Silent intensity: Egyptian American artist Yasmine K. Kasem – in conversation

Yasmine K. Kasem’s bold sculptures plumb the depths between cultures and genders.

Art Radar catches up with Yasmine K. Kasem to find out more about her work examining the female form and what an early Islamic heroine can teach us today about the importance of community building.

Yasmine K. Kasem, 'Apostate No.1', 2014, limestone, steel I-beams and bronze. Image courtesy the artist.

Yasmine K. Kasem, ‘Apostate No.1’, 2014, limestone, steel I-beams and bronze. Image courtesy the artist.

San Diego-based artist Yasmine K. Kasem melds together metals, industrial and composite materials to cast a subtle gaze on female sexuality and Islamophobia in post 9/11 society as an artist of Egyptian-American ancestry.

Yasmine K. Kasem earned her BFA in Sculpture from the Indiana University Herron School of Art and Design in 2015. Kasem’s work has been shown in the American Midwest and in New Jersey. A co-founder of Working Girls Artist Collective (Indiana), the artist has been awarded the International Sculpture Center’s Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture (2015), the Mildred Darby Menz Award (2015) and the Herron School of Art and Design Honors (2014). In 2015, Kasem was chosen to take a master class with artist Michelle Grabner at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The artist’s work will be included in upcoming exhibition “Radical Love: Female Lust” at  London’s The Crypt Gallery opening on 14 February 2017.

Art Radar talks with the artist to learn about her artistic processes and why her work is particularly relevant now.

Do you consider yourself a diaspora artist? If so, how has living outside of Egypt shaped your view of that particular country and its culture? Has this influenced your art, the themes that you choose to explore and the media that you use?

I’d say that I am somewhat diasporic, yes. More so with my older works. My father was pretty active in teaching us about our heritage. I grew up with pharaonic decorations around the house and watching movies about ancient Egypt with him. It wasn’t until after 9/11 that I realised what modern Egyptian culture was and the density of Islamic history. I was going on 13 when I got to spend several weeks travelling around Egypt with my family. It was my first experience really comprehending the complex and converging cultures from the cities to villages, men to women, local to tourist. I just fell in love and felt a deeper connection and pride than I previously did watching The Mummy on a Saturday night with my dad.

Coming back from that trip, I felt a heightened sensitivity to the Islamophobia I witnessed in the United States. Later on, I felt that creating a window to elements of Islamic culture through my art was my way of pushing back against Islamophobia. Currently, I’m drawing from my memories of Egypt and figuring out where I fit in as a first-generation Egyptian-American in regards to straddling the line between two cultures. With that, I think my current work is less so diasporic since it’s situated in the unique limbo that first generational individuals exist in.

Yasmine K. Kasem, 'Self Portrait of Two Ancestral Histories', 2014, aluminum. Image courtesy the artist.

Yasmine K. Kasem, ‘Self Portrait of Two Ancestral Histories’, 2014, aluminum. Image courtesy the artist.

In a video filmed in conjunction with a solo show at the Harrison Center for the Arts, you say that your work examines the issues shared by both the Middle East and the United States regarding women. How do you depict the similarities and differences between these cultures in your work?

I utilise my loneliness in cultural limbo to tie myself to the different cultures I inhabit. Those anchors are usually the things that make me feel more unified as a person in regards to combining Islamic [culture] and the West. I find the issues in body, action and presence of women the key points I focus on within my figures and installation. I think universally, the depiction of our physical bodies is always a controversial topic within Western and Middle Eastern cultures in regards to the portrayal of female sexuality in a form of hyper-sexualised objectivity – whether it’s sold as a product to consume or masked in curiosity – which is why I tackle this issue by removing the traditional form of a female body in most of my work. There is nobody to sexualise or obsess over, yet that does not effect the presence of a feminine force within the art.

I enjoy the intensities of subtlety and pushing the magnitude of a felt female presence without having the sculpture beg for your attention, which is the other issue I find women across cultures share. I feel that women are overlooked outside of the sexual “male gaze”, which brings me to celebrating our actions, which greatly outlive ourselves. The things we do and say in our daily lives can be more beautiful than any body or face that will fade with time. Those actions can be a tool for the future to study, utilise and improve upon for the ones who come after us.

