CMA Stories

“Art and freedom are so intertwined in one another” — 5 Minutes With Artist Yasmeen Abdallah

Artist, educator, and activist Yasmeen Abdallah joins GirlStories as a guest artist this week! One of CMA’s hallmark programs, GirlStories is a free after school program that empowers students to become makers and individuals, and encourages them to bring their unique perspectives into fields that are lacking a female voice. Get to know Yasmeen below!

Can you tell us about your art practice and how working with children inspires you?
My artistic practice focuses on looking at what people leave behind, and how to transform what’s already in existence into something entirely new. I find and recycle single use objects and create mixed-media textiles, sculptures, paintings, and installations. These handcrafted/hand sewn works reflect on ecology, sustainability, class, interdependence, dystopia, and of how there’s potential in everything and everyone that might be considered unwanted. I like the challenge of finding new ways of pushing utilitarian objects into new dialogues with renewed purpose. I incorporate items such as old clothing, plastic packaging, products that are used once and thrown away, keepsakes, and other lost-and-found materials.

A big part of my practice is about community engagement, so I think a lot about how to make art accessible and relatable, while focusing on reducing our environmental footprint. One way I do this is by reusing things once they are no longer functional. I do this to promote visibility as a way of reducing the amount of waste and plastics in the world, and out of affordability and practicality. I reuse old markers and pens once they don’t work anymore, I collect and clean plastic cutlery, rulers, wood scraps, and other remnants, and I use them to build frames for my works. I cut into old clothing that’s too worn out to be donated or resold, and use it to create tapestries and textile works. I transform and create collages and artist books.

My philosophy is that everyone and everything has a past and a future, and it is up to us to decide how we want to explore the present through that reasoning. Plus, there is such a satisfying element of taking things apart and reinventing them as something altogether new and different!

CMA is known for its community programs that bring free art-making to children and families in New York City. How does art have the power to connect and support community bonds? Why is it important to make art accessible to all children and families?
I think the state of play is very important, and working with children is a constant reminder and validation of that! It’s amazing how imagination can transport someone to the farthest corners of existence, and throughout time, if we wish. Imagination is the one place in which everyone is able to venture outside of all that they know, and conceive of things beyond daily life. It is an opportunity for possibility, exploration, experimentation, the unknown, and one of the greatest things about existence. Art is such a great way of connecting people in endless ways. It communicates beyond linguistic, geographic, and cultural divides. It unites people through the five senses. I’ve taught numerous family workshops over the years. Sometimes specific techniques or skills are gained, and other times it’s purely an intuitive period, where adults and children come. Whether people are working on projects together, forming friendships or collaborations, and strengthening existing bonds; or working independently, having that time and space to create without distraction or judgement, and with total validity is essential to growth and development at all ages. There’s so many ways to approach art-making, but however it’s done, people always leave feeling more confident and at ease, and hopefully inspired to keep creating and connecting! It’s also such a healthy outlet, and something that we can do anywhere, and with anything. Art takes shape in so many ways, and documents every chapter of life. From early cave paintings to the digital era, human beings have used it as a means of historical documentation and communication to describe what was happening, and is as important as language itself. Art and freedom are so intertwined in one another.

Do you have a favorite memory of making art as a child?
We didn’t have a lot of art materials around when I was a kid, so I had to get inventive. I whiled away countless hours drawing, and gravitated to sculpture without realizing it. I loved to play with gravity and suspension, stacking things as one entity until it collapsed into itself. I used whatever was around: books, fruit, toys, houseware, paper, pens, knickknacks, and other odds and ends. My family was very eco-conscious, so we reused everything, which impacted the way I make work today. I believe that improvisation is a great prompt and catalyst for keeping art-making fresh and exciting, and not always having what we need can open us up to things we would have otherwise never have thought possible!

As a child, I would draw blueprints for the architectural marvels I envisioned. I created comics and characters, and built theaters and sets. I used a lot of found objects like cardboard (rectangular tissue boxes for bath tubs, cereal boxes for beds), and whatever else I could get my hands on, like old rags for draperies and bedding, socks for hammocks and sleeping bags; creating these environments unconsciously. I would also play with makeup and clothing, creating fashion shows which looking back now, were incredibly fun, playfully avant-garde, and quirky.

Can you share a work or artist that inspires you to make art?
There are just so many, that it’s difficult to narrow down to just one! A few artists who continue to inspire me are Ana Mendieta, Eva Hesse, Agnes Denes, and Betye Saar. Their work and contributions to the world were so important and paved the way for future artists to push the language of art forward. These are artists who have opened such riveting dialogues about women in art, and created new ways of thinking about art in terms of process, experimentation, working and defying the odds. Every time I experience their work, it reinvigorates and reminds me that we all have a voice and a platform through the art that we share with the world, and we should be fearless in trusting the process, and enjoy the act of creating to the fullest!

Learn more about Yasmeen at yasmeenabdallah.com and sign up for GirlStories here!

More in Interviews

Sign up to get updates and special invitations