seriously invested in and responding to current fashion.

“[Aesthetically] I have been always been inspired by Valentino. Last year, Marry Me Jimmy Paul. was huge for me, these super gaudy Dutch designers… this year it’s more Prada, Miu Miu specifically, because it is super quirky and girly.”


Van Gheem design. Image courtesy Ryan Swartzlander 

Her process of making is pretty unique. “I have to be working on twenty things at once with ‘nests’ everywhere so I can see it every day. A mood board is the most important thing in my practice. It’s a subconscious thing, those colors and influences are burned into my brain and find their way into my work.“

In terms of material choices Van Gheem gravitates towards the hardest; enjoying the challenge of mastering vinyl and pleather. She believes the point of her undergraduate education is to foster experimentation, noting she doesn’t take herself too seriously but is ready to build a business.

“Last semester pushed me to think about who my client was and to be more relatable. So much was in my head that was hard to express with words. It was a challenge to be more inclusive, and not just make my work a personal diary of my feelings.”

I asked if she could change anything about her work, what would it be? She thought for a moment, and replied, “Craft is the biggest struggle. Patience is a huge thing that I struggle with, taking the time to do things, versus being impulsive.”

When asked what advice she has for Kansas City artists interested in pursuing fashion, and she replied, “There are lot of independent artists here interested in fashion, so Kansas City is unique in that way. Art is well supported in this community, so a lot of local fashion has a basis in fine art. That being said, don’t be afraid to move on and expand your horizons, if you can be more successful somewhere else.”

Van Gheem has begun working on her senior show, which is planned for April. She is planning sizes, focusing on equality and diversity of models, as well as meeting with collaborators, including photographers, graphic designers, accessory designers, and videographers. “I want to work with as many people as I can, make it a huge thing,” She expressed excitedly, “I have my own little bubble, but there are people out there with bigger bubbles.”


Dominique Carella Questions Identity Constructs By Reclaiming Language

That Awkward Moment When by Dominique Carella

That Awkward Moment When by Dominique Carella

Camile Messerley talks to Dominique Carella about pointing to the absurd social constructions of gender, race, and ethnicity by reclaiming language in her text-based installations.

Dominique Carella is a recent graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she received her Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Visual Arts. For the exhibition ¿Qué Pasa, USA?, Carella, created a large scale vinyl text piece entitled That Awkward Moment When… (2016), which is accompanied by a postcard sized take-away, I am Only Boricua When (2016).  She analyzes the societal structures of race, gender, and ethnicity primarily through the use of language and text as medium. In this she is also calling awareness and attention to the microaggressions and oppressive language Women of Color experience everyday. The exploration of these ideas comes first from personal experience growing up in San Francisco, and uses this environment which she has lived in since childhood in her practice. Carella’s practice has been impacted by graffiti, urban slang, and pop culture as a whole. Due to these influences, her work ranges from the sharing of very personal accounts, to looking at institutionalized forms of oppression through visually stimulating large scale installations.

As Carella continues to work with text in a variance of mediums, the progression and extrapolation of her subject matter and the issues she faces and works with will be key in the political state of the country post-election. To quote Carella “my work is very much a reflection of my daily interaction with the world around me, and I know I’m going to have a lot to say in the next four years.” Being that as it may, I look forward to the calls from Carella that hold the capacity to further community engagement and interaction of not only in her home base that is the bay area, Being that language can be shared at the speed of Google Fiber, this work has the ability to travel as is it did to ¿Qué Pasa, USA? in Kansas City, Missouri.


I Am Only Boricua When by Dominique Carella

CAMILE MESSERLEY: Your work in ¿Qué Pasa, USA? is all text driven, pulled from a personal response, feeling, or reaction to oppressive language directed at people of color, more specifically women of color. These works follow ridiculous and hyperbolized social constructions for race, gender, and ethnicity. Can you expand on your use of language as a medium, and further your use of language as a critique of these oppressions?

DOMINIQUE CARELLA: Often, I will produce dozens of ideas or phrases and only end up using one. The phrases that I choose come to me very naturally, I believe the more I over think, and edit and rearrange a single phrase, the less organic it seems, so I usually stick with the first wording that comes to mind.

My process begins with my inspiration, with an encounter, a conversation, a music video, a magazine headline, really anything that pisses me off. I then take my experience and put them into words that the public can understand, often through humor, or pop culture references. Like I said, my process is very organic, the more I over think my work the less effective it is. I take my anger and turn it into something that will start a conversation, I add a little humor so that people can digest it, but I also make sure that it has that raw and honest element masked beneath the humor that starts the conversation.

CM: Can you talk about your editing process? How are grammar and syntax part of your practice?

DC: Editing comes into my practice by a process of elimination, I may start with dozens of phrases, but it comes down to picking the phrase that is the most thought-provoking, the most eye-catching, the most likely to ruffle some feathers and to start a discussion. [it] is also dependent on the space I will be presenting the piece in and who the audience is. Text-based pieces can draw a lot of attention, so it is important that it works with the space—some pieces work better in some environments than others, that is just the nature of the work.

