MINNEAPOLIS — Syrian-American artist Essma Imady is hopping from one major Minnesota art museum to another this year, closing up an incredible exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) in June and curating a one-day exhibition and event at the Walker Art Center this month.
Born in the US, Imady grew up in Syria and moved to Minnesota in 2011, where she currently lives with her husband and their child. In Thicker than Water at Mia, Imady drew on her own experiences as a parent and interviewed children from refugee communities for a searing body of work that grapples with survival, parenting, trauma, and spirituality.
In an upcoming event presented by Mn Artists, a local art program of the Walker Art Center, Imady investigates the notion of translation, while asking the question: Whom can art speak for? For the project, she has paired US-based artists with Syrian artists who are all affected by President Trump’s travel ban.
For example, Minneapolis-based artist Preston Drum collaborates with Manar Zind, a Syrian artist and designer currently based in Brazil. Zind shared diary excerpts with Drum from when he tried to cross the Mediterranean border and was arrested, which Drum uses as source material. Niky Motekallem, meanwhile, who is a second-generation Iranian-American painter and illustrator, collaborates with Aliaa Sakkar, a Syrian poet and songwriter based in Istanbul. For their collaboration, Imady had Motekallem illustrate Sakkar’s song without the words translated. The third collaboration is between dancer and choreographer Leila Awadallah, of Palestinian heritage, and Asma Ghanem, a Syrian sound artist and photographer based in Paris. Finally, American sound artist John C.S. Keston and Paris-based Syrian artist Khaled Alwarea worked together, with Keston translating Alwarea’s description of having panic attacks from being imprisoned in Syria for protesting.
I sat down with Imady to talk about her recent exhibition at Mia as well as the upcoming Mn Artist Project.
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Sheila Regan: You’ve described Thicker than Water as a combination of your own experiences with interviews with other people. What did that process look like for you?
Essma Imady: It started when I got a scholarship from the Jerome Foundation to go to Istanbul. I have friends whom I grew up with in Syria who are living there now as refugees, and I was really excited for my daughter to meet their kids.
Once I was there, I realized that I wanted to focus on communication between parents and children. It was something that I myself was just beginning to struggle with and understand with my own daughter. Things like war, violence, death — these are really large concepts that for adults are difficult, and somehow have to be distilled when explaining to your child.
It was interesting how these very complex thought processes had to be made before these very simple conversations were had. I was kind of watching my friends do it and thinking about it myself, and then I asked them if I could interview their children. I’d ask them really simple questions, and then if they seemed receptive, more difficult questions. They were very generous and agreed, and then I asked them if they could introduce me to their friends who have children. I started to grab opportunities — like we were walking down the streets of Istanbul, and there was this young girl selling flowers. Then we went to a grocery store, and the owner was there with his kid. I was like, “Hey, can I interview your kid?” Most people were very open. I did have one experience where I talked to a young boy and asked about how he got to Istanbul; he hesitated. The father said he had some trauma, so I stopped there.
SR: That must be difficult to navigate — wanting to be able to tell that story but also being aware of that trauma can be a fine line.
EI: Right, because if I’m using these stories to make art, I don’t want to be using them to build Essma up. I want to take the stories that children really do want many people to hear, and become almost a vehicle that helps these stories be more accessible and out there. I don’t want to take advantage of those children by taking a story they don’t want to tell and re-traumatizing them.
Once I got back, I told Mia that I had a friend in Canada who is a liaison for the refugee resettlement program. She was my close friend from back home. She told me that she had a lot of children who would be willing to talk with me. The museum was very open to funding my trip to Winnipeg. There, I interviewed so many children. So that’s where the majority of my footage came from.
SR: What was the response to the show like, especially from the refugee community?
