ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Michael Hambouz as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Michael Hambouz (b. Niles, Michigan, 1977) is a multidisciplinary artist, illustrator, multi-instrumentalist musician, and independent curator based in Brooklyn, NY. Solo/two-person exhibitions include Wassaic Project (NY), Future Fairs (NYC), Brooklyn Academy of Music (NYC), chashama (NYC), Kayrock (NYC), The Krasl Art Center (St. Joseph, MI), 3S Artspace (Portsmouth, NH), and a 20-year survey exhibition at Antioch College (Yellow Springs, OH) in 2018. Select group exhibitions include The National Arts Club (NYC), Andrew Edlin Gallery (NYC), IPCNY (NYC), Growroom//Showroom (NYC), Paradice Palase (NYC), Standard Space (Sharon, CT), Dominique Gallery (Los Angeles, CA), Northern-Southern (Austin, TX), Eve Leibe Gallery (London, UK), The Centre for Contemporary Printmaking, (Bangor, N. Ireland). His art and curatorial work have been featured in Artnet News, Artsin Square Magazine, Create! Magazine, Design Milk, Hyperallergic, and Vice. His work can be seen in the collections of Antioch College, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, NYU Langone Medical Center, Niles History Center, and Fidelity Corporate Art Collection.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Michael Hambouz: For many years, my work was very literal and heavily realism based. I drew and painted things and people that interested me, and tried to do so exactly and as precisely as I saw them. In retrospect, I’ve come to realize that having grown up in a small, rural, conservative town, where being an artist was not encouraged when there were more appreciated talents like football, one way to receive acceptance was to be able to realistically render the recognizable. When you’re young and receive accolades for a skill, you roll with it–or at least I did. Also, in the pre-internet age, the giant world and rich history of art and influential artists were neither easily accessible, nor known to me.
I had a major creative awakening in late 2012. I was nearing the completion of a new portrait series to be presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) as my first New York City solo exhibition, and my mother unexpectedly passed away, turning my life upside-down. The work for the show was very time-consuming, with each portrait taking approximately 80-100 hours to complete. Finishing the series in between trips to South Bend, IN from Brooklyn, in the middle of winter to make sure my mom’s bills were paid and her plumbing didn’t freeze, made it exponentially more difficult. During those long drives I realized that rather than experiencing joy from making this work, I only seemed to feel relief when they were completed. The process felt more like solving mathematical equations to me than a form of creative expression. I would envision what the composition should look like before I even started painting—then I would work feverishly toward the finish line. Evidently there were no elements of surprise or excitement. That was when I realized that just because I’m good at something, it doesn’t mean that that is what I am supposed to be doing. It’s so simple and logical, but it truly hadn’t occurred to me until that time at the age of 35. Since then, I have gone down a very interesting, strange, fun, cathartic and enjoyable path; diving into new mediums and processes. And rather than just replicate what I see before me, I begin all my works by assessing how I am feeling on any given day and tackle exactly that. Recent series have addressed personal experiences ranging from familial loss and mourning, portraiture through material/audio possessions, the meaning of “home,” the chaos of living above a dive bar, projections of a post-human future, and reflections on social media through the lens of a Palestinian-American. And with each, I mindfully select materials and approaches that feel intuitively appropriate for processing my thoughts.
AE: Tell us about the Hot Blooded exhibition presented by Wassiac Project that opened on March 3rd, 2023. Tell us about your body of work from 2016 that will be on view as well as the new works you created for this show. What are some of the connections and divergences between these bodies of work?
MH: The show, titled Hot Blooded, refers to the Foreigner song of the same name that was playing on the radio when I was in a near-fatal car collision in 2000. The insurance check that I received for my totaled car is ultimately what funded my move to New York City to pursue my art career. The show opening date (March 3rd) coincides with the date that I moved to Brooklyn in 2000— it’s my 23rd anniversary of living in New York. The use of the song title also alludes to the significance of music in my studio practice—a common thread between the series in the show from 2016 to present.
I refer to the work from 2016 as my three-dimensional “LPs” (or Lenticular Portraits) and two-dimensional “delenticulated” paintings. Back to 2013, when it finally came time for my sister and I to pack up all of our late mother’s belongings and close down the house, I stumbled upon her LP collection and was fascinated by what I learned about her simply by looking through them–from organizational habits, to commonalities and differences in tastes that really reflected similarities and differences between the two of us personality-wise. As a way of getting to spend some time with her, I made a painting based on staring at the bold patterns of her record spines lined-up and leaning on one another while listening to the records in the exact order that they were left in. In the process, I discovered my inner connection with chromaesthesia (the experience of color sensations through non visual stimulation). Letting go of my past relationship with painting and letting the music guide me, the vibrant colors and tight lines reflected fun poppy songs, and darker, drabber colors and unintentional wobbly lines poured out during songs that I didn’t enjoy so much. From that first piece, I continued this process of “portrait painting” by capturing the essence of friends through their collections, all created in spliced 3-dimensional lenticular form, as a way to translate the sonic energy of music felt through vibrating kinetic motion. When the process of making these pieces no longer felt engaging to me, I began creating two-dimensional still-life (or delenticulated) pieces from 3-dimensional models. This mode of transformation not only provided new challenges, but also presented a seamless transition out of this series and the original intentions—which essentially began with finding a positive way to mourn by celebrating life. It has become very important to me that as soon as I feel like I have processed an emotion thoroughly, and start feeling like I’m repeating myself/”phoning it in,” it is time to move on. I can always come back when it feels appropriate again.