Grammar is incredibly important to me in my work. A lot of my work stems from my experiences as a woman of mixed heritage, I am pretty much 100% of the time perceived as a completely white woman. I am a first generation college student, and to me, my education is one of the most empowering things I possess. I believe that I am taken more seriously because I am perceived as a white woman—my successes are never questioned because of my whiteness. I believe it is crucial for my practice, that my knowledge, and my successes as a woman of mixed heritage become apparent through my use of grammar. I love pairing proper grammar with pop culture references for example that hint towards my age, my ethnicity, and my experiences as a woman of mixed heritage.


50 Simple Things Americans Can Do To Save The Planet by Dominique Carella

CM: What is the relationship between That Awkward Moment When… (2016), the large text installed in vinyl letters, to I am Only Boricua When (2016), the postcard sized take-away texts that were below the wall piece. How did you conceptualize and decide in terms of the physical manifestation of the work? Furthermore, what do you think about the relationship between accessibility and scale in your work?

DC: To me, the bigger the better. Whenever I do a show I like to know what kind of space I am working with. My work is very adaptable, it can be large, it can be small, it can fit in many different kinds of spaces, but if it were up to me I would have my pieces take up entire walls. I like the size of my shorter text pieces to be dramatic and overwhelming. I often produce my shorter pieces with stencils and spray paint, but for this show the vinyl was crucial in creating a clean aesthetic that worked really well with the take home postcards.

The scale of my work is really crucial in understanding where my work stems from. My shorter text pieces, like the large vinyl piece on the wall, are often less vulnerable, they stem from moments of anger, and they are appreciated by the masses even if it does piss a lot of people off. The larger works really illustrate my anger or frustration, literally [through] the size of the work. In comparison to my take away piece, my longer in depth writing is much more vulnerable, it stems from very personal experiences and moments of sadness, grief, change, and strength. I feel like the personal element of the writing works very well with the take-home notion of the work; you can take the piece home, read it, love it, hate it, resonate with it, whatever it may be, but the second I put the text on a wall super large for the public to digest, it changes the piece.


CM: In terms of the next step, where do you see yourself in this work and where it might be going? How do you plan to further this concept? What are you working on in your studio currently?

DC: My work has changed pretty drastically in the last year, I went from producing pretty large-scale site-specific installations, to text-based works that come from my personal experiences, as opposed to addressing much larger societal issues. I believe my work will become more vulnerable the more I produce, and eventually I will have a collection of longer text pieces that address a variety of personal experiences. I definitely plan to continue with this concept, there is a lot to work with when your practice stems from your personal experiences and digs deep into your relationship with the world around you, especially in this moment in time.

Right now I am working on developing more text pieces, and producing them on different mediums, and experimenting with different sizes and how that changes the piece. In between larger projects, I love putting my work on stickers and other mediums that stem from street art and graffiti. I write a lot in black books as well, and am currently exploring new ways to include my black book work into my contemporary art practice.

CM: I saw that you’re a recent graduate, do you have any thoughts or hopes and dreams for the near future? How has the election affected your practice and what you are currently working on?

DC: For many, many, days following the election I was definitely in shock and very depressed, that was the general consensus in the communities I occupy, alongside anger, and the desire to create change. The election will definitely affect my work—my work is very much a reflection of my daily interaction with the world around me, and I know I’m going to have a lot to say in the next four years.

This interview was edited and commissioned by the 2016-2017 Charlotte Street Curator in Residence, Lynnette Miranda, in collaboration with Informality‘s for Issue 2: Digital Studio Visits and the exhibition  ¿Qué Pasa USA? at la Esquina Gallery (1000 West 25 Street KCMO) open from November 18, 2016 through January 7, 2017. This interview was originally published on

Victoria Martinez Highlights the Energy of Urban Sites Through Pattern, Color, and Site-Specificity

Olivia Clanton speaks to Victoria Martinez about the undiscovered value of urban environments through a deep consideration and investigation of the re-purposed materials used in her site-specific installations.

21st Place Mural, repeated revelations by Victoria Martinez. Image Courtesy of the Artist

21st Place Mural, repeated revelations by Victoria Martinez. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Victoria Martinez brings attention to urban environments that are often overlooked through vibrant fiber installations, that create moments of chance interaction with forgotten architecture in Chicago. Martinez’s process begins with her own discovery and collection of unique, discarded objects. These objects are material for large compositions realized through collaging, stitch-work, printmaking, and painting techniques. The materials respond to their new environment and inspire reflective moments on the relationship between place, personal experiences with forgotten urban landscapes, and the undiscovered stories they are holding inside. Martinez has exhibited at Northwestern University, Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago Cultural Center, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, and Chicago Artists Coalition. Upcoming projects include group exhibitions at the National Museum of Mexican Art, Heaven Gallery, and the Franklin in Chicago.

Between Movements by Victoria Martinez. Image courtesy of the Artist

Between Movements by Victoria Martinez. Image courtesy of the Artist

OLIVIA CLANTON: The materials further the narrative of their installation site. They tell the story of the space, and symbolically, they help us imagine how its residue can be used for its future, and how its history is necessary to understanding it. Once it all comes together, what is the relationship between the materials you use in your work and the space you install in?

