Susu Attar is an Iraqi-American artist based in San Francisco. Susu expresses herself through painting and video, with community involvement an important aspect of all her work. In this interview, fellow Iraqi artist Sundus Abdul Hadi speaks with Susu Attar about her journeys through art, roots, and the Middle East for shakomako(dot)NET.Q: Tell us about growing up Iraqi in California. A: The 80’s and 90’s were volatile and violent in both Iraq and California and I was moving back and forth. As an American, this gave me the chance to think of myself in relation to the world, not just my home. As an Iraqi, it gave me some of the best memories of my life. I was always from both places, a product of both cultures, until the Gulf War in 1991 forced us to choose.
I’m grateful to have grown up in such diversity. Most people seemed to “stick to their own kind” despite all the cultural wealth Los Angeles had to offer. Things were much more racially divided than they are now, although they still are, and I didn’t identify with any one group, so I befriended all. My parents encouraged this attitude and I feel like I’ve learned so much about so many places in the world through a single city. Most other Arabs were invisible, blending in with the black, brown and white folks. I was considered as a Mexican for a couple years but even then my closest Mexican friend’s father was Hawaiian Japanese! And those details didn’t fly over my head.
I’m also grateful to have had a religiously diverse Iraqi community through my parents who mastered the art of not differentiating between people and at the same time not denying their differences. Many Iraqis today seem to be divided along religious lines, let alone class.Q: How would you describe your art practice? A: Prayer. Q: References to roots, ancestry, and family strongly resonate in your work. How do you explore these aspects of your identity through your artwork? A: I don’t. I let the paintings direct the explorations. Sometimes my initial gesture reveals something to me and I follow that lead. I don’t think of myself as I paint. I don’t really think at all as I paint, until technical questions arise. And in general, I only think of my “identity” when someone else prompts me to. Having said that, I’m still a product of my family and roots, and I wouldn’t be who I am or even how I am if wasn’t for their influence. So maybe what is reflected is simply an expression of self.
Innervisions, by Susu AttarQ: How have the last ten years of occupation and war in Iraq featured in your work? A: I can’t believe it’s been 10 years!
Contemplating these images has taught me about how, I, as a viewer of images have been manipulated and how, I, as a painter can manipulate the viewer. I kept collecting the media images and, from time to time, they inspire a painting. It became important for me to distinguish the painting from the photo in a major way and, for the past ten years, I’ve explored various ways of articulating that.
Revisionings, by Susu Attar
I was also heavily influenced by American painters like Henry Ossawa Tanner and William Henry Johnson. They were very different painters from different periods, but they both disrupted the pre-existing narrative of Black America, and expanded the spectrum of art. I also love Gerhard Richter, who has done so much for so long and yet defies the idea that an artist must have one style.Q: What aspects of Iraqi culture resonate with you the most? A: The importance of family and community and that sarcastic sense of humor! There is also the example of the people of Iraq today, which I wouldn’t call Iraqi culture, but rather human capacity. They teach me that despite what happens in life, you can get up and try. You can find a way to smile.
Travels to Baghdad. Original photography by Susu Attar.Q: The adage goes: “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads”. You recently went on a journey to all three of these giant Arab metropolises. What were the highlights of this voyage for you? A: I had the fortune of being exposed to so many creative people and varied work in all three cities and that invaluable experience has surely changed me. I don’t typically create work in response to events, but events do affect my vision. It was also refreshing seeing Arabs and Africans making art that doesn’t have to address their “identity”. This world is big and small at the same time. Not everyone functions under the same assumptions. It was good to be reminded of that.
The Share Beirut Conference in Beirut was one of the highlights of my time there. The three day conference featured technology and innovation talks by day and a music festival by night. Beirut is small so I was able to explore most of the places that I was constantly discovering. One day I was searching for an art space and found myself on the roof the building where some Syrian refugees were staying. They were in the theatre in Damascus and were spending the afternoon learning English with the help of a French student who was in Beirut learning Arabic. The Syrians were asking the Frenchman to explain English grammar to them and all were excited at the thought that I speak both languages. To their surprise, I was no help! Instead, we spent the afternoon telling stories in various languages.
Travels to Beirut. Original photography by Susu Attar.
Cairo on the other hand, is huge. The revolution was starting while I was there. It was surreal seeing virtually every single person, in such a massive city, discussing the future of the nation. This was the case everywhere I went: from the Metro to the cafes to Tahrir Square. It was absolutely beautiful! I was able to meet artists, musicians and filmmakers in various parts of the country. One day some friends and I were talking with a fisherman in Alexandria. He was curious as to why I was filming and photographing so much and that led us to a conversation about art and self representation. He wondered aloud if anyone would ever care about the story of a fisherman’s life. By the end of the conversation he and my friend, a young filmmaker, decided to work together to document his story.
Travels to Egypt. Original photography by Susu Attar.
One day I was in the car and saw three children sitting in the open trunk of a car in their karate gear eating “gus” (Iraqi Shawarma) sandwiches. The smallest was on the right, and the tallest on the left, all with their feet dangling in the air, kicking with delight from their savory snacks.
I grabbed my camera to capture the moment just as the traffic moved along and found myself pointing at a police officer, who of course stopped our car. My only option was trying to describe to him the image I was trying to capture, even though I knew it would make it obvious I’m not from there. He looked at me like I was crazy and said: You’ve never seen someone eating “gus” before?! I told him that I had moved to Jordan and was nostalgic for moments like that. I lost the picture, but luckily avoided any real trouble.Q: You have worked with many different media. How do you balance the act of painting, which can be so tactile and organic, with the technicalities of video production? A: I’m not sure I’ve learned to balance them! The medium determines the content. Painting is the way I try to discover ideas, and trigger emotional experiences. Texture, value, color and shape can push and pull our eyes without us being aware. The painter’s job is to make you see things in a specific order. I try to make the viewer feel unsure about the image or my intentions. That way, they can come to their own conclusions. It’s important to feel, to stay connected to our humanity, and to have opportunities to contemplate those reactions without having to place a value on it, right or wrong.
The moving image, especially real images, gives the viewer the illusion of having actually witnessed something. I try to use video with that in mind. I don’t like to paint realistically, but video allows me to use realistic images in sometimes unrealistic ways. I’m still a baby with video, so I’m still exploring the medium and how I want to use it.
Overall, what matters to me is story. I’m willing to explore any medium for that end but each one has different strengths and requires a lot of practice.
Birds Over Baghdad, by Susu AttarQ: Whats next for Susu Attar? Shakomako? A: I’m currently a participant and curator for the International Museum of Women’s Muslima exhibit. It’s a great online exhibit curated by Samina Ali. There are dozens of Muslim women from all over the world participating in the exhibit. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the diversity of thought, culture and work in Muslim women represented accurately until this exhibit.