I think it is fair to say portraits by the portraiture maker of themselves has long been a convention for how ever long any art form has existed. This tradition can be seen in any part of painting or any other image-making’s history and has typically sought to render the artist or the portrait maker’s likeness in some way or the other. We also see this play out in some of the earliest bronze, marble, or ceramic sculptures and even now the artist being the subject of the work is very much within that continuum. However, this idea has over time been expanded upon and broaden to present more complicated and gradated textures that constantly shuns any previous conventional depiction of the self.
More than anything else, Azza El Siddique’s sculptural assemblages and immersive installations speak closely to the self as it relates to personal histories, her family, and the social space she currently is situated. She presents first person multilayered and non linear narratives and as viewers, we are just left peering through a small window into her inner state. It’s no wonder El Siddique's way of making is inherently instinctual as tells me about her work: "my process is very open going in and it becomes working through emotions and ideas while I’m making." El Siddique’s assemblages tend to repurpose and make use of an unexpected matching of materials. You are likely to find anything from rock climbing ropes to safety netting to unlubricated condom in her work. “I create a bunch of objects without necessarily knowing how they are going to get implemented or used. It's only when I’m in the space and I start building. This sense of liberally and fluidly responding to materials, pairing them to exist in dialogue all build up to form works used in describing, sensory experiences, personal memories, and the artist’s own hybrid identity.
The Sudanese Canadian artist and Yale MFA graduate candidate, recently completed her first one person show at Toronto's 8-11 gallery and we caught up with her to talk among other things, her show/work, a bit about her scientist dad, and her uncontrollable need to gravitate toward every possible material she at her disposal.
"when I work with materials, I build some sort of relationship and knowledge with that material. Having knowledge gives you a sense of agency and this is something I think about a lot. How much agency do I have, how much agency does the material have, how far can I push it before it gives or what happens when it refuses to give? These are all things that I think of."
At what point do you think you become interested in working with fibers?
My final year in art school we had the chance to focus on work we were interested in and I’ve always been interested in fiber so it became natural for me to work through it. I really spent the my thesis year asking how to get fiber not to behave like fiber and to get other materials appear or behave like fabric/fibre.
What made you interested in manipulating fibers and other materials to have them be what you wanted them to be?
I think about that and I think its my own way of relating to my father.
What does your dad do?
He’s a scientist
Its really specific. Pulp and paper forest sciences
I guess there’s always been this interest in attaining knowledge. And when I work with materials, I build some sort of relationship and knowledge with that material. Having knowledge gives you a sense of agency and this is something I think about a lot. How much agency do I have, how much agency does the material have, how far can I push it before it gives or what happens when it refuses to give? These are all things that I think of.
Why do you think you wanted to relate to your dad?
As a scientist, my father is also an inventor. Through material exploration, I can invent or try to achieve a new form of communication. I think what I am trying to do is to create a knew visual language in a way.
Did your dad often talk about his work?
I remember when I was young he would make me read some of his papers and I was like “I’ve no idea, what you are talking about here”
What does your mom do?
My mother back in Sudan was a social worker. She passed away when I was 11
Sleepwalking (Installation view)
Did you ever gravitate towards her growing up?
Yeah. I did a piece “Sleep Walking” and it a scene from my childhood. When I was younger I use to sleepwalk a lot and I remember one specific time I got up to sleep walk and I was about to go down the stairs. It felt very lucid because my mom woke me up and she asked me where I was going and I told her that I was going home.
Yeah, so that scene became material portrait of my mother and I
So are both your parents from Sudan?
Yeah they both are.
Did you grow up there at all or you just grew up mostly in Toronto?
I was born there, and then we moved to Vancouver when I was about 4. I was very young but I still have memories. I moved to Toronto about 7 years ago.
What part of Sudan?
Khartoum. It's the capital of North Sudan right in the middle where the Nile splits.
Do you ever run any ideas by him in terms of your work? or in terms of materials?
He gives me the typical response any parent give to their kids: ‘Its really great.’ I don’t even know if he gets it. He just looks at it and thinks: ‘My daughter did that.’
What does he think you do? What does he think his daughter is making?
That’s actually a good question. I should ask him that.
You should be like: "Dad, what do you think am I making? "
Yeah, I should. I curated a show at Habourfront Centre. And he was like: “That was such a great job!” I think he thought I made all the pieces in the show.
He’s very supportive and proud.
When do you think you came to art making? Did you take art classes while in high school?
I did but I didn’t think of it as a career option until much later. I got into the fashion design program at Ryerson in Toronto and I just thought it would be something that I can be creative and also have a possible livelihood doing it. And half a semester into it, I realized that wasn’t something I wanted to do at all especially if I was going to put so much energy and time into something. But that led me into the Material Art and Design's fiber program at OCADU.
Oh nice! Full circle.
Family Portrait (Installation view) 2017 from Lattice be Transparent at 8-11 Gallery
Holder (Installation view), 2017 from Lattice be Transparent at 8-11 Gallery
Part of your 8-11 show was kind of tucked away in the basement. If I’m an unassuming visitor, how would I know it was there?
The show had a strong scent component to it from one of the pieces in the basement. That piece was Family Portrait, it had a Bakhoor placed in unfired clay holders. Bakhoor is this Middle Eastern incense and the Bakhoor that I was burning was very specific to the smell from my childhood, which was reminiscent of Sudanese women. Because of how strong it was the smell wafted through the downstairs and upstairs. There was also an audio component, which I think you could here it from the stairs to the basement.
