This year’s first solo exhibition at Gallery 1265 was a special project for ARTSIDEOUT featuring works from fourth-year student, Andilib Sajid. Sajid, an English major with double minors in art history and film and literature studies, was recently awarded UTSC’s Departmental English Award for her Jackman Humanities Institute fellowship paper “Deface,” which she was able to actualize in the exhibition that shares the same name. In her work, Sajid explores themes of Muslim women identities and juxtapositional relationships. Sajid’s works are informed by her interests of medieval Islamic art history and its potential intersections with Byzantine art history. The installations functioned to disrupt ideas of spectatorship and agency while also embedding personal themes to interrogate the dynamics between subject and objects.
The Underground (UG): Are you afforded opportunities to study your interests or are you bringing in your own knowledge and finding pieces from different courses?
Andilib Sajid (AS): It honestly depends. I think with the literature in film minor, I get a bit of a chance to be more exploratory in the works that I’m producing. Critical theory and cinema, you don’t really have that but you have professors who try to integrate that into the way they’re teaching. It’s hard because U of T doesn’t want to fund the arts and neither does Canada, so I don’t get to explore [my] specific interests. Obviously they incorporate different civilizations in intro courses to show that they have breadth but you don’t really get that a lot. It’s hard because you don’t want just anyone teaching it. You want someone who knows the nuances of that specific discipline. There are courses on medieval Christian art but that’s because [that’s] a lot of what art history has come to be.
UG: How was Deface an extension of themes that you explored during your fellowship at the Jackman Humanities Institute?
AS: When they were asking me to draft the project description, I had to explain what “Deface” at Jackman Humanities Institute was about and then what Deface in this exhibit is. They overlap but there are some distinctions. With “Deface” as a research paper, it [started] from these photographs of tortured victims of empires and victims of state violence and then looking at like how a thing or an object, that might be seemingly mundane, plays a very important role in producing these images as iconic.
With things like Black Lives Matter, the hood became this really important symbol that people are trying to now reclaim and politicize. With Abu Ghraib, when you have the hood as something that becomes enforced and inflicted onto victims of torture, that is something that we start identifying that person with. It was working with that, stemming from art and photographs, and the politics of looking at photographs, spectatorship and what this object comes to mean when it intersects with identity, power and then transferring that into a visual piece of work.
One of the questions I was asked when I presented the paper was, [‘Why didn’t you] look at veils?’ I didn’t because that’s a whole other project. I was thinking maybe Deface the exhibit can work on intersections of identity; specific identities like Muslim identities and Muslim women and then taking that and translating it into the exhibit. Not so much the hood, but still [possessing] the idea underlying “Deface” the paper, which was objects that have the ability to intersect with identity in very complicated ways.
[The veil] is something that a lot of people are trying to reclaim saying, ‘The veil is not oppressive because I’m choosing to wear this.’ It’s also something that becomes more complicated where you have states that are heavily invested in what women wear and are forcing the veil and that is something that I don’t think is necessarily empowering. It’s degrading. So I was looking at the veil in the exhibit and also just a larger understanding of the face, the body, how subjects and objects are orienting and embodying themselves, but how to assert agency and the ways in which it can be taken away from you.
There were personal elements in that exhibit. For Deface, I was researching performance art. I’m not comfortable with performance art because I feel like you can do anything. It’s so ambiguous, sometimes it gets ridiculous. I was very hesitant and the subject of it all is very controversial. I didn’t want people coming to me and yelling at me because of the way that I was using veils. Someone might say, ‘You don’t wear it so why are you including it into your artwork?’ Even though they don’t understand Muslim identity is not something that can be homogenized.
UG: You mentioned there were personal elements in the exhibition. Where else did you draw your inspiration from?
AS: There’s a performance artist named Ana Mandieta, I like a lot of her works but she really incorporates her body into the way her pieces are read. Many of them have these intersections of her body and landscape or her body and different materials and the ways that she can use her body to convey something to a viewer. It’s really personal but it’s also very moving and vulnerable.