VM: The materials that I utilize in my site-specific projects are from local establishments, thrift stores, or variety shops in close proximity of the artwork. At times, since I’ve created a relationship with certain people in the Pilsen community, where I grew up in Chicago, some of these materials are also gifts. I use vibrant textiles and soft, household items that relate to the spaces I work within order to channel the inspiration granted from my neighborhood. I take many walks in Pilsen to study patterns that exist on the concrete walls, glass, and advertisements. For me, it’s also exciting to combine this kind of stimulation with my personal writing and poetry along with past travels to Latin America. These are observations and studies of pattern and mark making that make it into my projects through combining paint with fabric and other two-dimensional found materials. I thoughtfully collage and stitch these objects together, remembering the things I’ve learned from the urban environment and I try to deliver works of art that potentially allow the audience to experience pleasant remembrances that are reminiscent of the everyday magic I find.


Untitled by Victoria Martinez Image courtesy of the Artist

OC: How do you use fiber and collaging processes to create visual narratives and what do these visual narratives mean to the history its installed site? How do your processes and your chosen materials lend itself to the interruptions you create for others?

VM: In terms of the weaving I have created in the past, I incorporate materials including grocery store plastic bags that say “Thank You”, vibrant yarn, strips of patterns I painted on plastic tablecloth, which was inspired by nature, and scraps of my thrift store purchased shorts. The weaving I’m referring to is sacred to me because the materials relate to my beliefs of highlighting community spaces, moments of mystery, intuition, and desire of learning about textile methods and history that inspires me to produce art. I also recently visited Peru where I practiced weaving and dyeing techniques in the Sacred Valley this past summer. I brought back the yarn wool that I dyed with flower and herbs and plan on creating site-specific projects with the material.

OC: Thinking about the presence and roles of murals in Chicago, how is your work informed by this? What connection exists between the objects you are using to the disruption you create in public spaces? 

VM: Some of my inspiration relates to Pilsen murals and graffiti because of its history, organic forms, enticing color pallets, celebratory energy, and monumental scale. Although fibers and public art are different media, I flirt with the idea that they coexist and work poetically together. Fabric is a universal material that works well in most spaces and is a significant resource in society.

I don’t see my artwork as an interruption. My artwork is an extension of the emotions associated with memories related to the sites I respond to. Therefore, I buy materials near the spaces I choose. I value soft and two-dimensional materials, which are accessible and adaptable. These allow me to build dimension by stitching them together, often ending up with a lot of texture and reminding me of the past histories I am honoring. My projects are fragments of skin; raw in memory, nostalgia, and with the attempt of preserving my reasons for being an artist. I work with domestic and feminine items that relate to my Mexican identity because I love to explore and conserve the beauty of my culture and how significant it is to society.

Untitled by Victoria Martinez Image courtesy of the Artist

Untitled by Victoria Martinez Image courtesy of the Artist

OC: At times your work involves collaborating with people who live near the spaces you create interventions for. In what ways do you involve participants in the gathering of materials and the making process? 

VM: Recently, I worked on a collaborative project titled “Traveling Minds,” with Benito Juarez Community Academy youth, their art teacher Ms. Paulina Camacho, two elementary schools in the Pilsen community, a youth center, and a group of mothers from the high school. We created an 8-foot by 20-foot outdoor fiber installation at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. I joined Ms. Camacho’s class as a Visiting Artist and together, as a collective, we practiced fiber techniques including weaving, sewing, and embroidery. One way I approached material selection in this project included surveying the group of high school youth about what type of colors and materials they believed best represented them and their community. I wanted the participants to deeply connect to the work and I believed that a series of conversations about materials would make it a vibrant experience. When it comes to making work independently for the public, I carefully study the colors and patterns that exist in and on the urban environment. It’s one of my favorite things as an artist because I see this process as a way for me to authentically respond to and create work for accessible sites in the neighborhood.

This interview was edited and commissioned by the 2016-2017 Charlotte Street Curator in Residence, Lynnette Miranda, in collaboration with Informality‘s for Issue 2: Digital Studio Visits and the exhibition  ¿Qué Pasa USA? at la Esquina Gallery (1000 West 25 Street KCMO) open from November 18, 2016 through January 7, 2017. This interview was originally published on

Kayla Quan Challenges the Model Minority Stereotype Through Sincerity and Humor

Drea DiCarlo talks to San Francisco-based Kayla Quan about the complexities of race and ethnicity in her lighthearted and facetious illustrations, prints, and zines.

Kayla Quan is a Filipino and Chinese third-generation American artist based in San Francisco, CA. Her work takes the form of prints, drawings, collage, and text-based images, and uses ironic humor to comment on people and situations in her life. Often adopting an informal DIY aesthetic, her work is very personal, like a look into one’s diary. She uses her art as a means of coping and emotional expression. The vulnerability in her work invites her viewers to validate their own feelings. Quan also uses her work to explore issues of race and the Asian American experience of being exotified and othered. Her drawings and prints make heartfelt statements on navigating loss, identity, and coming of age.


