LOS ANGELES — In the work of LA-based artist Saj Issa, finely painted designs reveal ornate patterns and wordmarks. There’s a quick impulse to get lost in the first impression: The curves and blended tones on ceramic tile pull viewers in, but a deeper message is embedded within them. Issa illustrates the cultural erasure imposed by Western interventions generated by commercial logos, language, and branding.
Integrating Islamic art and architectural styles with corporate branding, the artist examines globalization’s impact on intersecting identities of the diaspora. The artist’s perceptions of social environments and the interplay of capitalist demands have become a place of critique in her complex wall paintings and ceramics. Utilizing traditional tile, she “draws connections between the ways colonization seeps into Indigenous ways of life, both jarringly obvious and woefully mundane,” in her own words.
Issa grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, near Ferguson, where the Black Lives Matter movement sparked, and made summer visits to her grandparents’ home in the West Bank of Ramallah, Palestine. “I love these two communities immensely,” Issa said. “Growing up between those places, it’s impossible not to make the connections of injustice and for my art to not be expressive of those two homes.”
In an installation tentatively titled “They’ve Changed the Signs” (2023), Issa presents geometric tiles mounted on wood and a diptych painting of storefronts in Ramallah with the names of the businesses in Arabic, colorful fruit arrangements, and fields of flowers — the story unveils like a love letter to herself. She examines the absence of figural representations in some sectors of Islamic art, a fact she says was exploited by European and non-Muslim artists in their “egocentric” depictions of Arab people like Luca Giordano’s “Transfiguration of Christ” or Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” This artistic interpretation, Issa says, is prevalent in the way visitors engage with the land, “positioning themselves at the heart of a birthplace [of Jesus] but neglecting to acknowledge the structural boundaries, division, and exclusion that exists where they stand.”
In her work, the artist reclaims scenes linguistically. While visiting Palestine a few years ago, Issa recalled driving around the West Bank, noticing new street signs. She realized the signposts customarily written in Hebrew, Arabic, and English featured the names of towns as they would be identified in Israel. For Issa, reinserting the descriptions on signs or painting native vegetation in Occupied Palestinian Territories, as in “They’ve Changed the Signs,” is a way of preserving language, land, and culture.
“The signs in this work, similarly to the negation of Palestinian villages, after so long of rewriting or unsolicited decisions made on behalf of our societies, influences the memory of our heritage,” she said.
Issa’s entry point into patterned tile work was her 2021 series Convenience Stores. In the mixed-media renderings, which evoke the overstimulation one feels when entering a store, Issa subverts notions of transactional behaviors in the proximity of service. In “Get Her Some Water” (2022), Issa converts the corner market into a shrine with 7-Eleven symbols on ceramic tile, bringing together disparate places — one of worship, another of commerce. In this portrait, Issa again references the absence of identities, except here, a receipt covers the clerk’s face.
This series, included in her first solo exhibition, I Was Out Partying While You Were Home Making Prayers at Le Maximum Gallery last year, navigates themes of migration and endurance through informal happenings and conventional objects. In “Portrait of a Father” (2022), Issa appropriates Marlboro’s distinctive chevron imagery to create the shape of a mihrab (the prayer niche in the wall of a mosque). Her choice to include ubiquitous labels, including Nike, Coca-Cola, and the branding of oil and tobacco companies, is a critical nod to their active participation in the East.
In “Men Look at Women, Women Watch Men Look at Them” (2020–2022), a sculpture of a vanity embossed with an aluminum diamond plate, Issa responds to the male gaze, positioning women as “objects.” A collection of hair sits on the countertop, along with clay undergarments and toiletries imprinted with the exact textured engraving of the sheeting. Combining hyper-feminine aesthetics with an industrial marking was her way of inverting gender roles. Inscribed on the mirror is a note from Issa’s journal, translated from Arabic, which reads, “Exhale the air I’d unwillingly shared with you.”
In her latest series, Bleach Scapes (2022), blue and white motifs appear blanched or washed, evoking the surface of a building or a vessel worn from overexposure to the sun. References to corporations suggest their involvement in climate change and its effects on the public. The shades of Delftware porcelain that Issa replicates in this series speak to the material’s historical evolution: The blending of blue-glazed ceramics came about when China imported metal cobalt from Persia. The precious element was then transported globally through the Silk Road trade route.
In Issa’s practice, there’s an artistic decision to generate movement on panels and grids. Some of her works embrace a wiping approach, instinctually relying on physical gestures that obstruct the markings. Her wax-resistant technique symbolizes the process of erasure: She produces a silk screening pattern on each tile, creates a formation through the wax, then wipes away the Mason stains — the outcome reveals resistant parts of the clay body.
Issa’s fondness of ceramics continued to develop during a recent trip to Turkey, when she attended a workshop on the history of Iznik earthenware popularized throughout the Ottoman Empire — a process still implemented today. She often adopts the tradition of Iznik tile techniques and hand-painting for small-scale projects.
Issa is currently working on a sculptural piece that will take the shape of a missile covered in moss as part of her MFA thesis project at the University of California, Los Angeles. Engaging with this proportion and material allows Issa time to evaluate her decisions. Similarly, when working with other mediums, Issa gives herself the space to probe various elements, like whether to incorporate geometric or floral patterns onto tiles.
“I have this thing with painting where I’ll be very ambitious and inspired to work on it quickly in the beginning, and then there’s a need to sit with it to know what last marks are [crucial] to the meaning,” Issa said. “I feel like language has a lot to do with it, or what logos I decide to present — the little details that allude to globalization.”