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."
Luther Konadu: At what point do you think you become interested in working with fibers?
Azza El Siddique: 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.
LK: What made you interested in manipulating fibers and other materials to have them be what you wanted them to be?
AES: I think about that and I think its my own way of relating to my father.
LK: What does your dad do?
AES: He’s a scientist
LK: What kind?
AES: 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.
LK: Why do you think you wanted to relate to your dad?
AES: 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.
LK: Did your dad often talk about his work?
AES: 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”
LK: What does your mom do?
AES: My mother back in Sudan was a social worker. She passed away when I was 11
Sleepwalking (Installation view)
LK: Did you ever gravitate towards her growing up?
AES: 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.
LK: Oh wow...
AES: Yeah, so that scene became material portrait of my mother and I
LK: So are both your parents from Sudan?
AES: Yeah they both are.
LK: Did you grow up there at all or you just grew up mostly in Toronto?
AES: 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.
LK: What part of Sudan?
AES: Khartoum. It's the capital of North Sudan right in the middle where the Nile splits.
LK: 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.’
LK: What does he think you do? What does he think his daughter is making?
AES: That’s actually a good question. I should ask him that.
LK: You should be like: "Dad, what do you think am I making? "
AES: 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.
AES: He’s very supportive and proud.
LK: When do you think you came to art making? Did you take art classes while in high school?
AES: 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.
LK: 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
LK: 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?
AES: 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.
LK: 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?
AES: Originally when I was thinking about doing the installation, I always imagined it with scent.
LK: Is this the first time you are working something like that?
AES: 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?
LK: Right, right…
AES: 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.
LK: Did it remind you of your mother?
AES: Yeah, it did.