Too Many Tired Mamis by Kayla Quan. Image Courtesy of the Artist

DREA DICARLO: Your sketchbook drawings use little poetic phrases that are playfully naïve, ironic, and assertive, used as a means of articulating difficult thoughts and feelings. As a collection, these sketches convey a sense of sincere hurt or melancholy. What is the role of text and language in your work?

KAYLA QUAN: I’d prefer to view my work as wry or tongue in cheek. I think discerning the vocabulary used to describe my work changes the tone of how viewers perceive it. With that being said, language and text play a large role in my work. Most of my ideas for pieces stem from words that I’ve jotted down, are strewn together, and eventually they take visual form. I keep ongoing lists in my phone’s note section of short phrases, often reflective of passing thoughts or pangs of emotion. My work is reflective of my current emotional/mental/physical state of being; it’s often a platform for me to unload or express something that I feel necessary to convey as means of coping. I strive to make things that are relatable, yet in a way that feels real and vulnerable, while simultaneously making fun of myself.

DD: What is the process of choosing phrases and other texts? What is your relationship with writing as a visual artist?

KQ: Much of my work is developed during bouts of sadness, not because I wish to exude an overall depressive mood, but simply because it’s my way of expelling negative thoughts. It’s my way of saying, “hey, sometimes I’m sad (or lonely, longing, nostalgic, hurt, etc.) and I bet all of you are too, and that’s totally ok and human.” Sincerity is important to me in everything that I do. I’ve never really thought myself to be really good at anything besides being sincerely genuine in my interactions with humans. My work conveys a sense of melancholy because I let myself be raw with my words and thoughts to interrupt those feelings. My overall mentality is to let it all hang out, and let others relate or connect to it in ways that hopefully combat sincere hurt.

As far as my process for choosing phrases and text goes, there is no real formula. Like I mentioned earlier, I keep a back stock of words on my phone and sometimes I’ll refer back to the list and I’m prompted to make something visually from them or vice versa. I’ll see visual inspiration somewhere and then will create something that just so happens to synchronize with a phrase I wrote months before. The text I use are often short in length, primarily because writing lofty pieces makes me feel out of my element and honestly, pretty cheesy. It isn’t that I don’t care about what I’m saying; I do and that’s why I reject the notion of being flippant. I’d like to see my work as being the opposite of apathetic or disrespectfully avoidant because I’m being open with my feelings and earnest in the only way I know how to be. I like to make things that are humorous, yet telling and relatable on a real level, for example this drawing of Lil Jon (please read caption & comments).


Lil Jon Sketch by Kayla Quan. Image Courtesy of the Artist

DD: Visually you experiment with various modes of mark making and transferring of images through printing processes and drawing that acknowledge the presence of the hand. What is important about the presence of the hand in your work? What is important about the presence of the hand in your work? What is the relationship between altering photographic images and your drawings and illustrations?

KQ: I’ve developed a style that is distinctive and imperfect, but true to myself. For a long time I made all of my illustrations in one go, just pen to the paper and no pre-plans. Drawing this way made me develop a greater sense of artist intuition by allowing myself to work off of happy mistakes.  I guess that’s kind of how I see all of my art: it’s all a bunch of happy mistakes that somehow work in my favor.  Not until recently did I start drawing with pencil first. I’m constantly developing as an artist, but I do feel like I have a concrete style that I don’t ever steer far away from.   

Adding my hand in old family photos give the photographs new life in the context of my current life. Pictures speak for themselves, but I wanted to do a little extra by telling my family narrative from my perspective. Adding text and illustrations on top of these photos let viewers know that my hands worked with the photos—it’s like leaving visual traces of my essence on snapshots of distant pastimes. Like most of the things I make, this illustration and photo process is just my way of making sense of my world. And by sharing my work with others, it’s my way of welcoming people into my brain. It’s your ticket into seeing things from my perspective.


So I Creep by Kayla Quan. Image Courtesy if the Artist

DD: In your work, you alter photographic images, recontextualizing nostalgic memories with energized interventions from the present. Similarly, handwriting visually and conceptually interjects each work, welcoming the viewer into a subjective space of introspection. Through your distinct making process, how do you hope the work connects with viewers?

KQ: A handful of people have actually asked me about the meaning behind my print So I Creep~Ya (2014) because they all thought that “creep” was directed toward my dad.  The original photo is a Polaroid of my dad, my sibling, and myself wearing my dad’s Ben Davis work shirts. I used to always smile in that funny square-mouthed grin like a lil’ creep. I doodled a bunch of faces in the background to represent visual personifications of my active imagination as a child and presently as a young artist.  

DD: In your zine What the Fuck Kind of Human (2015) there is an excerpt that ends “I’m my own person, not defined by race.” This yearning to be recognized beyond the construct of race, seems in contrast to the phrase you use in another work “Yellow Voices must be heard,” which emphasizes the drive to center and organize around Asian American voices. Can you expand on the complexities of race and identity for yourself as an artist? How do you reconcile this conflict and in what ways do you see these working together?

