Leila Fatemi, 2020 Finalist

Leila Fatemi is an emerging artist, curator and community arts worker based in Tkaronto/Toronto. Living between cultures, her work and curatorial endeavours stem from her daily experiences as a visible minority and her perspective as a practicing Muslim woman artist. Fatemi aims to provide platforms and contribute alternative narratives to conversations of ethnic representation with a focus on the experience of Muslim women & women from the MENA region as well as to create a better understanding and appreciation for Islamic culture and traditions.

Leila gave us some insight to her work - read below!

Original photo courtesy of Alia Youssef. Artwork by Amber Williams-King
Describe your work with The Truth & Dare Project. Why is the Project important to you?

I’ve worked with The Truth & Dare Project in a number of capacities, each one rewarding in its own way. I was introduced to the project through the very first (mus)interpreted--an exhibition that showcases the artwork of young Muslim women in the GTA--where I was both on the curatorial team and an exhibiting artist as well. After experiencing such a refreshing and strong sense of community at the opening exhibition, I knew I wanted to become more involved. I began to work closely with The Truth & Dare Project’s founder Zahra Agjee, curating Year 3, 4 and 5 of the annual exhibition. Additionally, since 2016 I’ve facilitated a number of photo-based workshops for Muslim women through the projects programming.

As a facilitator, curator and exhibiting artist with The Truth & Dare Project, I’ve had many opportunities to understand the impact of visual arts programming for young Muslim women, myself included. The Truth & Dare Project provides opportunities that I wish I had access to as a young Muslim artist seeking a sense of community. The project is a key platform that highlights the voices and experiences of Muslim women, creating visibility within the art world and beyond. Entering a safe space full of like minded individuals eager to share, listen and explore their realities creatively highlights the importance of community arts and its ongoing necessity for Muslim youth who seek supportive outlets where they can reflect and express themselves.

Your work has been exhibited in Canada but also internationally. How has your work been received across different cultures and languages?

The great thing about art is that it can often transcend language and cultural barriers, allowing for diverse readings and resonance. Of course the artist has their own intentions in creating the work, but that seldom dictates the way it is received because every viewer brings their own experiences with them when connecting with a piece, and that is part of the beauty of creating dialogue through artistic exploration.

My work encapsulates different facets of my experiences and my identity; as a result, my practice encompasses work that is politically charged and other work that is spiritually charged. In The Wandering Veil, diverse audiences were invited to identify with the figure and the landscape so they could connect with its more esoteric aspects. In projects like Clothbound or DisOrienting Orientalism, however, it’s the political symbolism within the images that an audience can recognize and critique. We live in a globalized world and the fact that my work can exist here and elsewhere is tribute to how we understand each other's experiences.

Though I haven’t shown extensively overseas, when I do it’s always interesting to speak with the local audience and see how they engage with my work and what aspects of it resonate with them. I find my work has been met with understanding, but also curiosity. It’s that reception that drives me to continue creating because understanding and curiosity leads to important conversations, and in my opinion, communication leads to a more empathic world

Your work addresses the appropriation of Islamic symbolism in Western art. Can you talk more about this appropriation?

As an undergrad student, I remember the disappointment of realizing that my entire Art History course was solely focused on the Western canon. And even more to my dismay, learning that the only reference to art from the Middle East and North African regions was in the Western Orientalism chapter. It was then that I realized that Islamic Art, while rich in its history in the MENA region, has always been deemed to be either decorative or ornamental and not considered within the boundary of fine art. I simply couldn’t reconcile 19th century artists appropriating and misrepresenting cultural histories, art and architecture from the Islamic world and seeing that regarded as fine art. I began researching the history of Orientalist Art and Photography which provided me with a lot to consider about the influence of colonialism, symbolism from the region being deviated and othered, and the representation of women for political gain. Motifs from the region are still reappropriated in western history and present day media and through my work I am reclaiming and reimagining an alternative to these ideas. I’m interested in not only highlighting these narratives but subverting imperialist agendas through a critical perspective, and exploring the impact on the experiences of racialized people from the Islamic world.

In 2013 you showed The Wandering Veil exhibition and you discussed your exploration of what the veil embodies to you personally. What are your takeaways from the exhibition? Has anything changed?

The Wandering Veil is a deeply personal project that was born out of my desire to understand markers of my identity--as a woman, a veil-wearer, a Muslim, an artist, a human & as an other--at a time where I felt dimensions of myself were misunderstood and underrepresented. I created the work as a documentation of the consciousness that emerged through my own inner searchings and wanderings, using the veil as a symbol to represent the unrepresentable. Removing the veil from its politically charged associations in western media and bringing it into a space of serenity not only allowed me to gain agency over the way the veil is used and depicted, but also to change the narrative of the veil from a tool of oppression to a symbol of inner peace, safety, and softness.

To the surprise of many, the first edition of the series (2013-2014) was photographed locally in the GTA, in spaces that I connected with spiritually or had enlightening experiences in. Having the opportunity to showcase the work in the vicinity of where it was made was important to the realization of the project, and I received overwhelming positive feedback throughout the exhibition. I was continuously surprised at how easily viewers were able to identify with the work and see themselves and their experiences in it. Unlike the way in which I use the veil as critique in some of my other work, the figure here is encapsulating of so many emotions and experiences beyond my own relationship to her, and that really stood out in the responses of the exhibition.

As I grow and face different challenges, my awareness of the world and my place in it deepens. I’ve always taken comfort in exploring this process visually through the landscape and the figure. The Wandering Veil is a body of work that evolves with me because it affords me a safe space for reflection and spiritual connection; the images are emblematic of that feeling. We are beginning to see campaigns for inclusivity and representation of the veil in mainstream media, causing the negative associations that come with it to shift and evolve. While I can’t say that the veil is no longer a target for discrimination and hostility, or that the repercussions of its historical use are no longer present, I do think it’s important to acknowledge the impact of representation.

What does it mean to you to be nominated for the Emerging Artist Award?

I never saw myself in the classical works I studied in Art History; in fact, it was my frustration with the constant misrepresentation that fuelled my desire to counter these notions and ideas, and bring my own lived experiences to the forefront of my practice. Being nominated for this important award means my effort to create space for myself, and my work has not gone unnoticed. While pursuing a career in an artistic discipline has had its challenges, especially as a child of immigrants, I feel that I occupy a necessary space in a field that has historically written out the realities of racialized groups, and a responsibility to tell our stories authentically.

Receiving this nomination has afforded me a sense of feeling valued in my creative voice despite the self doubt that often comes with the vulnerable territory of making art. It has shown me that there is an inclination to recognize and elevate the experiences of those who have been historically othered and ignored. Most importantly, I hope that other artists struggling through the uncertainties that arise from allowing oneself to take up space and create unapologetically will see this nomination as a sign to keep creating and sharing, because their creative voices are also important and worthy of recognition.