For Deface I was interested in the idea of the psychodynamics of subjects and objects, the ways that we read bodies, situate them and visualize them. One of the pieces was kind of paying homage to her. Liminal was an outline I did on a sheet and then I had my partner trace my body with red paint and stitched that outline of a body onto another bedsheet. I thought it was very vulnerable but personal because these are domestic objects that experience so much of us in the ways that we use them. It was kind of playing on this idea of a body that is marked itself on an object but it’s not there; this idea of absence and presence. I think underlying a lot of this was ideas of uncanniness and death drives. When you see the outline you think someone killed themselves or [you think of] the way police investigations work. I thought a lot about Mandieta and then expressionist painters and the ways they’re using colour cause I wanted colour to be a big element in this.
UG: How did the themes you explore disrupt space?
AS: There were parts of the exhibit that I could tell was not foreseen by a lot of the people organizing it and was also something that, I guess, you wouldn’t expect from a student-run gallery or from a student. One of the pieces that I’m referring to was _______ (read: blank): the journal entry and the bed sheet came from an event that I was experiencing.
I went through an abusive event and the only way I could forget and remember it was to write it. My safety counsellor told me to start writing things down and I didn’t want to because when you go through trauma, well at least for me, I kind of get very mechanical and close up. I don’t always feel the need to translate what is happening mentally outside of myself, to externalize it.
I had to explain the text that was written because it’s not clear at first until you get to the end and I guess you can sort of piece it together. I had to explain that to my teacher and people who where they cause they thought it was a narrative of about the mannequin. No, this is actually my experience of being defaced and being stripped of my agency and my ability to be, live and thrive in a healthy manner. Also, just the idea of what we think of performance artists as like white people who do all this weird shit and no one understands it. To bring your identity into that and into these spaces that are obviously dominated by whiteness was something that felt a bit disruptive and vulnerable.
I’m not sure how it was received by everyone. It was the idea of — and this is something that gets spoken about in art and in unhealthy and healthy ways in Muslim communities — it’s like you’re allowed a certain amount of agency as a woman but once you start crossing boundaries and really expressing yourself the way you want to, then it’s not okay. How do we speak about these ideas and these conversations? That’s also something that was worrying me. You can own your identity to an extent but once it gets too personal, you start worrying about who’s reading this, who’s gonna talk about this…so there was that element.
The idea that displaying Muslim identity onto walls…felt a bit disruptive. I think a lot of people were pleased with it cause you don’t really assume that you will start mattering enough to be located in these spaces, I think that intrigued people…I was thinking a lot about like how do we combine my ideas of monstrosity, ugliness, pain, hurt and catharsis and embed it into photograph?…It just felt more empowering to have these unconventional portrayals.
UG: What did you intend the takeaway be for gallery attendees?
AS: I’m a very private person but this exhibit almost felt very open to me in some sense. I didn’t want to make art that was very detached from who I am so I just wanted that element in there. I have a diary entry written on a sheet and that was something that is directly connected to me as opposed to these other things more abstract in nature.
Just the idea that of thinking about bodies and thinking about spectacle and visual economies, the way they read bodies, faces and things that make us feel uncomfortable. There were mannequins and they really freaked people out. One of the mannequins were also bandaged so there’s this idea of [wondering], ‘Is this supposed to be human?’It’s not and that’s why it’s making us very uncomfortable and we can’t see them, which is also playing on this discomfort; the idea of this unreciprocated looking and trying to figure out what is underneath these things.
You get those comments a lot where you look people who wear the hijab or burqa, people come up to them and say, ‘Do you have hair underneath? I want to see your face.’ There’s always this idea of wanting to strip and wanting to bare things to see them. No one realizes how politically embedded that can be. This idea of stripping layers is also an analogy towards understanding who you are as well. The idea of unravelling someone to find out who they are, getting to know them at their bare bones. I think that’s something that drives a lot of us towards ourselves and others.