Your biography states that your “work confronts misconceptions about Muslim and Middle Eastern Women and initiates a conversation through stimulating and relatable work”. What factors do you employ to help make your work “relatable”?

I address the aspect of eye contact and humanity within a stare. My work often looks back at the viewer, engaging with them in the intensities of silent eye contact that we have all experienced. So much can be said within a passing glance, things that are often difficult to say out loud. When we look into the eyes of someone different than us, we can find the same humanity we have within ourselves and for a moment, we can forget all the things that separate us as people. With my work specifically, there’s a unity between viewers and the piece when they are stuck in the alluring gaze of the figures.

Yasmine K. Kasem, 'Silent Strength' (detail), 2014, bronze and acrylic. Image courtesy the artist.

Yasmine K. Kasem, ‘Silent Strength’ (detail), 2014, bronze and acrylic. Image courtesy the artist.

I am intrigued by your Minuets in Minya installation. Please tell us more about this work and the impetus behind it.

I was visiting Egypt in 2015 for the first time in a while due to political unrest. I had a little over two weeks, with one week being devoted to a conference in Sharm el Sheikh. The following week was spent visiting my large extensive family, who live south of Cairo in El Minya. Basically, I spent three days crammed in a microbus – a vehicle the size of a compact SUV that somehow seats eight or more people – driving up and down the bumpy roads in El Minya. We visited several family members every day who would overfeed me, seat me back in a microbus or taxi that would take me to the next family member and the cycle would continue.

I started to feel sick, physically and emotionally. I missed America and was a little upset with myself about how difficult I found it to focus on where I was, my family and enjoying the experience. Everything was overwhelming and blending together, and I found myself singing the National Anthem in my head to get me through the next family visit. It wasn’t until we were out of the city travelling on the desert highway that I started to feel at peace and process the marathon of food and family. Listening to the Quran on the radio as the sun set over the mountains in the West, I could feel all the love and wonder I had experienced minutes before.

Yasmine K. Kasem, 'Minuets in Minya', 2015, installation, projection and acrylic paint. Image courtesy the artist.

Yasmine K. Kasem, ‘Minuets in Minya’, 2015, installation, projection and acrylic paint. Image courtesy the artist.

Please speak about how you “celebrate women’s choice” and explore stereotypical views of women in your work. Do you feel this is important or particularly relevant now? Why?

I’ve heard criticism of how women from different cultures lead their lives from each side. That comes with the territory of being a first-generation Egyptian-American.  I find it so fascinating because it’s so easy to generalise and jump to conclusions that are stereotypical due to misunderstandings about cultural elements that are socially “weird” or semi-controversial to one another. I celebrate a woman’s choice in whatever she wants because we are told what to do, or what we cannot do so often by our families, our friends, our government and our culture on the basis of gender alone. Especially now in light of the election and the threats against women and Muslims, I think it’s crucial to openly celebrate and encourage women, regardless of their identities and beliefs, to do what will make them happy and what they think is best for them.

Tell us more about your solo show “Silent Strength” and how the title influenced your work.

The show was originally supposed to be one piece entitled Silent Strength that I submitted for an open call at the Harrison Center for the Arts in Indianapolis. The curator was taken by the work and requested I submit more pieces, which ultimately resulted in a solo show. At the time, I had just finished my junior year of my BFA so I jumped on the opportunity to present my year’s worth of work in a public gallery. The title was derived from the centrefold piece within the exhibition called Silent Strength, which featured a lineup of five female figures, silently and intensely gazing at the viewers, locking in eye contact as the audience would interact with the piece. The show was about the intimidation within silence and subtlety, which was the theme I was beginning to work with at the time. Each piece in the gallery had an element of that silent intensity.

Yasmine K. Kasem, 'Banat Azdah (Daughters of Azdah)' (Detail), 2015, bronze, cement-cast fabric, steel and sand. Image courtesy the artist.

