Artist Spotlight with Layla Zubi

Posted: Mar 16, 2023

ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Layla Zubi as part of our Artist Spotlight series.

Layla Zubi (b. 1991, Saint Louis, Missouri, USA) (she/her/they/them) is an interdisciplinary artist from the Saint Louis area and Southern Illinois region. She received her MFA from Cornell University (2022) and a BA in studio art with an Art History minor from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (2014).  Her work explores the exposure of multiple environments, and the knowledge that dominantly informs her experiences as a multi-cultural Muslim existing in the United States. Zubi’s recent solo exhibitions include John Hartell Gallery, Experimental Gallery, and the Johnson Museum at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY; and the Granite City Art and Design District in Granite City, IL. Recent and past group exhibitions include Ohklahomo in Chicago, IL; Ortega y Gasset Projects in Brooklyn; NY; String Room Gallery at Wells College in Aurora, NY; the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts in Amman, Jordan; and Bridget Donahue Gallery in New York City, NY. Residencies Zubi has participated in include Ox-Bow School of Art and Artists’ Residency in Saugatuck, Michigan and TAB Residency in Istanbul Turkey. 

ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice? 

Layla Zubi: In the last few years my practice evolved from having a medium specific focus in painting and has expanded towards including the use of different mediums and materials such as sculpture, screen printing, printmaking, and ceramics. Themes I consistently focus on and return to in my practice are identity and memory. They stem from my exposure to suburban and mosque environments that contrast and have generated feelings of dislocation, belonging, and estrangement. I am interested in my responses to these surroundings, as they were a dominant part of my development. Through my work, I reveal spaces of cultural resemblance, historical connection and global exchange. This compels me to make objects and images that explore repetition, the concept of movement, acts of rebellion, and a rejection of learned Western foundational values. This has enabled me to preserve, claim, and reclaim significant areas of my culture and faith and the places I identify with. Other explorations of interest include provisional experiences connected to my Palestinian and Uzbek background, historical events, and narratives that derive from various forms of knowledge.

AE: Tell us about your Out-of-Carpet Experience series. What are some of your references within this series?

LZ: Out-of-Carpet Experience is a body of work that features painting, screen printing, and sculpture fused together along with carpet installations and labeled provisional products. This series was born from google searching the word “carpet” and is also indirectly linked to the monotype prints I produced. This research led me to learn about Anatolian and Ottoman-era rugs that were regularly depicted in Renaissance paintings. I was both fascinated and surprised by what I found. To me, the rugs had already lost their cultural identity and agency since, in an effort to distinguish their various design patterns, they were named after the surnames of the Renaissance artists who had incorporated those specific rugs in their paintings. I was compelled to imagine the physical departure of these rugs and to transform the color, scale, pattern shapes, and torn fragments as an individual being and as a way to take back the narrative.

In the carpet installations, I reference Renaissance paintings by Lotto, Bellini, and Holbein that are digitally manipulated and printed on the carpet. The image of the painting is altered by the rug being removed from its original placement and as a result, disrupting the scene, then, by taking up the space in the foreground and leaving the painting with a hollowed out space where the carpet once lay.  While searching for these specific painting images, I came across depictions of Biblical scenes with an arch entrance/backdrop that displayed the rugs as background decorative props. It is no coincidence when a rug that has Islamic roots is placed within heavily Westernized Christian imagery. I find this a form of colonial erasure, ethnic cleansing, and to some extent forced assimilation. 

AE: What is the significance and origin of the house motifs within your work? How has your use of this motif evolved within different series?