KQ: So by definition, “community” entails inclusivity and a means of constructing identity as a result of sharing common characteristics or interests. However, “community,” also implies exclusivity as much as it does inclusivity. Race is often a place where people align themselves in a community. Race is visual characteristic. For me, it’s often the first thing strangers ask me questions about: “What are you?”—always a dreaded question—“Where are you from? What’s your racial background?.” Race is and can be a defining characteristic, but I don’t want to be pigeonholed into racial stereotypes—which are more often than not untrue, hurtful, exotifying, essentializing, tokenizing, and demeaning.

That excerpt, where my friend says “I’m my own person, not defined by race,” is a true feeling of being fed up with people making assumptions about your personhood based around the confines of “Asian” stereotypes. This statement is a response to being multifaceted, but never being fully recognized as anything more than just “an Asian girl.” It sucks when people place perimeters around who you are or should be.  

I thought a lot about using this term, “Yellow voices must be heard.”  Using “Yellow” in regards to race is often deemed derogatory. However, as a person who identifies as being Asian American I feel it fair and in my right to reclaim this word. For me, it was an appropriate unifying term that seemed the most inclusive to me. It’s a response to looking Asian but also feeling excluded from not being brown enough and not being white either. It’s my way of place making for my skin color and my identity as a Chinese and Filipino American female. “Yellow Voices:” it’s a contentious phrase that I’m willing to debate; for me, it’s a rallying cry intended for my community and not to be misused by others.

Race is a social construct that I’m constantly trying to unpack and deconstruct in terms that feel good for my own personal growth. I spent my early childhood in the Bay Area where a large majority of my classmates were Chinese or Filipino. I felt proud to rep my roots. Then, I moved to Orange County from middle school to high school, and this is where I first became aware of my race in a negative way. I’d never had people yell racial slurs directly at me before. I’d never had people laugh at me just for being Asian. I grew up in Orange County being the “skater Asian girl” or the “cool Asian;” I was never described without my Asian identity yet I don’t even speak any other language besides English. I was born in the United States and so was my father, and so was my father’s father. I had never even been to the Philippines or China until this year. So, why must I constantly be othered strictly off the basis of what I look like?

For a long time, I grew up in the suburbs where I felt like being Asian was an embarrassing quality, and that “White” was what I was supposed to strive to be like. Art has become an outlet and a platform for me to ask these big questions and grapple with the complexities of race with others. It feels good to make things and to be comforted by other people’s narratives.  


Siem Reap by Kayla Quan. Image Courtesy of the Artist

DD: Your woodcut Silence is Violence (2015) follows a tradition of activist art that includes the visual artwork of Emory Douglas, the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, and  1960s United Farm Workers of America. In contrast to protest artwork of the 1960s and ‘70s, the girl and woman coded figures depicted in Silence is Violence are passive in their postures and gaze; they do not confront the viewer directly. What were your intentions behind this imagery?  Do you believe that you are enacting a type of “soft” resistance, a type of resistance where individual Asian Americans defy the model minority stereotype? How does the phrase “Silence is Violence” particularly apply to the Asian American community? How do you see your role as an artist within this narrative of activism and resistance?

KQ: The “Silence is Violence” woodcut was born out of a poster assignment. I immediately took to alluding to traditional activist art and studied poster artwork from the 60’s and 70’s—propaganda, UFW, [and] anti-war (during the Vietnam War) posters of that era.  The 3 figures depicted in [this work] convey the transformation from inaction to action, from passive silence to engaged presence. For me, the process of personal transformation from dismissive or timid of conflict, to being willingly vocal and demanding of my needs is, and has been, a slow but organic process. In total, my work takes on a “soft” quality to it because my overall demeanor as a person isn’t one that is outwardly aggressive.

Activism doesn’t have one distinctive look. Activism can look a lot of different ways, and the way one chooses to protest can reflect a lot about their cultural self. There is no linear path toward healing.

“Silence is Violence” is typically a slogan used in anti-rape and sexual violence activism, but I felt it applies specifically to Asian American communities because there’s an overwhelming trend of silencing our struggles and pain to appear as “model minority” citizens. In cultures that pride respect and honor, adversity is something that must be handled quietly and swiftly. Silencing someone’s pain and not discussing personal or community struggles is violent. I can say that I come from generations of familial dynamics that do not encourage transparent communication about personal issues. My parents are well-intentioned people, but I grew being told not to be so sensitive all the time; my sensitivity was seen as a sign of weakness.

I know a lot of my Asian American friends have either a hard time or zero experience with discussing personal mental health with their families as well. A lot of people think that model minority stereotype is a compliment, but it’s actually harmful to pan-Asian communities due to its silencing properties. Overall, I think my community benefits from hearing messages that encourage [one] to speak honestly and to be politically active. I think art and activism are important. Art is an effective vehicle for making your message accessible and visual to broad audiences.

As far as how I view my role as an artist of activism and resistance goes, I’d say it’s just something that is. I start projects based out of necessity for myself, and then secondly for what I think could benefit others to see, hear and share. I get really excited when I see other artists, educators, or activists that look like me or have similar cultural experiences.. I also find a lot of joy in receiving comments from fellow Asian Americans that are stoked about my work, or when they express that it’s relatable or needed in our communities.