Yasmine K. Kasem, ‘Banat Azdah (Daughters of Azdah)’ (Detail), 2015, bronze, cement-cast fabric, steel and sand. Image courtesy the artist.

Can you please tell us the story of Azdah Bint Al-Harith and how it inspired your work Banat Azdah (Daughters of Azdah)?

In the early Islamic era when Muslims were still in conflict with the Pagan communities, several battles for land or self-defense took place all over the region. Essentially, Azdah Bint Al-Harith along with the other women, were waiting back at a base camp while the men from her community were in a battle with the Pagans. To the rest of the women in the camp, she addressed her fears of the Muslims being overcome by the Pagan army and that they would then attack the base camp where she and all the other women were.

She encouraged the women to take their headscarves and raise them up like banners to trick the Pagans that the Muslims had reinforcements. So they marched up to the battleground with their scarf-banners, and the Pagans retreated, thinking Azdah and her party were reinforcements for the Muslim soldiers. Her story inspired me not only because she saved the men in battle, but she essentially saved everyone. In that era, her side losing or her base camp being attacked meant slavery, concubinage or death for the women as well as children and the elderly who were likely present as well. She spoke up and banded everyone together in a risky operation, to preserve their well-being, which is something that women are still doing today for various reasons. And Like Azdah, women should continue to communicate about [their] concerns and come together to march for self-preservation.

Yasmine K. Kasem, 'El Qamesha El Wahida (the Lonely Cloth)', 2015, bronze and steel. Image courtesy the artist.

Yasmine K. Kasem, ‘El Qamesha El Wahida (the Lonely Cloth)’, 2015, bronze and steel. Image courtesy the artist.

How does the audience respond your work? Any interesting stories you would like to share?

There’s a sense of intimidation and inquisitiveness. Recently someone walked into my studio and looked at a new piece I was working on and called it scary, which was new to me! There’s a sense of “otherness” I think that the audience picks up on that makes them curious and ask questions – which is what I want in the end. When I was exhibited at the “Grounds for Sculpture” in New Jersey in 2015, the artists were requested to stand by their work for the opening and talk to the audience. I was thrilled that people were asking so many questions about my piece and Islamic culture, especially the hijab and the history and controversy that surrounds the garment and practice. For many of them, that might have been their first experience talking about Islamic practices and culture with someone who understands it at a personal level, which is the outreach I’m wanting to achieve with my art.

Yasmine K. Kasem, 'Lady in Red', 2013, carved foam and fabric. Image courtesy the artist.

Yasmine K. Kasem, ‘Lady in Red’, 2013, carved foam and fabric. Image courtesy the artist.

Please tell us about your interest in art restoration. Do you use any restoration techniques in your artwork?

I was first introduced to restoration when I visited Egypt in 2007. Seeing restoration work at the temples and ancient monuments left a deep imprint on me for the future. It was actually something I intended to work towards career-wise, but once I started getting into the thick of my artistic practice, that interest was shelved. However, ancient restoration led me to the opposing interest of iconoclasm and the act of destroying an iconographic object. These two interests, on opposite ends of a spectrum revolving around art and artifacts, formed an attractive concept to use in my practice. I presented that conflict in a series of self-portraits where I would create myself as an idol, and then vandalise it via chiselling, gouging, grinding and hammering away in an act of iconoclasm. Later in the series, I restored some of the damage in a couple of pieces as commentary on personal regrets and acceptance, which is as close to restoration [as it got] being used in my work.

Yasmine K. Kasem, 'Apostate No. 3', 2014, concrete and bronze. Image courtesy the artist.

Yasmine K. Kasem, ‘Apostate No. 3’, 2014, concrete and bronze. Image courtesy the artist.

Has your work been shown in Egypt? If not, any plans to do so in the future?

Not ye, but I am enthusiastic for the future. I’ve made some attempts to get my work out to Egypt, but nothing has come together as of now. I am hopeful with time and through the connections I make, I’ll have my work displayed where the other part of my heritage lays.

Lisa Pollman

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Related Topics: Egyptian artists, art and the community, women power, sculpture, female form

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