Loul Samater is a Somali artist born and raised in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but currently based in Beaufort, South Carolina. She came to the U.S. in 1994 to complete the last year of her schooling at the George boarding school in Philadelphia. Loul remained in the U.S. and she now holds a BFA from Dickinson College (1999) and an MFA in painting from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2004). Between 1998-99, she attended the Studio Arts Center International in Florence, Italy, and in 2005, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Loul has shown at the Acuna-Hansen in Los Angeles, Alona Kagan in New York, and Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, among other galleries and institutions.
Loul recently returned from Somaliland, where she expanded the visual vocabulary that now fuels the work in her studio. It is my pleasure for you to read my interview with her and take a look at her work for yourself.
Georgia Kotretsos: I would like to begin this post by acquainting our readers with your background, by looking into the landscape and cityscape of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and Hargeisa, Somaliland. Do these places serve as your initial point of departure inspiration-wise? Do you carry in your creative hard-drive Jeddah’s sculptures, the monumentality of Naasa Hablood, or the feeling of Islamic architecture?
Loul Samater: I do, I like how you put that. My background is unique – I am a Somali of the diaspora born and raised in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I had visited Somaliland four times in my life and only two of those times as an adult. I do indeed carry the Islamic architecture in me – you see, structures and monuments are the main things I carry in my creative hard-drive.
The city I grew up in is on the Red Sea. ‘Jeddah’ means grandmother and that is where Eve is said to be buried. The city has 400 outdoor sculptures situated at the roundabouts and they vary in sizes but most of them tower over the city – thus making Jeddah one of the largest open-air sculpture galleries in the world. The artworks are mainly modernist sculptures or abstract structures. There aren’t any figurative sculptures on display whatsoever. Anything that even depicts or represents the human form is prohibited in Saudi Arabia.
I was also greatly [influenced] by Islamic architecture and especially my experiences in mosques, specifically those in Mecca. Having always made weekend trips when I was a child, I would be in awe of these grand spaces. It’s something that I now realize influenced how I look at shapes, spaces, and structures. Their hugeness is something that I see in my work. The idea of looking up to theses massive structures has carried into my work and you see it in pieces like Monuments to My Ruins or even in the Diving Dunce installations that you have to look up to.
That being said, the truth is that I never had an in-person reference to statues. What I was exposed to, and I know has a strong influence in my work, are abstract, even post-modern artworks that were all over the city of Jeddah. Henry Moore is an example but Jean/Hans Arp, César Baldaccini, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Joan Miró, and Victor Vasarely have also all contributed to creating a stimulating cityscape in Jeddah. Partly, I am aware that those structures and the way they seem to loom over the city can also be detected in my work. Of course, I have been influenced by the buildings — the architecture, the contrast of new versus the old, etc.
But my recent visit to Somaliland was only the third time, and it was the first in which I really got to appreciate the “Nassa Hablood,” which means “the girl breasts” — something you don’t really want to hear coming out of your dad’s mouth after he picks you up from the airport.
I was hoping to go up in these hills during my trip, as they look down on the capital city of Hargeisa. I began realizing that these hills have subconsciously penetrated my visual vocabulary, without even knowing it, until I found myself in Hargeisa again.
GK: What’s taken you from architecture to dunce hats and finally to fragile, flimsy, glittery structures that appear temporary?
LS: I feel that since I had this strong background as a formally-trained painter, I had to alter my way of working within the canvas. To push myself, to make them work – I felt like I wanted them to come across [as] strong. I allowed myself to break out of the canvas and then go the completely opposite way and use materials I find at party stores that give a sense of a fleeting time and space. When I experimented with party store materials, I was able to use them in my installations with paint and paper in a way where I could still reference architectural structures that have this different gravity than my work on canvas. I am working on these structures until they feel like they are just being put up or as if they are about to fall apart — has the party or event already ended or not even started yet? [This] makes them playful or allows me to play with this awkward tension in my work. I feel that Diving Dunce was a piece that got that experience across successfully.
GK: While looking at your work, I felt the urge to put on Sun Ra. Your work at first seems raw, coarse, at times violently loud and feminine, or reserved and phallic. Cocooned elements in womb-like luscious structures combined with what it may seem a tacky childlike finish and a dominant palette create that very same cacophony I enjoy in Sun Ra’s music. What I mean by that is that your work is not traditionally easy on the eyes but is strong and intense. And on top of that, your work gives away your gender and hints at your ethnic background. Please discuss Cornered, Monument to My Ruins, and Afro Dunce for me.