 This interview was edited and commissioned by the 2016-2017 Charlotte Street Curator in Residence, Lynnette Miranda, in collaboration with Informality‘s for Issue 2: Digital Studio Visits and the exhibition  ¿Qué Pasa USA? at la Esquina Gallery (1000 West 25 Street KCMO) open from November 18, 2016 through January 7, 2017. This interview was originally published on

Silvia Beatriz Abisaab Uses Portraits and Conversation to Uncover Personal Stories


Sam Stevens speaks with Silvia Beatriz Abisaab about intimately connecting and collaborating with her subjects through photography and conversation, and more recently, sharing the untold stories of of individuals existing and surviving on the fringe.

Silvia Beatriz Abisaab explores the appearance and experience of race through interviews, photography, video, and performance. One of Abisaab’s recent bodies of work is loosely organized under the title of Cultural Exchange but is part of an ongoing practice of documentary-based works. Two years ago, the artist began to document  the spaces of contemporary artists and art students around Kansas City, Missouri, where she received her BFA at the Kansas City Art Institute in 2016. She takes full portraits of each artist framed by their studios, depicting the beauty and the toil of art making as well as one’s relationship to personal space. Abisaab shoots frank photographs of her subjects and in a way participates in a personal exploration of a community to which she belongs.

Likewise, the Cultural Exchange series presents images, as well as voices, of friends, acquaintances, and strangers who have some connection to the artist—each voice describes experiences of racial discrimination and feelings of alienation. With her camera, Abisaab captures vivid encounters, street scenes, and lively shops along with dignified images of the people she is interviewing. This project serves as a platform to represent the voices of marginalized individuals and challenge the viewer’s perception of race and ethnicity, grappling with the paradoxes around physical appearance and representation. Her photographic process is a tool for confronting stereotypes, playing with the perceptions of and definitions around identity, and expanding the relationships between people across cultures.

Julio C. Mortera Rodriguez by Silvia Beatriz Abisaab. Image courtesy of the artists

Julio C. Mortera Rodriguez by Silvia Beatriz Abisaab. Image courtesy of the artists

SAM STEVENS: Silvia, in your past work you interview people directly and document their spaces, using photography and audio recording. In these multi-disciplinary pieces, you orchestrate an experience rather than crafting a specific image. How did you move from the process of photographing to the process of interviewing? And who do you consider your audience to be?

SILVIA BEATRIZ ABISAAB: I find it interesting when you state that I orchestrate an experience rather than craft a specific image. From my standpoint, I feel that I am doing both simultaneously. I personally feel that the experience that I am having with the individual allows an idea to be crafted that will then be captured. That is ultimately what my practice is doing at the moment.

My practice consists of engaging in conversations with individuals to learn about them and encompass that moment and/or experience using photography, video, and sound. Specifically speaking about the artist’s studio portraits, it is very important to do more than capture. I interact with each participant in a deeper way because I find that the more I learn about their studio practice, thoughts on life, and/or political to cultural perspectives, then the more attentive I was in making sure I can represent them respectfully. However, I definitely feel that by speaking with them, it allows for our time spent together to be great and valuable. That mindset allows me to create an interesting transition from photographing to dialogue.

Now as for my audience, I would love for the whole world to be my audience, however that usually doesn’t happen. Yet, I am starting to see that those who are interested in simply gaining more perspective and insight in the arts while learning more about someone else is my kind of audience.

Collaboration with Brandon Kintzer by Silvia Beatriz Abisaab. Image courtesy of the artists

Collaboration with Brandon Kintzer by Silvia Beatriz Abisaab. Image courtesy of the artists

SS: Last year you worked with a fellow KCAI alum, sculptor and architect Brandon Kintzer to create a series of abstract images. These works showed arrangements of bodies, shapes, color and line in an indefinite space. What is the connection between the work you were doing with Brandon and your documentary work? In a different way the documentary work is also an exploration of appearances and bodies.

SBA: The work that Brandon and I collaborated on came from an interest in bodies engaging with sculpture and space, and utilizing aesthetically minimal elements to see how the body and those elements can infuse with one another to create another sculptural form and perspective. Though it was a great experience, I can’t seem to find a current connection to the work that I am doing now. However, I could say that I am more thoughtful on how I connect with and capture the individual. Not to say, that the people I worked with on this project with Brandon weren’t thoughtfully captured, because they definitely were. However, I must be more thoughtful with the subjects I work with now because I am in their space, an intimate space that has depth and meaning to them, from personal to creative experiences.

SS: Your photographs toe the line between conceptual and direct. Could you speak about this relationship in your work? How do you choose your subjects?

SBA: My work is more direct because I aim towards a personal and informative narrative. Being direct allows the participant to understand my motives. I want to learn and hear about their creative explorations, thoughts, and opinions—any information and experience that I can utilize and translate through digital media applications and/or through conversations with others. I connect with either close friends, classmates, or anyone in the art community who I find interesting based on the current studio work or simply because I am interested in connecting with them. Facebook and Instagram are great tools in following what my peers are doing and it helps me seek and ask if they are interested in getting their portrait taken and potentially having a conversation. The reason for this direct act is that the chosen subjects, whoever they may be, are people that should be celebrated because of how amazing they are at what they do. My fascination with my subjects can lead to new opportunities for them, from being showcased on a different platform to being contacted by another person to find commonality with them.

