Every Fragment • A Prayer
Yasmine K. Kasem Interviewed by 1805 Gallery Director Lauren Siry
Artist in Residence: December 21, 2018 - January 19, 2019
Exhibition: January 24, 2019 - February 23, 2019
Artist Reception: Thursday, January 24, 2019, 6-8PM
While in residence, Yasmine Kasem will tear cotton piping into strands, weaving them together to form Islamic prayer rugs that will be saturated with fabric dyes and transferred onto sheets of paper. As an Egyptian-American artist that grew up in conservative midwestern Indiana, Kasem explores layered elements of her Muslim faith and traditional Western culture within her practice. Kasem’s prayer rugs explore the struggle in merging her Islamic religion and queer identity, while enabling her submission to accept and unify the opposing identities. The transfer of pigments and cotton from the saturated prayer rugs materializes the tension inherent of her religious and sexual identity.
(LS) In what ways does your residency project at 1805 Gallery respond to the recent rise of Islamophobia in the United States?
(YK) I’m no stranger to witnessing Islamophobia, it’s been a part of my life since I was just a little kid. I think that much of the work I’ve made since pursuing a professional art career has had the objective of addressing different forms of islamophobia. However, most of my older work was not representing my personal feelings and there for, not really representing my individual identity as a Muslim woman. The rugs I’m creating are embedded with the imagery of memories of places that my Muslim community would congregate to worship despite not having a specific mosque within our town (until more recently). As an adult, I’ve been reflecting back on these places and come to realize that it was a strange practice in contrast to other Muslims in my circle. For a long time, I thought a Catholic church’s rec room was our Mosque amongst other places. I have a lot of admiration for how my community could make a unique spiritual space catered to our religious needs, even within another faith’s house; resilient in that we came together under unideal circumstances and practiced without a traditional building or fixtures. Overall, I think that these rugs can give an example of variation within a religious identity, and that Muslims are incredibly diverse.
(LS) What role does the Islamic prayer rug play in your life?
(YK) The prayer rug is probably the only place where I can feel 100% in peace with myself. It’s an intimate space that’s purpose is meant for meditation, focus and sincerity on a personal level. There I can let the rest of the world, my identities and the oppositional forces that may exist between, settle and unite into one purpose.
(LS) Will you perform a prayer using your handwoven rug?
(YK) The prayer is the act of making them; both in their physical makeup and the abstraction pulled from its making. In that the rug is the physical place with an impression of a memory of a queer space from my past. The abstraction is the result of that physical intention, a record of the prayer that was made.
(LS) Can you discuss the elements of personal identity that you struggle to reconcile in regards to the tension between your religion, culture, and sexuality?
(YK) For a long time, I struggled with my identity as a Muslim woman, especially living in the Midwest. After moving to San Diego and a much more diverse region, I feel more confident in my identity as a Muslim American Woman, that just existing is all that needs to occur for me cement that identity and to not feel inadequate for not being enough of one or another culture. There isn’t a “Type” that needs to be achieved. However, the struggle persists within heteronormativity. To be frank, I was not made for that lifestyle and I am acutely aware that non-heteronormative identities are still seeking acceptance in the larger mainstream Islamic religion. That to many, I simply cannot live the way I do and still be a Muslim, and in contrast, could be considered foolish for subscribing to a religion that sees me as sin; which I whole heartedly disagree with. However, I exist, and I hold to both my Muslim and Queer Identity. The struggle that lives within that union is to embrace them both equally, non-discriminatively and facing the risks of losing important relationships. To not submit to the mainstream attitudes of either separate identity such as removing myself from my religious beliefs or forcing myself to live as heteronormative, but to live in the struggle that is to balance these identities that many see to contradict and would tell me so. However, to live in a struggle like this isn’t an invalid existence, to me its sincere, it’s worth it.
(LS) How will you compose your patterns and how do they differ or relate to traditional designs of Islamic prayer rugs?
