Artist Spotlight with Orlee Malka self portrait as Schluchit girl, 2018, Intaglio print on cotton paper , 11 x 9 in.


Artist Spotlight with Orlee Malka

Posted: Apr 1, 2021

ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Orlee Malka as part of our Artist Spotlight.

Orlee Malka (she/her) is an interdisciplinary artist living in New York. Her conceptual and collaborative work considers the possibilities of art making within forms of collapse. In fieldwork to the unconsoled (2018) Malka examines issues of excavation practices and museum restitution. This ongoing project consists of objects, replicas, readings and experiments that are informed by practices of remembering and witnessing.

Recent and forthcoming projects include: Now That We Have Established A Common Ground, Protocinema and The Clemente, New York (2022); Legacy Trilogy: Future Edition, ArteEast (2021); At The Looting Hand of Imperialism – Still Lives and Museum Anxiety, a lecture as part of a seminar at the Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability program at Columbia University (2019); and no, not here, Mom’s gallery, New York (2019). 

Malka received her MFA from Columbia University in 2018, and was among the inaugural fellows of the 2018-2019 Interdisciplinary Art and Theory Program in New York. Malka is a professor at the School of the Arts, Columbia University.

ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general, addressing the use of various materials and mediums within your practice? 

Orlee Malka: I think the work I make has to do with asking questions on the margins of power. How does power function and register within our lives, other species’ existence and our ecosystem. Power in itself is of no interest to me, only its intersections. Storytelling is an important part of these intersections because it has to do with trust and witnessing. When diasporic storytelling is transferred over a few generations, who is then the tongue that is doing the telling? A collective conscience perhaps. As for materials, I’m interested in letters and aesthetics of utilitarian emptiness, for example, a ceramic jug for water which exists in every civilization. Much of my work has to do with relationships, closeness and fields of belonging.

AE: Could you elaborate on the themes of the female and memory that you explore in your work? Your intaglio print, Self portrait as Schluchit girl, that is part of ArteEast’s Legacy Trilogy refers to this as well. What drove you to pursue this and other related themes in your practice? 

OM: There are a few related themes here. I’m thinking of printmaking as a technique to think of mark making on the body, the face. Here I was recalling the visual existence of my grandmothers from the Middle Atlas region. I like the idea of making a mark, a drawing on copper that then can be reproduced. 

The word Schluchit was also a reproduced/restructured word in a few ways. There is the origin of the word, which is Schluch or Amazigh (free people), and then there is the term Schluch that is a slur word used towards Mizrahim, within the context of the caste system of Israel Palestine. Finally, there is another fold of the word, maybe a speculative one, but still important to me – the Hebrew ending (it) of the word Schluchit, which is a word that only exists in the lexical landscape of Hebrew speakers. This is not an attempt at reclaiming or a jest on the word Schluchit, but more of a note on a word that has been used to dehumanize Mizrahi Jews. These folds of words hold so much accumulated violence, and I think that by making work with the folds we can rethink the status quo of the violence. For example, there is absolutely no reason that the word defining a group of people and their language should become the generic name for their subsequent subjugation, but that’s exactly what happened within the caste system of Israel Palestine, and it did not matter if you were indeed Schluch or not, one just had to fit into the orientalised visual construct. All of this has to do with a historic culture of erasure and loss, and from the perspective of my family, I don’t think of Judeo-Moroccan diaspora in a linear sense, but instead as a culture, or rather, cultures with a few enormous tear points, that have still remained distinct in their aesthetics, performance and ritual. That might be because our ancestors practiced an incredible technology of piyyut (poetry), which is a communal practice of convening, listening and singing.

The female is also a repurposed imaginary realm, reduced to a potencial. Femme is then a meeting place (perhaps like the well). I’m interested in actively dedicating space for femme to happen and in dedicating spaces of trust in femme for experiments on being and birthing again and again. This is an act against the reduction then, the femme that we talk about is of abundance. Another act against the reduction is in the form of complaint. This is something I think of a lot and within this context I’ve been immersed in the reading of brilliant queer feminist scholar, Sara Ahmed.

AE: Please tell us about your ongoing series, fieldwork to the unconsoled, that emerged from your MFA thesis at Columbia University, and your interest in issues related to museum restitution and colonialism. 

OM: When I started fieldwork it was a project about restitution and return within museum ethics, but the more I researched on issues of looted artifacts within museums in the west, the more I realized that this project has to be personal and that I wanted to include my ancestral history as well. I think that fieldwork is a work that I will continue to do throughout this lifetime.

I think of it as a work of mourning to those that are beyond console. I’m thinking here about the barriers of pain and grief, the unbearable, what happens then?

I was researching the afterlives of imperialism and colonialism and the various discussions of museum restitution, the often disputed and disregarded calls for returns. I was thinking of the well as a meeting place for women from different cultures. What were the ways and practices of my grandmothers? I think about this and the collective erasure of their existence, their songs, their aesthetics.

AE: Can you tell us about the publication of hala: an unexpected gift, that you recently collaborated on with fellow artist Adama Delphine Fawundu?

OM: It was great to collaborate on it, since we are good friends and know each other’s work very well. Over the years we had many conversations on diasporic conditions, communal ritual and how ancestral femme storytelling shows up in our work. This is the first edition of hala, and it was conceived and printed by Delphine, who is a brilliant artist, writer and educator, as well as  a dedicated community organizer. It was a blessing to have collaborated on hala, which we also titled for our grandmothers.

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

OM: Conversations with my friends always. I would say thinkers Stuart Hall, Hortense Spillers and Adrian Piper, as well other great critical theorists. The more I think about it, I find it important to learn and engage with those who are living, and within Mizrahi futurity that has been incredibly important because of the ongoing impact of erasure. In Albert Suissa’s work (writer, critic, born in Casablanca and lives in Jerusalem) I can find incredible access to the kind of freedom thinking I dream of. As well as writer Ya’akov Bitton, who has been a great friend and collaborator over the years. 

AE: How have you approached or adjusted your practice during the Covid-19 pandemic? Once the global pandemic subsides, do you have any shows or projects coming up in 2021 and 2022?

OM: I have not definitively figured it out yet. I’ve been doing small things that live in conversations and collaborations. One thing I think about in relation to the virus, is that the recognition that we (people) are contagious is a disruption to the capitalistic order, so there were many instances in which that disruption provided a prism to look inside this dehumanizing social structure that is so invested in loneliness. Since my work has to do with fields of belonging, it’s something I think about, and I was lucky to be present in ongoing moments of communal work in New York.

It has been difficult and still is. I have a few collaborations coming up, and these conversations and exchanges have been invaluable to me. These days I’m working on a book project that will be in a forthcoming show at the Center for Book Arts, New York.


Instagram: @orleemalka