The newer pieces in the show build on the woodworking skills that I learned from making the earlier pieces. But rather than create lenticular forms to express motion, I instead created maze-like forms to reference the walls encircling Gaza and the constricting claustrophobic feelings I experience being a Palestinian-American struggling with having a heard voice and respected identity. The painted narratives contained within further reflect these feelings; in particular, my observations and experiences with social media, from having posts mysteriously removed, being “shadow-banned” for mentioning the word “Palestine,” to receiving trolling death threats, to being erroneously labeled an antisemite, to watching peers stand up and fundraise for virtually every global human rights atrocity except the livelihood of Palestinians, or for being subtly shamed by fellow activists for not “posting more.” The audio component to this series involves my daily ritual of listening to Democracy Now! broadcasts that provide a source of quotes from which to build visuals, followed by mixes that I make to put me in a good and productive headspace to push ahead with the day and help inform color-play.
AE: What is the premise of the FOD project?
MH: FOD is an annual collaborative drawing and writing project that I organize to pay tribute to those we have lost during the year. The final art from contributors is assembled into a densely pieced-together limited-edition print that serves as a group show, history marker, and conversation starter/legacy-sustainer. The first edition of this project debuted in my friends Milton and Jonathan’s zine in 1997, and then passed on to me to continue in 2013. When I took over, I made the decision to open it up beyond the original core group of 30-35 participating artists to anyone—quite literally anyone that found out about it through word-of-mouth. After the passing of my second parent at a pretty young age, where most of my friends couldn’t relate to my situation and practically ran away from me because they didn’t know what to say to me or how to act, I think I was really seeking a way to build a community of people that were open to talk about loss, celebrate lives, and in some cases even vent about terrible peoples’ legacies. I also really appreciate the idea of people taking the time to actually think and learn about someone by having to sit down, research reference photos and information, and then draw them in however style or likeness they feel appropriate and then write about it. The most recent 2022 edition features tributes from 188 international participants ranging from established mid-career museum-showing artists to professional graphic designers, fashion designers, filmmakers, hair stylists, and children (to name a few). In the spirit of respecting spirits, the project upholds a not-for-profit philosophy, with all print sale proceeds designated towards covering project production and release event expenses.
AE: How has the process of creating work about other people who have passed involved questions of ethics, diversity, gender and more?
MH: One of the many really beautiful aspects of FOD is just how organically diverse the participants are by simply letting the project be open to anyone that would like to sign up to draw. The annual participants are predominantly women. There is a strong representation from the LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC communities. And the artists range in age from 7 years old to early 60s. This is an uncommon statistic for group art shows presented in galleries and museums. Each year the tributed subjects often reflect this same range of diversity, while also interestingly act as pop-cultural-zeitgeist indicators. For example, many black Americans murdered by police officers were drawn in 2020, during the peak of the BLM movement rallies. As the tributes are arranged alphabetically by first name in the final print, seeing Breonna Taylor positioned next to Alex Trebek, and George Floyd adjacent to Eddie Van Halen is very significant to me. In this current culture of fleeting meme-mind attention spans and celebrity worship—I want people to remember Breonna and George as much as and for as long as they do Alex and Eddie’s iconic celebrity legacies. And though countless black Americans have been killed by the police prior to 2020, and many more since then, their representation hasn’t been captured as strongly in other years of the project, which I find troubling. Similarly, three Palestinian women and two Iranian women were memorialized for the 2022 project, when I have seen no representation in prior years. It is clear to me that the way we are exposed to information through daily outlets and feeds are indeed playing a role in what is topical in our collective minds, and I avoid guiding participants in the selection process. As for ethics, I try to deter participants from disrespectfully poking fun at the deceased. However, I do encourage artists to speak their minds and call out individuals with toxic pasts as a means of not “letting them off the hook” post-mortem—keeping the dialogue alive (past examples include: George H.W. Bush, Jeffrey Epstein, Elizabeth Sackler, Charles Manson, Roger Ailes, Whitey Bulger).
AE: Who did you draw as your contribution this year?
MH: This year I drew murdered Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. As of this date, 331 days have passed without justice for her killing, despite substantial documented evidence and eye witnesses; I hardly see anything mentioned about her in the news anymore.
AE: Why do you find that it is important to maintain this project over the years?