LS: Yes to everything you said above! I approach my work in several different ways and there is more than one interpretation or reading. Sometimes it comes out subconsciously, othertimes more purposefully. I think you hit it on the spot with your description of work that “is not traditionally easy on the eyes but is strong and intense.”
Each piece that I make has a story and different history than the other one. I think what ties them together is that intensity. In Cornered, I was working with the idea of being set aside and being either shunned or on purposely watching from a distance. This piece for me relays those cocoon-like elements you are referring to with a childlike finish. For sure, I am playing with those elements and trying to evoke those feelings in the piece. Monument to My Ruins was more reserved and a pretty minimalist and simplistic piece for me, but [one] that has such a presence.
The size and the fragile quality of the piece [are significant] since it looks like it can fall apart. The reflective quality plays an important role because I always like to reflect the viewer or the environment in the work.
Afro Dunce has the more manic chaos childlike [quality], you can say, but is really controlled. Using the afro (which I only use a couple of times) does give away my background but I still try to use it in formal elements even though I am still negotiating its role in my work. Visually it works in that piece, so I went with it.
When I enter into my studio, I don’t have a message or an agenda for the day. I really do work with sets of emotions, energies, and experiences that I am trying to get across. Everything is just a little rough around the edges.
GK: In one of the texts you shared with me, you talk about the 3D qualities of your paintings. Is this how you best understand your work?
LS: Yes, I use the 3D qualities as my starting point. But I make sure that as I am working on my pieces, I am using the language that I would use on 2D surface. At the same time, when I am working on my installations, I see them in 2D as I move around them.
Around the time I was getting ready to work off the canvas, one of the artists I felt connected to was Yayoi Kusama. I got the chance to experience one of her installation pieces firsthand. After that, I started to really research her work and understood that she came from a painting background, then started to go off the canvas and work with this idea of dots everywhere, covering her installations with dots. This obsessive quality was almost manic, and it is what draws me to her work.
GK: Take me through your studio please, and try to explain to me what is it like to make art for you?
LS: Well, making art for myself induces a very bipolar sensation. There are really very high moments and then very low moments of being onto something or discovering new venues for my work — by working on a painting that is coming together and then by hitting a wall when it turns ugly.
That is the low part when it’s not so nice to be in my studio and I am trying to work through what’s not working. In either stage, I am in the studio and I can’t avoid it just because it’s hard to be in there, since I know it’s not going to resolve itself. I feel that when I am at a high, I try to enjoy the studio but at the back of my mind, I know hard times are around the corner. There is a certain challenge to having to work through the problem and get to the other side. It’s an addiction and I am a slave to it.
My studio practice is the core of my work because I work intuitively and it’s how I come to my forms in the paintings and installations.
GK: Did you always want to teach or did it just happen?
LS: Well, I can’t say that when I was in graduate school my goal was to be a teacher. It was on the horizon as a possibility but I wasn’t solely focused on that being my future. The job I had at the College of Charleston from 2005-2009 started off as a one-year position where I was selected from a small pool of people. That one year position just happened to be renewed for four years because of different circumstances. To have a full-time job a year after graduate school and then be able to walk away with 4 years of teaching experience is quite an accomplishment and something that I am very grateful for.
And teaching made me look at my studio practice in a different way. I taught basic painting and it made me realize how important it is to observe. So I started to set up still lifes to paint in my studio and rediscover some of my old school heroes like P.Morandi, Bonnard, J.W. Turner, and Matisse, to name a few. I learned a lot from teaching and that’s something I hope can keep happening.
GK: Is there an installation currently in the works in your mind that hasn’t been realized yet? What should we be expecting from you next?
LS: I have one installation that is in the works; it has to do with an enormous quantity of sequins, paper, and glitter. It stems from a piece I recently did that is called the Bearded Oval. That piece would serve as my starting point for a floor and wall installation.
The problem I’m working on is to how not make it so permanently in one space as I’d like to move it into different spaces. So I hesitate working on a piece in my studio that requires alterations of my space.
My recent work is moving towards paper pieces that can be moved, but that doesn’t mean I am not going to manipulate the space they occupy after they leave my studio. I just decided not to make my studio the white box, but to wait for that white box to come to me and then realize the pieces to their full extent. So I see some of my work [as remaining] dormant and not fully blossomed until it occupies spaces outside of my studio.
And, that’s a wrap!