Beky by Silvia Beatriz Abisaab. Image courtesy of the artists

Beky by Silvia Beatriz Abisaab. Image courtesy of the artists

SS: When building a body of work that deals with the tension and reciprocity(exchange) between individuals and communities, where do you fit as an artist and what is your relationship with your subjects? Does a distance exists and remain, or does closeness with a community develop throughout your process? What is the importance of collaboration for you?

I think of my role as a “socially engaged artist”, interacting and engaging with a lot of different individuals and communities through listening and sharing respectfully. When you show the individual participating in the artist’s work as not just a subject, but a person with value, that makes the work and relationship stronger. Even without the “artist” title, it is important to understand that if a person who is seeking to build, grow, or gain a relationship with any individual they must be considerate. I’m not seeking to gain profit out of anyone that I work with since it is not my focus. Instead what I try to convey is that there exists many people that are extremely talented and worthwhile. If you encounter someone with unique viewpoints, reach out and connect with them. Furthermore, you should be really thoughtful since you won’t only have a great experience, but also gain new knowledge from someone who you may not share a common background with and yet, channel the same interest or learn  something you never knew about. It is that moment where I gather a sense of who they are and more perspective from them that allows us both to work simultaneously to capture their image. While there are times that can be distant, is not something I intend to happen and we just continue our daily doings. However, I continue to brainstorming potential ideas that could lead into another collaboration.

This interview was edited and commissioned by the 2016-2017 Charlotte Street Curator in Residence, Lynnette Miranda, in collaboration with Informality‘s for Issue 2: Digital Studio Visits and the exhibition  ¿Qué Pasa USA? at la Esquina Gallery (1000 West 25 Street KCMO) open from November 18, 2016 through January 7, 2017. This interview was originally published on

Enzo Antonio Moscarella Examines Cultural Assumptions Through Satirical Simplification

Camile Messerley discusses materials, process, and ephemerality with Enzo Antonio Moscarella, who assembles new icons out of everyday materials, such as rice and beans, to examine stereotypes and cultural assumptions.

Enzo Antonio Moscarella is an artist originally from Miami. He has since split his time between Miami, Boston where he obtained a BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston from which he now holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and now New York where he currently resides. Moscarella’s work ranges across mediums and references current popular culture as well as 1990s New York and Miami graffiti culture. His work also quotes sociopolitical history through using icons such as the coiled rattlesnake from the Gadsden flag, featured in his latest piece Don’t Tread on Me. He merges symbols from both of these realms, pop culture and history, to examine the connections between the two while questioning the objective and the subjective.

For ¿Que Pasa, USA? Moscarella has designed the site-specific installation Don’t Tread on Me— three life-size floor drawings that merge the commonplace emoticon happy face and the coiled snake from the Gadsden flag using dry rice and black beans. The artist draws influence from mandalas in Buddhist culture, recontextualizing this practice through his chosen subject matter and materials. The work juxtaposes the play that occurs between satirical simplification of subject matter and the delicacy and ephemerality of its quotidian domestic material, which has a culturally specific connotation. The artwork’s scale and precarity challenge the viewer to engage in a heightened level of awareness—a viewer could potentially ruin the floor drawings by taking a wrong step. The piece evokes a kind of meditation through daring the viewer to tenuously walk around and observe the pieces within the gallery space.  

One of Moscarella’s overarching goals is to bridge the gaps between personal identity and cultural interpretation. The artist addresses this in Don’t Tread on Me through his use of materials and subject matter—personal to the artist and his family yet, not unique to only him. His accessible materials offer a personal access point into the work, the viewer to a place, a cultural tradition, a specific history, or even being raised consuming the grains which make up this piece. And it is this simplicity which allows the mind to wander and meditate on the connections in the piece and find connections of our own, even if through instantly sharing the same space.    


Calvin and Hobbes Ephemera Floor Drawing by Enzo Antonio Moscarella. Image courtesy of the artist.

CAMILE MESSERLEY: The icons used in your work interestingly quote historical political events and individuals while also commenting on popular culture, in your artist statement you mention a previous work where you merged Castro’s face and the confederate flag. The work that will be featured in ¿Que Pasa, USA? at la Esquina merges a coiled eastern diamondback rattlesnake from the Gadsden flag combined with the universally known image of the yellow smiley face. Can you tell me a little bit about this relationship and your relationship to these images or icons?

ENZO ANTONIO MOSCARELLA: This work comes from an interest in mandalas and their construction using colored sand to create intricate patterns and motifs. In Buddhism, the creation of a mandala is an exercise of spiritual mediation, representing the Universe and the belief of radial balance. I have appropriated and recontextualized these by shifting the material from colored sand to black beans and long grain white rice. I have also reversed the complexity of design to graphic gestures. I use symbols from popular culture to explore my personal identity as a Colombian immigrant. I’m interested in [investigating] stereotypes and assumptions based on race and ethnicity.

