Interview with Marwa Abdul-Rahman

Contradictions and contrasts abound in the life and work of Marwa Abdul-Rahman. To say she is an emerging artist diminishes her lifetime of creating objects. Her loud studio contrasts with its idyllic mountain suburban surroundings. Painted three-dimensional forms lurk from the high ceiling, on the concrete floor, in a corner, poised to come alive with a story for the viewer. Meticulously painted grids bend and stretch into grotesque forms, while brilliant hues and feasts of inquiry culminate in triumphant beauty. I wonder, first, what I am looking at, what materials were used, and then begin the quest of the narrative. Why?

Please Think © Marwa Abdul-Rahman

Please Think © Marwa Abdul-Rahman

Michele Antenorcruz (MA): How did this happen?

Marwa Abdul-Rahman (MAR): I was always an artistically geared child who didn’t realize art could be a career.  Whenever I had free time, I made sculptures and painted. Alone, and inside my head a lot, I would communicate through making things out of hangers, rocks, paint, all kinds of things. I’d wait for my parents to finish their can of coffee so I could repurpose the tin, or find abandoned objects on the ground and incorporate them in my sculptures, which now that I think about it, I still do. Whatever I made was just to make it. Nothing was ever precious, and eventually it would be forgotten again, and probably thrown away. I kind of still have that attitude. My work now always stems from a curiosity. I find it’s easier for me to take risks doing things that seem odd or unconventional. If I tell myself the work is experimental or temporal in nature, and if it doesn’t finally work out in my studio, (it) could just be reworked or abandoned.

MA: From abandonment to resurrection to abandonment. What was the last thing you picked up?

MAR: A big umbrella like the fruit sellers’ umbrellas around town, those colorful ones, was heaped on the side of the 210 West and my kids said, “Don’t get out of the car to get it; it’s too dangerous,” so we passed it up, day after day on our commute. I looked for it each time we passed, hoping no one had scooped it up. One late night when there were no cars, we turned around and I got it. Now it’s in the piece in my studio.

We walk into the studio. I immediately delight upon seeing the incongruence of the piece. The reworked umbrella, its colors flapping, at once both a deflated and bloated mass with an intricate grid painstakingly painted across like the grid of a city. I wonder about the life of the umbrella and its current fate. I gawk at its renaissance.


MAR: Even on the side of the road, it was so beautiful, this colorful formless mass, and it wasn’t obvious what it was, but I suspected I knew. That’s how I see art: it’s beautiful, not in a glossy, finished way, but more like the umbrella on this highway, with its stripes of yellow, red, lavender heaped on the concrete with the green hills around it. It was a beautiful contrast to its surroundings that made you think, go outside of the moment you were in, to figure out first, what it was, and second, what were the implications of its being there.

MA:  Poetic, right?  So how did you get from coffee cans to strewn umbrellas?

MAR: In college, I began studying molecular biophysics as a pre-med, but then realized I wanted to be an artist. My parents didn’t see the use of it, and my dad immediately said that I could not major in art. My parents emigrated from Egypt with $20 in their pocket and scholarships for Ph.D.s in engineering. The value of hard work and finding a way to be financially responsible, or getting yourself from the bottom up, was paramount to them. They did not see art as a way for me to be a financially independent woman, and opposed it. I ended up majoring in film as a compromise. My parents knew of people in Los Angeles who could make a living in the film business, so they didn’t oppose this choice. Film satisfied my desire to create and be an artist. Filmmakers, in a beautiful way, can get you to think and investigate and still leave questions. Just like the umbrella, because at first it’s confusing to see all of those colors on the roadside and if you try to unpack its life, it’s not obvious. To me, successful films aren’t straightforward either, but you have to investigate and be curious to see what the film is exploring or positing.

MA:  And then being an artist?

MAR: I don’t think that anyone chooses to be an artist, and now I totally understand where my dad was coming from; it’s a hard road no matter what. I honestly wouldn’t wish making a living as an artist on anyone, especially not my children. But until I started graduate school for my MFA, I realized I had never before been truly happy. When I can paint, my life is so much more rich. I honestly think it’s a necessity for me. I believe people are put on this earth to do their work, whatever it is, even if it’s difficult. And when you find that work which you’re meant to do, even if it’s a struggle, it’s also the happiest you could ever be.

I call myself a painter but I use materials other than oils and acrylics in my pieces. I also ‘paint’ with found materials and their ready-made color. In the umbrella piece, I “frankensteined” together the umbrella along with materials I had already prepped for a painting I was about to begin, because however disparate they were, they just seemed to go together in my mind. In this way, my paintings almost look like resuscitated monsters—powerful, with a lot of presence. Some art can look defeated with the weight of the struggle, but in my work I really try to make the struggle emerge with pride or swagger. There’s a victorious nature and even joy denoted by big, bright, bold colors in your face. Warts, stitches and all are out there and proud. To me, they’re actually kind of funny.

MA:  I did laugh when I first discovered it. And then there’s the politics . . .

MAR:  Especially because of the umbrella and the fruit stands and the emergence and presence of fruit stands everywhere now—this weird convergence of white affluence mixed with marginalized people literally working on the margins, the sidewalks and streets—almost a weird symbiosis in Pasadena, especially of a suburban white commodity (the fruit) with a way to feed a family (selling the fruit). This symbiosis is brilliant and I don’t know if the fruit stands are owned individually, how safe, whether vendors make a living wage, conditions they work in; I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me. What’s interesting to me is the “other” because a person on the outside is making her way like me, as a child of immigrants. What does it mean that this fruit seller lost an umbrella? Will he be in trouble? Did he lose his livelihood? Does he owe money to someone? What our society looks at and overlooks as they drive by at 65 mph on the 210 heading west or at the intersection of California and the Huntington hospital. In any case with reference to politics in general, I tend to certainly think about politics when working. As an Arab American Muslim woman there’s no way I can’t…

MA:  So, how does art make an impact?