(YK) I compose these patterns through spraying and squirting concentrated dyes onto the cotton. The body of the cotton is very fragile and can’t be dyed with more conventional means of soaking in a tub. The concentration of dyes hardens the soft cotton and helps strengthen it just a bit. I’d say the similarities are shared in the shape and size of the rug, and the functional design/decorations. However, I’d say that’s where it stops in terms to a more traditional rug. These rugs portray the images of queer spaces. Not in “queer” meaning LGBTQIA+, but more in the sense of strange and different. Mine host the images of important mosques, but are probably only important to me, and the symbols I use or also highly personal in that they reflect specific items in the ‘mosques” imbedded on the rug.
(LS) Does the rug transform into a tapestry after you have woven, painted and transferred the patterns of the prayer rug onto paper, later to be hung on the wall? If so, how is this transformation significant to the tension between disparate cultures and faiths?
(YK) Good question. I wouldn’t say they turn to tapestry, but are really just an extension of the space the prayer rug creates. Expanding the image of the physical place into a more faint and abstract print. The prayer rug is the place, the object, and the print is the prayer. My intention is to expand that space of peace and serenity I feel while on a prayer rug.
(LS) While your previous work heavily references the Islamic female form, the prayer rugs and transfers are absent of the human body in favor of abstraction. In your recent installation Masracani 2017, a group of female figures emerge from the center of the room shrouded beneath layers of patterned fabric that accentuate their collective postures in prayer. In Compress. Protect.Organize 2017, the form begins to deflate into earthy fabrics that are enclosed and flattened in airtight storage bags. The compression of the fabric preserves an abstract silhouette of a Muslim woman. How has the Middle Eastern female body evolved in your work?
(YK) I used to focus on the body for a few key reasons, one being that my early roots in art come from portrait sculpture, I was very focused on anatomy and the human figure. The other comes from my experiences of not only being a Muslim woman, but being a woman in general. I am very aware of my body and the power that is has. I used to make commentary on the female form from an Islamic perspective to illustrate the power behind it. I did this in response to commentary I’ve heard from western opinions that was largely made to sound like the female Muslim body, or more specifically, a covered Muslim body, is one that is oppressed –which I disagree with. I’ve navigated this through a lot of ways; how a body has presence if it isn’t seen, how bodies can “other” or exclude you. But it came to a point where it was becoming more about capturing the likeness of a body to ensure the audience to connect to the work, which was a crutch for me for so long. I find a lot of comfort and beauty in bodies and figures, its something that I have a lot to say about. but I think the shift to abstraction came about with the need to express the unseen, or the emotional labors within the body. I still think that my work is still very figurative, and I often refer to my sculptures as “bodies” but I think with the embrace of abstraction, I can relieve myself of using the human figure as a channel for the audience to relate to my work and begin making points that can talk about my experience as a Muslim woman/ Middle Eastern woman beyond the literal human figure.
(LS) What has been the biggest challenge in your art practice?
(YK) Patience. I’m impatient when it comes to making because I’m excited to work with material. I want to jump to the next part without fully thinking things through sometimes. At times, it creates more problems, but its worked for me in helping me discover new ways of making and problem solving. I usually keep my impatience in check, through sometimes it gets the better of me! Though I do think that my impatience has helped me get to the point I am now.
(LS) What do you hope to accomplish by completing this residency ?
(YK) I really wanted to address the question of queer spaces in my work. To tie my history into what I’m doing in other areas of my practice to help make sense of my feelings. I know I had a weird upbringing, and I’ve always felt like an outsider, but I think if I hadn’t grown up feeling that way and experienced what I have, tackling my identity would have been so much harder than it already is.
Yasmine K. Kasem will present her new body of work at 1805 Gallery on Thursday, January 24, 2019 from 6-8PM. The exhibition will be on view from January 24, 2019 through February 23, 2019. For more information please contact 1805 Gallery Director Lauren Siry by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1805 Gallery is located at 1805 Columbia Street, San Diego.