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July 30, 2023

A Weight of Consumption: Displacement and Transition, an interview with Saj Issa

Article by Mollie Barnes

3 min. read

Saj Issa in her studio, photo credit Ian Byers-Gamber

“The reality is that I have a political identity, and I’m just making art that’s informed by my surroundings and experience.”

Saj Issa is one of the most exciting talents working today. A Palestinian-American artist, Issa’s practice explores vital topics, including cultural erasure, dispute, displacement, capitalism and climate change. In a recent interview, Issa described how each of these themes and realities are not isolated. They happen simultaneously within our society, and are each derived from capitalism.

Saj Issa, Americana Hammam #2, 2022

Issa’s artistic journey has taken a profound impact, as she recently spent time in Ramallah, Palestine. The regional transition between Palestine, Los Angeles and St. Louis, Missouri where she is currently based, has had a significant influence on her practice, fueling her exploration of the current social context and the contrasting realities between these places.

She begins each day in the studio early, “before the remaining 75% of the village wakes up.” She collects an abundance of “consumed, battered objects” from the streets of Ramallah, each serving as the starting point and subject for her daily drawing practice. Artwork begins with ideas scribbled down in words, then a loose sketch, then tighter. Boards are primed, and tiles are laid. Working predominantly with clay and ceramics, Saj uses a variety of mediums to best communicate the varied and nuanced topics.

“I must know the blank slate will get dirty for a decent reason,” she justifies.

Reflecting on this recent transition, Issa describes how, “in LA, [she] was checking the forecast to see if it was sunny enough to play tennis.” When she spends time in Palestine, “[she] has to check the news to see if anyone is getting forced out of their home to be sure it’s safe to travel.“ The shift from checking sunny forecasts in LA to verifying the safety of travel amid potential conflicts and displacement in Palestine, and now working from her hometown St. Louis underscores the stark differences in the environments she now navigates.

Saj Issa, Shell, 2022

These contrasts are drastic – and somehow still shocking to some in the ‘Western world’ They make up the forefront of her works. A standout of Issa’s works are the incorporation of ‘Western’ languages, brands and logos – each a highly commercial aspect – layered before ornate ceramic tiles that have traditionally been tools to represent the “divine principles of unity and order, as evidenced by God’s creation of the universe.” In doing so, Issa describes how she draws “parallels of ubiquitous, powerful corporations to the transcendent of The Higher Being.” Her use of tiles are as a “ tool to express repetition of advertisement while simultaneously being decorative.”

These interventions are markedly jarringly. Brands that have made critical impacts to our lives and planet are featured – including Nike, Shell, Coca-Cola and tobacco companies. Each mass produced, each defining mass consumption. They are repeated within the works, just as they are printed across our lives. Inescapable. Relentless.

Through this juxtaposition, Saj draws attention to the impact of colonisation on “indigenous ways of life… in obvious and woefully mundane ways”, highlighting the pervasive influence of powerful corporations. She goes further, examining how “signs, symbols, and language transfuse with one another.” and how “The hybridity in [her] art is a reflection of the way [she] perceive(s) globalisation and [her] urgency to document it.”

“Trying to survive is 75% of the journey.”

Issa rarely feels attached to a singular piece, but weeps at the loss of a body of work that has developed within the space. “All my emotional energy gets put into the work… plus I spend so much time in my studio… the art hears all the gossip.”

Saj Issa, Evicted From The Hachoora, MFA Thesis exhibition at New Wight Gallery, UCLA, Los Angeles, 2023. Photo credit Ian Byers-Gamber

One of Saj’s notable exhibitions was her thesis show, Evicted From The Hachoora, 2023. Striking panel works emulated these similar ideas, with vibrancy and clarity fading from each logo as it moved down the piece. Reflecting on the overstimulation of adverts in LA, each “competing for attention”, Issa draws parallel to current road signs, each displaying three languages’. Rather than ignoring these signs, “it’s important to read each sign because some state who is prohibited from entering certain roads.” A key theme within the exhibition was Issa’s imagining of “what information [she would] rather not see exist.

Saj Issa, Al Muqtadir The Omnipotent

In her artistic journey, Issa has found inspiration from a diverse range of artists, including Sliman Mansour, Mona Hatoum, William Kentridge, David Hammons, Ed Ruscha, and Tom Wesselmann. Titles are carefully chosen to encapsulate the essence of each piece, each drawn from  “a soundbite of harangue”. They range from John Berger quotes and names of deliberate, violent military tactics to location names and even one of the “99 names of God in Arabic.” Each title represents the “seed of inspiration or conclusion of the artwork”, reflecting her intention to communicate profound messages through her creations.

As Saj prepares for upcoming group exhibitions this year, and a solo in 2024, her artwork continues to evolve and make powerful statements about regional transitions, cultural erasure, and the pressing issues that affect both the US and Palestine. Her commitment to documenting the social context and her surroundings remains steadfast, creating art that resonates with audiences worldwide.

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