LZ: Originally, I was interested in the building materials used for creating suburban homes in some early works, but those explorations did not go anywhere. I then decided to play in the printmaking studio and to imagine a suburban image while not knowing or planning the outcome. Choosing to make monotype/ghost prints, I repeated a simple house facade pattern in a diagonal direction and used whatever inks that were accessible to me, since I was not concerned with color. With the few I produced, I discovered that there were two similar yet varied house patterns that fit together when playing with the composition. They resembled aerial views of the Islamic pilgrimage sites in Mecca, carpeted worship spaces in mosques, and an imagined suburban neighborhood. While these places contrast each other immensely, they oddly share this quality of repetitive sameness whether in cultural/spiritual conformity and/or how certain community groups exist and operate as a group or individually. The works in this series have continued to develop and now include 2-D materials that consist of paper and the occasional use of labeled provisional materials made from plastic and painting mediums. 

AE:  In Fall 2022, after completing your MFA at Cornell University, you took part in an artist residency at Ox-Bow in Michigan. What were you working on during this residency and how did this experience affect your practice?

LZ: To be honest, when I arrived at Ox-Bow I had a vague but not set plan for what I wanted to create. My time there consisted of making ceramic works and screen printing. The ceramics consisted of making these serving spoons, influenced by Uzbek designed spoons and a traditional dance that is tied to the spoons. While hand-building the spoons, I noticed the form began to resemble a fist, especially the resistance fist, and this caught my attention. I had a flashback of a recorded lecture from A Growing Culture, a non-profit advocating for food sovereignty, that talked about food as political. I saw this as a nod to the Palestinian resistance and Palestinian prisoners who used spoons to dig their escape out of their jail cells in 2021. I then sculpted and glazed-drew the resistance fist in the spoon. My screen prints were fun to make but I felt some concepts in them felt forced and not well thought out. This is ultimately okay, as every art piece produced does not have to be incredible, but instead, could eventually lead to something better. 

My time at Ox-Bow was a unique opportunity to learn and engage in conversations with my Longform cohorts and from the Core Faculty, Jay Chung and Nina Könnemann, who organized weekly readings focused on the surrounding area of Ox-Bow and its regional history. A remark that Jay made during a studio visit impacted how I think about myself and my practice. It addressed the exhausting labor that I, and artists from marginalized ethnic backgrounds, are constantly expected to navigate with regards to sharing and contextualizing our history and knowledge, while privileged groups are excluded from this burden. Overall, it was a wonderful time, and being surrounded by and getting to know an incredible group of artists made it all the more wonderful. 

AE: What or who are some of your major creative influences, and why?

LZ: Observing architectural designs of mosques and suburban environments has shaped my influences the most. Whenever entering these places, I have noticed that they are more or less the same in their repetitional foundations, and vary in terms of when they were built, or what materials were used to design and build them. 

To name some of the creative influences that I admire include: Baseera Khan, their Psychedelic Rug series caught my attention a while back, along with their use of sourced rugs in their works on the surface of architectural columns; Michael Rakowitz, his use of Arab food labels that he sculpturally transforms; Mona Hatoum, her interest in collecting hair as a source material and the use of it in her work traces back to forms of presence; and Hito Steyerl, for her use of aerial imagery that informs the normalized function of surveillance and her memorable short film addressing the marginalized other, How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic. I also am influenced by the works of Ana Mendieta, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Louise Bourgeois.

Recently, I am making an effort to incorporate reading as a source of creative influence, whether it be fiction or nonfiction. At the moment, I am reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I am glad I have decided to read it, it’s absolutely incredible and wild! There are a lot of word associations repetitively used that have stuck in my mind while reading through it.

AE: What are you currently working on and do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2023-2024? 

LZ: I am in an early, experimental stage of new work that continues around the merged house and prayer rug pattern motif. What I am most excited about for this new series is that I am introducing a new addition that takes up the spatial gaps surrounded by the motif. This new work will remain unnamed for now, but it has presented a darker, imaginative turn in my practice that I did not expect to stumble upon, thanks to sitting with and processing current events and moving back to the Midwest. As of right now, I am going to be in a group show currently planned at PIQUE gallery (KY) for this fall and curated by Layan Buftain and Noel Maghathe. 



Instagram: @laylazubi