Oh I didn't know that. I guess that's one thing photography can't tell you. When did you think to include it as part of the body of work?
Originally when I was thinking about doing the installation, I always imagined it with scent.
Is this the first time you are working something like that?
Yes, it is. I’ve never worked with anything like that before. I originally came across the Bakhoor at a Middle Eastern store here in Toronto. I wasn’t really looking for anything in particular, but then I came across it and when I smelled it…and I swear…it just…you know when something is so nostalgic it completely throws you off?
I can’t even find the words to explain it but I was just blown away. That smell was so comforting to me. All the Sudanese women from my past just…it essentially boiled down to Sudanese women. I immediately knew I wanted to use it someway, somehow.
a/s/l (Installation view) at Habourfront Centre. Image courtesy of artist.
a/s/l as part of Lattice be Transparent, 2017 at 8-11 Gallery Toronto. Documentation by Yuula Benivolski
When I did the first installation, ‘a/s/l’ I imagined it with the sent in the space. When I had the opportunity to show at 8-11, I knew I would include it. I essentially wanted to create my own safe space. And if I were to create my own virtual reality what would it consist of and that scent to me what a very strong part. It was comforting and nourishing.
Did it remind you of your mother?
Yeah, it did.
Lattice be Transparent (Installation View), 2017 at 8-11 Gallery Toronto. Documentation by Yuula Benivolski
When I think of virtual spaces, its very optics based, and distancing so in thinking about the scent component, it kind of adds another dimension to what is a virtual, it makes it tangible
Yes, it definitely does make it tangible. I was talking to someone after the show and they said to me that after they left they could still smell it in their clothes and they also found it very comforting. I thought that was really powerful that it was carried out of the space.
The entire show seem to have a lot of materials working together all at once. Looking back, can you think of an itemized list of what you were working with?
Ok so I’ll start in the front room
There’s safety netting, porcelain, latex paint, earthen ware clay, two-way acrylic, plastic ropes, thermo plastic rods, spray paint, glass, cinder blocks, glass tubing, mirrored glass tubing, ice, fabric, projector, rock climbing rope, contact microphone, stainless steel, fabric, casting slip, and also an unlubricated condom.
Where is that one located?
To embed the microphone into the clay.
Great use of condoms.
But that’s a crazy amount of materials…did you anticipate that you were going to be using all of that?
Yes. I gravitate towards a lot of different materials and I feel like I need to be constantly engaged with them and it needs to be immediate. I find that I’m always looking at materials and objects around me and see how I can utilize them in a different ways. It's hard for me to focus on one material or few. I start to focus once I’m building and installing.
"i oscillate between two cultures that I don't necessarily feel like I fully belong to either one and I am trying to find and address those spaces in-between within my work."
It’s interesting how you’ve been able to work all these individual parts together and some juxtapose them with each other and you also had the audio from the stream of the fountain as well?
Yeah, during the show there was a live feed from the microphone that was embedded in the clay from the fountain
Why amplify the sound of the falling water?
How I like to think about it was you can hear the clay’s interpretation of the trauma from the water. I was just thinking about clay as a quiet and humble material. And allowing it speak to you or hearing what it has to say. So I was interested in exploring those relationships. The clay in the fountain is also unfired so it will dissolve over time.
Lattice be Transparent (Detail view), 2017 at 8-11 Gallery Toronto. Documentation by Yuula Benivolski
It was unfired?
Yeah. So exploring the agency and power structure between water, and unfired clay. The fountain is set to dissolve. It is going to dissolve but who has the power in that relationship? Is it the water that ends up dissolving the clay or is it the clay that ends up blocking the fountain pump? I wanted that struggle between to be heard.
Originally the show started with 'a/s/l' and I was thinking of adaptation and looking at the virtual as an adaptive space that is based on escapism. I was thinking if I were to build my own virtual space what would that space look like? I was building a space that brought together objects, signs, and materials that were comforting to me. A lot of those objects, signs and materials are related to my Sudanese identity intermixed with my Western upbringing. It's all personal and honest. When I was building the first installation, I found myself very being frustrated. I was trying to build this safe space and then I find this packaging that said: “Designed by German engineers” and it's frustrating how white supremacy finds ways to trickle into this safe space. And I’m just like: “Fuck off” you know?
I can’t do this without you imposing…you know?
…yeah it rears its head in unexpected places.
I'm trying to think how you brought all these ideas that you are thinking about together under this show…you have talked about your thinking behind the fountain and the audio, the scent component, the seemingly disparate assemblage of materials and objects…
I like to look at my work as material self portraits. I see myself in the fountain. I see myself in the clay, the melting ice and in the henna. I see my mother, my brother and my father as well.
Have you ever found that your work is being read through your body as a person of color? Do you think your identity as a person of color is seen first before your work? Have you experienced something like that before?
Since my work is material self portraits some pieces do address topics from my experiences as an immigrant woman of colour while others talk more to the human condition. During a talk for the show at 8-11, someone mentioned that my work doesn’t look like it comes from person of color. And I don’t know how I felt about that. I know that a part of me was offended…I don’t know. I’m still trying to process that.
Another reason why I work with material exploration is that I’m trying to create a hybrid entity. As a Sudanese - Canadian; I feel like I oscillate between two cultures that I don't necessarily feel like I fully belong to either one and I am trying to find and address those spaces in-between within my work.
Cover image courtesy of artist