MAR: In college, since I wasn’t going to be a doctor and felt I had to justify moving from a profession that helps people, to something visual, I realized, art can save lives as well, because certain art can change the world and how things can be seen. Not everyone can be a great surgeon or artist but I think art can have that power and it is not a selfish pursuit.

I think great art is an honest reflection of what is going on currently in the artist’s moment in time. I also believe visual art has a language all its own that is communicated in a visual way. There are people who are really good at translating that language and putting it into words, but ultimately, I think art can change you and ultimately change the world by shifting thought, in a visual way.

MA:  Have you ever had the experience of making a painting that you felt could act this way?

MAR:  That is my goal with all of my pieces. I try to create beautiful things I have never seen before which also speak to the viewer. Currently, the painting in my studio which is operating that way is my 20-foot long soft sculpture/painting (I’ll have a name for it soon). The giant scale is juxtaposed with its fragility and cumbersomeness and there are many different passages where things are going on and as a whole it comes together in this awakened way. It’s how I see life. I use different materials, patterns, brush strokes, so the various parts can be at odds with each other within the cohesive whole. It’s not rectangular, but rather a nonconventional amorphous shape made of soft wire, pliable screen and soft fabric painted into hardened looking pieces, which all convey the idea of different things with different meanings opening up thought and varied perspectives. My paintings are often two-sided, exhibited to show both front and a back. I try to think about everything from different perspectives, because in every case there is no ‘one’ way to tell a story or one side which is completely definitively correct. The importance of seeing various points of view could have stemmed from living in Egyptian culture in America, or being an Egyptian-American living in Europe. It has to do with seeing things from not the same hole. There are always bits of jarring difference and disruptions, and in those disruptions, I can see that many points of views or ways of thought are valid. I see this jarring difference and disruption reflected in my art.

MA: Yes. Your art reflects the multi-dimensionality and complexity you describe. So how does  your typical work day unfold?

MAR: I wake up every day motivated to create something new or work out a problem in my studio, even if it is extremely frustrating and mentally difficult. I am a process artist and work intuitively. It’s grueling taking risks and trusting that I’ll be guided to some acceptable outcome. I work on multiple pieces at the same time and will leave pieces up on the wall for a while to understand if they are done or not. Usually, but actually not always, the ones that are easy and quick have to be worked out some way.

MA: Who has been influential on your artistic development?

MAR: I lived in Europe for six years, where both of my children were born, and it was pretty hard for me to make anything or get any work done while they were babies, but I carved out bits of time and somehow found artists living where I was with whom I could create and talk about art and go out to see exhibitions. When I moved to Los Angeles from Spain, I took art classes at UCLA Extension, where I met a really dynamic art teacher and artist who turned me on to mixed media. It was so freeing for her to say it was fine and okay for me to do what I was doing. We became friends and I became her studio assistant. She did crits for me as I created work in my own studio in my spare time, and helped me build a portfolio for grad school. I didn’t get in the first year but decided to make more work and reapply. The second time I got in. Grad school was helpful because I’d never studied art before and came in raw. This is part of the reason I think that my works are open and bizarre. I’m a bit of an outsider artist in that sense because I don’t have the narrative of having to adhere to a specific way things are supposed to be done. In grad school, I was forced to do work in a short amount of time and I was constantly having meetings and people in my studio and I had to explain why I was making what I was making. It was helpful for me to be serious about my work and then to be uncomfortable and to work on multiple pieces at one time and to know that uncomfortable place. I learned to accept and ride it. Eventually, the really awkward and uncomfortable was what became so interesting to me: that confusing strangeness—to not want to look away. A lot of people don’t want to look at what’s uncomfortable, and accept what is. But bringing that discomfort to the fore is crucial to my work. I feel as though if I went for what was easy, struggle and difficulty wouldn’t show up in the pieces, which in the end goes hand in hand with being a survivor.

MA:  Survivor?

MAR: I mentioned before I felt like my pieces mostly looked like joyous or victorious survivors. I use not only discarded items off the street, but also bed sheets, unwanted clothes, and household items, which recall being a survivor in terms of a domestic space. Survivor is part of a bigger idea of reclaiming my freedom sexually, as a woman, from being controlled, or from a certain race or religion. I have a tendency to try to cut loose anything that’s shackled or tied down. There are a lot of lines, bars, grids or parts tied up in my paintings. For those parts that are trying to be unbound, what happens when it comes through victorious? Being a Muslim woman in America these days, and the wars in the name of terror, or violence towards women in any way, not having to do with race or culture—I want to break through those bars and lines and see it as empowering and exciting, not beaten down. I find Islam being demonized frustrating, but it’s just another struggle. By representing myself as a Muslim and a woman, it’s as if I’m giving a different kind of face to these categories It’s part of the reason I don’t make small things and have always rejected small, dainty, pretty, and cute as an ‘exotic’ woman of color. I won’t play that game. I just won’t.

Marwa Abdul-Rahman’s upcoming exhibit at MaRS Gallery, 649 S. Anderson Street, Los Angeles, will run from June 11 to July 16, 2016.

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