Yasmine Nasser Diaz “Noxzema & Lipliner” (2020), in soft powers at the Arab American National Museum (All images courtesy the artist, unless otherwise noted)

DEARBORN, Michigan — Yemeni-American artist Yasmine Nasser Diaz has been playing with the intimacy of bedroom installations for some time now. soft powers, her first solo museum exhibition, at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn — a part of the Detroit metropolitan area that is home to the largest Arab population in the US — features an a continuation of her Teenage Bedroom series, as well as a set of figurative works burned into velvet. The previous iteration in the series was developed during a 2019 residency at Habibi House in Detroit, and featured direct representations and documents from Diaz’s efforts to extricate herself from her biological family, in defiance of their intention to force her into a marriage arrangement against her will.

Yasmine Nasser Diaz “Say No to Drugs (installation view)” (2020), etched velvet

The velvet portraits are taken from photographs featuring tween and teenage Yemeni girls, each comfortable in their own company. While the archetype for youthful female friendship in the US is fraught with mean girl tropes, common cultural practices of Yemeni immigrant populations often place young girls and women under restrictive and punitive surveillance, making the solace of female companionship sometimes the only space held for them to be at ease. These portraits are captured and relief-burned into rayon-based velvet, a material which Diaz employs to reference the 1990s (her own teenage years), as well as the Yemeni style of dress known as a dir’ — a kind of partially transparent caftan worn by married women.

Yasmine Nasser Diaz, “Front Porch (dir’ dress)” (2020), etched velvet (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

These works establish a tension between opacity and transparency, reveling in female interiority by introducing a bedroom scene, set behind a wall to form a distinct space in the gallery.

Visitors are invited to explore the space: lift the rotary phone to hear pre-recorded messages and fictional diary readings meticulously constructed (in collaboration with artist Randa Jarrar) that tell the story of two teenage sisters, each grappling with her own set of issues around identity and individuation.

Soft power, as Diaz defines it, deals with the ability to “attract and co-opt,” rather than to act by direct force. Likewise, soft powers does not dictate a message, but opens a space for exploration and empathy, asking visitors to feel their way through terrain that is perhaps foreign, or perhaps jarringly familiar.

A spread from one of the installation’s diary works, written in conjunction with Los Angeles-based author Randa Jarrar (photo by the author)

Scenes from “Thelma & Louise” play on the room’s television; for Diaz, the movie was a powerful narrative about female liberation at any cost.

Diaz’s installation was intended to be interactive, with visitors encouraged to test perfume, read diaries, and sit on the beds.

Editor’s note (4/28/20, 4:44pm EST): A previous version of this article misstated the name of Diaz’s collaborator for her diary works. The collaborator is Randa Jarrar, not Arshia Haq. We regret the error. 

soft powers was scheduled to remain on view from March 28 to September 6 at the Arab American National Museum (13624 Michigan Avenue, Dearborn, MI). Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, an online opening and walkthrough with the artist took place on Saturday, April 11, and is accessible on the museum’s YouTube and Instagram. The exhibition was curated by Elizabeth Barrett Sullivan. Diaz is an AANM 2020 Artist-in-Residence and Commissioned Artist.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....