EI: I didn’t want someone from a refugee community to come and be re-traumatized by my work. I was really worried about that, and actually some of my ideas for the piece I had scrapped in order to try to avoid that, because context is so important, and I know that Minnesota has a very large community of refugees from Somalia and Hmong refugees. You need to be very careful — the scars can be very deep. I tried not to go to very literal spaces with violence in an attempt to try to not create an unsafe space.
SR: It sounds like you are thinking about audience while you are creating the work. Do you know whom the pieces are for when you are making them?
EI: That’s a good question that I think about a lot, and I don’t necessarily have a perfect bow-tied answer because it varies depending on what I’m making and how I’m feeling. Sometimes, what I’m making is really just for me. I’ve seen something very difficult coming out of Syria, like a news piece or a video piece, and it has to be processed somehow. I make something, and I think other people will identify with this thing I made just to process my own trauma. Other times I’m thinking less about audience and more about the source — almost as if that person was the audience even though they probably won’t see it.
Then other times I’m obsessed with audience. How can I either make it very aesthetically pleasing so that it’s OK if the reference isn’t caught, or how can I frame it in a way that’s going to invite people to go further and look into it? Sometimes I’m OK with something being completely misunderstood and just having peace with that.
SR: This upcoming show you are doing with Mn Artists starts with the question, “Who does art speak for?” What does that question mean for you?
EI: I found that while making art as a Syrian woman — many times it’s seen as Syrian art. I always felt like I wanted to push against that. Guys! I don’t represent Syrian art! I don’t represent Syrian people! I can’t, even if I wanted to. It’s so un-monolithic. But then when I was in grad school, I did try to play with this perception and make things that are speaking for Syrian people. I saw how that went, and I saw two spectrums of me trying to make something. After I graduated, I wanted to combine the two — making something very personal, but also acknowledging how I myself am very affected by being a Syrian in today’s political climate. How is it being perceived? It’s always seen through that lens, which at times is totally fine if that’s what the artist is going for, but at times I want to also have the ability to be seen as a neutral artist, not that there is such a thing.
SR: Well, a white male artist has the privilege and liberty to have that be assumed that that’s their purview.
EI: Exactly. So I said, well, let’s push this. Whom can I speak for? And I’m also very interested in the concept of translation. Growing up in Syria speaking Arabic and English, I would see Arabic-dubbed English shows, and I was always so fascinated by how much things can change between two languages. I thought, what if I brought in artists from countries that couldn’t get a visa right now, and I experimented with different types of artists speaking for them? Once you do that, is it your piece of work? Is it their piece of work? Is it the audience’s piece of work because they are going to be the final consumer? The audience is the final narrator — or translator.
SR: What have you gotten out of this experience so far? Has this collaborative process brought out any revelations?
EI: On the one hand it’s been interesting to see the relationships that formed between each of the two artists and see how that relationship itself informed the piece, and then at times the lack of relationship also informed the piece.
I was interested in exploring this taboo of the art world. You don’t want people to speak for you. You want the people to speak for themselves. But what I’m saying here is that these artists can’t speak for themselves because of the political climate. They literally cannot get visas because of the ban. I know we’re not supposed to do this, but let’s try. Let’s see what it looks like. Let’s do it with a knowledge that this is not super couth — and then look at it and think about how we speak for ourselves and letting people speak for themselves and not letting people speak for themselves.
SR: Was this in some way born of your own experience? You did this too — you took the experience of these parent refugees and translated that experience into art. Was that part of the instigation for this?
EI: Yes, of course. All of these anxieties sitting deep in my body are coming out in all of these different ways — both in the idea for the show and in ideas for art. But yes, I was also concerned about that — morally, ethically, can I speak for these people? My answer was no, I can’t, but I can tell their stories with my own voice. I don’t want to present the audience with answers. I want to poke at these things and look at them and reframe them in this particular way that I’m able to do.
Mn Artists Presents: Essma Imady takes place at the Walker Art Center (725 Vineland Pl., Minneapolis) on Thursday, August 23, 5-9 pm.
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