MH: In addition to the aforementioned historical, anthropological, and sustained-legacy-driven reasons, the rapidly growing family of participants make each year’s edition and print release event feel like a positive, creative family reunion of sorts, which is hard for me to break.
AE: Alongside your fine arts work, you also maintain a commercial illustration practice. Share with us some of your favorite projects that you were commissioned to do.
MH: The first project that helped land my illustration side-business Make Me Tremble on the map, was the hand-painted title-sequence for Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States for Showtime, winning a national broadcast award. I’ve since tackled some pretty challenging and fun projects including the ad campaign for Dexter season 8 (I learned how to portrait paint with an eye-dropper over a canvas to get a creepy blood-splatter effect), a custom hand-painted can design for neighborhood brewers Greenpoint Beer & Ale, a 70’s style painted premier poster for the crime-fighting drag queen comedy Shit & Champagne, and recently an illustrated stroll through the past 50 years of Hip Hop for Showtime/Mass appeal (all made with sharpie on paper). But I have to say, my personal highlight was having the privilege of creating the all cut-paper animated ad campaign for Twin Peaks’ co-creator Mark Frost’s The Secret History of Twin Peaks for Flatiron Books. I watched the original series when it first aired while I was in junior high, and have been a huge fan since. The book is an incredible companion to the series, and knowing that all of my work was vetted through David Lynch for approval still gives me tingles.
AE: What was it like growing up as a Palestinian-America in a small town in Michigan? How has your relationship with your identity evolved throughout the last 25 years?
MH: I’ve actually spent quite a bit of time thinking about this in recent years, and haven’t really ever been asked this before, especially in the context of me as an artist, so I appreciate the question. For a little backstory, my teenage father, his little brothers and sisters, and my grandparents were amongst few survivors of the Lydda Massacre and forced Death March of 1948. My father “Kahlil,” the oldest of the children, was the first to leave the UNRWA refugee camps in Ramallah, first traveling to Europe, then eventually landing in the US. He attended UT in Austin and then Northwestern outside of Chicago, eventually landing in Michigan where he met my mother. I was too young to fully grasp what was happening, or why, but essentially my father suffered from serious PTSD from his childhood, self-medicated with alcohol, and had a very difficult time being a present and functioning parent. I mention this, because it I think it is important to understand just how damaging the radiating ripples of this human rights atrocity can be—despite me never experiencing first-hand what it is like to live in the land, virtually having no Palestinian community (let alone Arab) growing up—the trauma was still passed down through this broken yet sharp man (I put “Kahlil” in quotes above, because I only learned after his passing that his real first name was Talal, and that at the age of 13, he insisted that his family start calling him Kahlil after his favorite writer and poet Kahlil Gibran- and they obliged- how wild is that?!).
I think of my relationship with/evolution of my identity over time in four distinct phases:
As a little kid, I would hear people mock my dad’s foreign accent. And I was teased at school for my “funny-sounding” foreign last name, and came to accept its mispronunciation out of exhaustion. Without a community to share this experience with, my identity was simply “the kid with a weird last name and funny sounding dad that schooled me in politics that no one else cared about at a very young age.”
As a teenager during Bush senior’s First Gulf War, the juvenile name teasing escalated to being called a “sand nigger,” “terrorist,” “camel jockey,” and “towel head.” My friends that wouldn’t dare call me those names, often asked– “you’re Lebanese, right?” That was my new identity: terrorist or non-descript random Arab.
As an undergrad student at a progressive liberal arts school, I encountered the creepy, romanticized fetishization of my background. Despite this, was still turned away from the multicultural campus group for “looking too white.” That was my new identity: a not-brown-enough walking-victim-aphrodisiac.
As a professional fundraiser for non-profit arts organizations for over a decade in NYC, I was told by two separate bosses to avoid mentioning the origin of my name when speaking to donors, “because, you know…anti-Semitism.” Actually, no, I didn’t know. New identity? I only have one in certain progressive-minded educated company.
And now? It took a very long time for me to shake the imposed and self-generated shame, but I’m not scared anymore. I’m happy to discuss who I am and what I believe in with anyone willing to listen. It helps greatly that I’ve established myself as my own boss. And I’m proud that the work that I make allows me a voice and the monetary resources to try to help make a difference in the lives that suffer far beyond what I have ever experienced.
AE: What are you currently working on and do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2023-2024?
MH: I’m currently wrapping up a commissioned 9 x 31.5 ft print with Powerhouse Arts to be installed in midtown Manhattan (my largest composition to date; official public announcement coming soon), and a fun illustration project with Gary Hustwit (Helvetica). And as soon as I finish my taxes (yikes), I’m getting started on new works for Future Fair in May with Brooklyn’s Paradice Palace, and to donate to upcoming benefits for the Rema Hort Mann Foundation and Publicolor. In July, I will be starting a month-long residency at Wassaic Project in upstate New York with the intent to deep-dive into some new paintings and put the finishing touches on a long-in-motion book project, capturing the last 13 years of my creative output.
MICHAEL HAMBOUZ ONLINE: