About the Artist
Eman Alshawaf is a digital artist, graphic designer and scholar from Kuwait. Her art and research explores the impact of contemporary computer technology on language and the human experience. She is also interested in the construction of beliefs, memories and how our past influences our present. Her work utilizes photography, video, and type and lives as prints and projections. She holds an MFA in Digital Arts and Digital Imaging from Pratt Institute, and a PhD in Design with a focus on visual communication and digital imaging from the University of Minnesota. She has participated in group exhibitions in both New York and Minnesota and is currently represented by Alfa gallery in Miami.
By Lucy Commoner, May 2018
What is your history of involvement with the Wassaic Project and how has that engagement impacted your art practice?
I first heard about the Wassaic Project in 2012 from one of my professors while I was completing my MFA in Digital Arts at Pratt Institute. I participated in their summer exhibition that year with a video piece titled Reminded, and since then have been interested in their residency program. I became intrigued in how the history of the mill influences the experience of living and making creative work in Wassaic. I liked that it is not about white gallery walls but allowing the work to interact with the space and its history.
Five years later I decided to give it a shot and apply to the program. I spent last December in Wassaic as an artist-in-residence, and my presence in a fairly remote location allowed me to question and examine my work differently. While the piece I worked on during my stay does not speak about Wassaic per se and its natural environment, it was heavily influenced by isolation from the city. During that time, I was also able to see how other artists worked and closely witnessed their creative routines. While my process is unpredictable and evolves over time, others were more structured and came with a plan. I definitely learned from observing them.
You are an artist and scholar from Kuwait who works predominantly in digital media incorporating photography, video, sound, and text. What draws you as an artist and thinker to contemporary computer technology and how do you think it is affecting our experience of the world?
In this age, computer technology plays a variety of roles in influencing and guiding artistic practices. It sometimes attempts to replace analog technology and other times generates futuristic experiences. However, in my creative and scholarly work I’m interested in the “convenience” computer technology has provided, specifically that which is mobile and accessible. As an artist, I’m practical in the sense that I’ll work with whatever tool is available in that given moment; therefore, the convenience and mobility of a complicated yet user-friendly object like the smartphone influences how I make art and becomes a tool for creative expression.
Several of my pieces have a component produced with an iPhone, be it video, photography or recorded sound. My work is not entirely produced on a smartphone but I do embrace the low quality of video in order to talk about how today’s practices like mobile photography and iPhoneography are challenging the roles of photographers, videographers and digital artists. I am very intrigued by a concept Professor Dean Keep* referred to in 2014 as Liquid Aesthetics: the capability to construct and deconstruct digital images due to their origins as pixels and 0s and 1s.
I am also interested in how mobile phones are somehow reminiscent of video art in the 1960’s and 70’s when the affordable Sony video camera allowed artists to see a reflection of themselves in real time. Artists like Joan Jonas and Bruce Nauman come to mind with pieces that challenged contemporary art and how mundane practices can become art.
Just like the video camera in the 60’s, computer technology compressed in a smartphone has become a tool for examining our existence in the world. I believe it’s interesting that while people see it as an opportunity to share creative images instantly, it has become a space that allows us the time to understand ourselves. We can always examine our encounters with the world conveniently at a later time and then decide how to interpret them; the smartphone is this mobile computer that we can log into whenever desired.
*Keep, Dean, “The Liquid Aesthetic of the Cameraphone: Re-imagining Photography in the Mobile Age”, Journal of Creative Technologies (Special Issue), 2014
The themes in your body of work include transience, memory, identity, and the relationship between past and present. Can you speak to how these themes are addressed in your work?
While most of my pieces show me as a Muslim woman through the use of head covering, I honestly do not see that as my entire identity. My work does not attempt to talk about the politics of Islam and Muslims in the West in any way. I simply talk about the experience of being a woman who confronts her own demons and tries to understand them. Most of my work speaks of other selves, past selves that I bring into the present be it through the recollection of memories or short videos that are meant to repeat a series of emotions.
As for the transience that comes up in my work it is because I see our experiences in the world as something temporary, yet these short-lived moments however fleeting have strong emotional ramifications. Our understanding of who we are in the present time becomes based on both the past and the future since our fears of what could have been and what could be drive us to feel, think and be certain things.
I think repetition is an additional theme that comes up in my work that I don’t talk about enough; words repeat, images repeat, and emotions repeat. In a way, we are superimposing the fears of the past and future into the present over and over again.
Your current powerful piece, Alone in America, has both political and personal meaning. What is the story behind this work and what intellectual and emotional response do you hope to elicit in the viewer?
In my first few months away from home in 2011, the Arab spring took place in the Middle East. While conventional media was focused on Tunisia and Egypt, I felt a small percentage of the truth was being told because other countries went through extreme political events and did not get enough coverage. My mother is from Bahrain, and I had access to brutal stories that never made it to the news. So I spent many nights glued to the TV of my small apartment in Brooklyn hoping to hear anything about Bahrain and, at the same time, hate crimes were on the rise here in the US, and a couple of mosques were vandalized. The news left me restless.
So, I decided to watch the frustrating news through an actual kaleidoscope. In a way, it was a barrier that diffused my anger and symbolized my discontent with my fragmented reality. I took still photographs of specific incidents on the news to speak of my dissatisfaction and frustration, and also took video footage of myself performing in front of my smartphone while watching reality television. Even though Kuwait is somewhat cosmopolitan and I’ve always been exposed to Hollywood and American media, I hadn’t seen that much reality television before moving to the States. I was wondering if consuming these shows could be an emotionally numbing drug to cope with global tension.
Now the piece speaks not only of the events of 2011 but also of homesickness and isolation. When I took the original footage, I was very connected to the personal story and could not see it as an art piece. It was in 2017 that I decided to revisit it and as I worked through it, it became a glimpse of what it felt like as a misunderstood foreigner in a foreign city, hence the title, Alone in America.
Photos by Walker Esner and Verónica González Mayoral