Rawan Risheq (Kalimat Magazine)
Last updated: 22 October, 2011

Integrating Identity into Art: Interview with Laila Masri

Introducing an up-and-coming Arab artist, Laila Masri. Of Palestinian origins, she was born and raised in Abu Dhabi and then attended the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, returning afterwards to her city of birth. After working for three years as a graphic artist in an advertising firm, she finally broke free to focus on her independent artwork in painting and video. She has since held two solo exhibitions and has also showcased her work alongside other artists in Amman, Dubai, and Marseille. She has had an eclectic set of experiences that have influenced her views of femininity, spirituality, culture, and the state of status quo perceptions of society. Here we discuss process and the dialogue between the artist and human in her.

RR: What are the key elements that make up your identity as Laila Masri?

LM: I’ve grown up with the understanding that I am Palestinian and always known my responsibility to understand our cause, as a human rights cause, and do my part of activism through the art I produce. My Islamic identity is the second key element, as a spiritual aspect. My creativity is also a part of my identity; the ability to express, experiment and create is key to the core of who I am.

RR: What role has producing art played in your journey of self-discovery?

LM: Art is a non-filtering agent of your thoughts, so every single idea I think of is unconsciously thrown onto the canvas. If you paint from your heart it can actually embarrass you sometimes. It made me see things I was actually unaware of in myself. I also realized through that process that the most important subject matter for me, that is recurring, is my feminist role, whether in the Western context or in the traditional Eastern one, and how the two integrate, as they are not mutually exclusive. However, they hold very different core views of women.

RR: How do your characteristics appear through your work?

LM: Layers, earth tones and experimentation show my love for the sensually organic, the interplay of what is hidden and revealed, and the ever-evolving redefinition of elements. The ethereal feel of my work is how I am very conscious of my femininity, whether it is dark or playful. I use found objects randomly in an eccentric way. I’m not afraid of experimenting in a very non-sensical way, it is part of my humour. One of my greatest inspirations is actually Alice in Wonderland, which represents to me the uninhibited nature of children and how they will just say anything!

RR: Through using different art media, how has each form allowed you to express different aspects of yourself?’

LM: I flirt with both digital and traditional media  because I don’t like being confined by self-fulfilling style that is overdone.  As I switch back and forth, I like to be true to the reality of my state at the time. Video art has proven itself to be the most powerful medium I have worked with as of yet. It is confrontational yet it is inclusive. It can be magnified or minimized. It is alive and is very much the language of the day. It communicates sensitive issues and difficult ones at that, which are very challenging to represent through traditional mediums.

RR: Would you say that your personality and your art have grown parallel to one another, or evolved by feeding off each other?

LM: Some of my works have not been conceptual per se, but the technique helps you discover the idea of the piece. So in some ways the art was produced separate from the identity, but at the same time, once a creative process flourishes so does a new dimension of ideas.

RR: Can you separate your view of yourself as a , and as an artist?

LM: No. I feel much more human when I create, my senses are heightened and I am much more true to my instincts. I truly believe humanity will suffer without the existence of art, because it speaks to places inside us that cannot always be verbalized or written. Even in terms of political crises it can express the reality more than anything else.

RR: Are there messages that you try to relay through your work? Are they personal/public?

LM: I always used to say that the purpose of my work was to make one question anything they hold as certain or see as black or white. I have come to realize that that in itself is a message. I want people to take themselves out of their comfort zone, to acknowledge the shades of grey and all the different influences that come into shaping the context their preconceived notions. Taking the Middle East as an example, with its unstable political and social situation, there is a growing difficulty in the ability of each person to understand their identity due to psychological cultural displacement. Because of the polarity created by the emphasis on the differences between people, and the ever invading sense of globalized consumerism at hand, comfort zones are the safest havens, and to challenge oneself out of the preconceived notions is the hardest task at hand.  I guess what I propose to the public is a challenge to question their perceptions.

RR: By watching your work over the years, I have noticed a shift from earth tones to far brighter colours Can you trace the shift that has influenced this?

LM: The drama was always there. Back in the day in Canada, my artwork was influenced by my emotional attachments to the past, so my work was darker and more dramatic. But when I moved back to Dubai, post-spiritual revelation, I was able to neutralize and refine who I am and my technique. My work now is more playful and layered, but still holds on to its ethereal essence. I think the choices are fluid, intuitive and natural, they simply reflect the maturity level and emotional state I am in.

RR: What do you anticipate will be your next focus or direction?

LM: I want to focus more on installation art and theory-based works. I want to integrate as many different mediums and forms as possible. I’m fascinated with projecting video art on contemporary miniature paintings. Also I think its time I travel and begin to allow more cultures and locations to influence my work, pushing myself more into the international art scene. Showcasing my video art in Marseille, France is a start to that and I hope to push it even further. Also merging my landscape and figurative themes is something I have been thinking about more recently.

RR: Thank you for your time Laila!

LM: My pleasure!

To view more of Laila’s work, visit her website at www.lailamasri.com

Originally Published in Kalimat Magazine, Issue 01, Spring 2011