The drawings that make up this series of works goes back to the margins of my middle school notebooks. These held a large amount of visual information that started as small thumbnails of the lesson being taught, but would quickly merge with much simpler doodles of cartoons or tags. My introduction to visual art began via early 90’s New York and Miami graffiti culture. The writer* painting pieces** often added characters within or next to their work. Concurrently many of the writers at this time were prolific bombers*** and produced much faster, abbreviated versions of their tags as two color throwups****.


40 oz Pour by Enzo Antonio Moscarella. Image courtesy of the artist.

CM: In your work, specifically the pieces made using grains (long grain white rice, black beans), there is an extreme attention to detail that compliments the simplicity of the iconography used in the piece. Can you describe what the process of installing and producing these pieces is like?

EAM: When producing the floor drawings in the rice & beans series, I think about the concept of the throwup and how that functions as a visual marker within a time and space. I think about its impermanence. Because of its illegal nature, the throwup exists for a limited amount of time, the only record of the piece is a photographic one.

The materials I use in the series of floor drawings—long grain white rice and dried black beans—are very familiar to me. These were not only part of my family’s diet but also a staple in the Hialeah, Miami Cuban cuisine. Before this work, I viewed these as sustenance, and now I use these as I would any other material available for me to work with. The subtleties in the colors, when massed together are also very attractive.

Installing the work begins with thumbnails and sketches until a design or composition is finalized. I use chalk to sketch the outline of the piece on the floor and begin to fill sections with material while on my hands and knees. I gather small amounts together between my hands and push sections of material towards each other to create dimensionality and give the work a uniform thickness. It takes several hours of work depending on size and complexity of design. There is no glues or gels holding the material in place. I‘m aware that viewers may come into contact with the piece and possible step on it or kick a section. While, I do not encourage these actions, I do not necessarily feel that the pieces are sacred objects.

CM: I’m particularly interested in the play that’s happening between the delicacy and ephemerality of the floor drawings and the subject matter (and the play with satire) and the awareness that the viewers take on by walking around the pieces as meditation on the subject matter of patriotism and emotional signifiers. In addition to this meditation what are your hopes for the viewer in terms of what they may take away from this experience?

EAM: The work does not and should not live in a vacuum, and any interaction that results in the alteration of the piece becomes part of that pieces life cycle. With the work being displayed on the floor, it forces the viewer’s gaze down, making being in the space a much less passive experience. No one wants to be the person who steps on the “Art.” There is also that captivating moment when you watch the viewer come across the piece and realize that the materials are so simple; the installation is so simple. The moment when it finally hits them that a person was on the floor for an extended amount of time doing this, there is an element of labor and production that is very tangible.

There is a great satisfaction when completing the installation of the rice and beans floor drawings because of its large size and the hours involved in making the work. These force very deliberate choices since I am putting my body through a large amount of stress while on my hands and knees. I usually listen to music during this process and fall into a pseudo-meditative state.

The Gadsden flag is a historical American flag depicting a coiled eastern diamondback rattlesnake ready to strike on a yellow field. Below the illustration is the phrase “DON’T TREAD ON ME.” The flag was designed in 1775 and is named after for Colonel Christopher Gadsden of the Continental Army. Recently, the flag has seen a resurgence in its use as a symbol of American patriotism.

With Don’t Tread on Me, I am combining the coiled snake motif of the Gadsden flag with the ubiquitous happy face. Repeating the shape three times, I shift the happy faces upturned smile to a straight line and then finally to a turned down sad face. I am captivated by the simplicity of how the angle of bend in a line can completely alter the emotional reading of the drawing. The triple replication of the snake as well as the multi-directional placement challenges the weight of the original symbol. I would like the viewer to contend with the time and effort in creating the three images in relation to their impermanence. The piece is a meditation on patriotism, emotional signifiers, and temporality.


Iced Out by Enzo Antonio Moscarella. Image courtesy of the artist.

CM: What projects are you thinking about for the future and will you be continuing the process used in the work for ¿Que Pasa, USA?

EAM: The next step in the rice & beans series would be to take these objects outside of the gallery setting and continue to push the textural boundaries of the material. I feel that moving them out of the relatively safe space that is a gallery or studio could have very positive or negative results, which of course can only be beneficial to the furthering of the series.

*Practitioner of the art of graffiti.

**A graffiti painting, short for masterpiece. It’s generally agreed that a painting must have at least three colors to be considered a piece.

***To go out writing. Prolific painting or marking with ink. To cover an area with your tag, throwups, etc.

****Over time, this term has been applied to many different types of graffiti. Subway art says it is “a name painted quickly with one layer of spray paint and an outline”, although some consider a throwup to be bubble letters of any sort, not necessarily filled. Throwups can be from one or two letters to a whole word or a whole roll call of names. Often times throwups incorporate an exclamation mark after the word or letter. Throwups are generally only one or two colors, no more. Throwups are either quickly done bubble letters or very simple pieces using only two colors.

This interview was edited and commissioned by the 2016-2017 Charlotte Street Curator in Residence, Lynnette Miranda, in collaboration with Informality‘s for Issue 2: Digital Studio Visits and the exhibition  ¿Qué Pasa USA? at la Esquina Gallery (1000 West 25 Street KCMO) open from November 18, 2016 through January 7, 2017. This interview was originally published on