The act of creation takes on a multiplicity of forms. In our ongoing artist interview series, we illuminate the distinctive artistic practices, influences, and creative challenges of our Pew Fellows, who represent a diversity of perspectives and creative disciplines.
In this installment, 2021 Pew Fellows—visual artists Rami George and Didier William—discuss how they approach personal and family narratives within their work and how they balance their creative practices with the obligations of daily life.
George’s practice turns an autobiographical lens on their Lebanese heritage, queer experience, and family history in a New Age spiritual community. Their mixed-media installations and video works draw from archives and family ephemera. William interweaves painting and printmaking and references mythology and his Afro-Caribbean lineage. His work’s complex images of bodies obscure race and gender through intricate patterns and ornamentation.
What roles do personal narrative, family history, and memory play in your work?
George These three things are tethers of my practice. Ultimately, I’m interested in sitting with stories that are lost, fragmented, or misrepresented. This is how I approach working within queer archives (one pillar of my practice), and also how I approach my own family histories. I’m interested in these micro narratives, which of course feed into the macro: a satellite story within a constellation of stories and movements; the ways that my own narrative intersects with others, past and present. My personal narrative is hyper-specific, but it is also shared—with individuals who have experienced familial dispute/divorce, navigations with spiritual communities, growing up queer, etc. I want to explore and tell my story with honesty (a loaded term) and share that story with others.
William As an immigrant in this country, the simultaneous histories of my birthplace and my present are constantly interwoven to build a forcefully atemporal construction of home. For me, this necessarily changes both the function of, and the expectations for, representation. It opens up a space for magical realism, surrealism, geometric abstraction, naturalism, and even digital systems-based processes, all conspiring to build a more accurate, more felt, and perhaps more honest version of history.
What is your daily art-making routine?
William My day usually starts with a workout, either cardio or lifting. Then I spend some time with my daughter when she wakes up. We’ll have breakfast together and play for a bit. Then I leave for the studio. I usually get to working around 9:30 in the morning, and I wrap up around 4:30. I’ve learned that I’m at my best in the morning hours.
George I don’t quite have a daily art-making routine. My practice has always been nestled between life and work. The Pew Fellowship has offered me a chance to refocus on the practice, but thus far I’m still squeezing the making in between teaching and various other obligations. I think many people still hold this fantasy of the artist waking up and going into their studio for the day to create without distraction or inhibition. I have found this at times (at residencies), but in my daily life there are far more administrative obligations: researching, responding to emails, applying for funding opportunities, meeting with individuals, etc. I tend to pick away at projects more slowly—sifting, thinking, collecting—and then really concentrating when there’s a deadline.
What do you wish people would ask you about your work? Or, what’s the one thing you want people to know about what you do?
George In general, I don’t create work with set expectations of what I want people to ask or “get” from it. Rather, I aim to create from a place of emotions and intuition and allow the work to tell its own story. I’m more interested in proposing further questions than answering them. That being said, I’ve had many rewarding conversations with different individuals who have found a tether in my work, whether that’s through the family, queerness, or a distanced relationship to culture. I value when the work can act as a catalyst to new (or ongoing) conversations. Ultimately, I make work to try to understand my unique place in the world, but always with the understanding that these experiences are undoubtedly shared.
William I try not to anticipate where my viewers’ curiosity might be focused. (I don’t even think it’s possible to do so.) Instead, I try to remain actively engaged and honest with my own curiosity about my work, in the hopes that my viewer might also respond to what I’m responding to. The character and nature of their response isn’t mine to control, nor is it interesting to try to predict.
We invited the artists to pose questions to one another. They responded with the following exchange.
George: How do you navigate some of the more emotionally heavy content in your practice? How do you maintain your own health and balance while tackling some intense (personal) issues and topics?
William Really great question. The short answer is boundaries! I try to respect the boundaries of my studio and the boundaries that dictate my interpersonal relationships. I think for all artists who work with personal or biographical content, one has to contend with the fact that in our studios these may be characters in a narrative but outside of the studio these are people, who are either living or have lived. I’ve spent a long time dictating for myself what kind of freedoms I give myself as an artist and what kind of responsibilities I have as a son, a husband, father, best friend, etc. Of course, the negotiations between the two shift from painting to painting.
William: What does a bad day in the studio look like, and how do you attempt to recover from it?
George A bad day in the studio is a day when I can’t turn off the other distractions in my daily life: when I’m too caught up thinking about the list of things I have to get done in my life or job, or when I try to cram everything into my “day off”—exercise, groceries, laundry, rest, emails, studio. I try to accept these days as part of the balance—even that mere hour of studio time might be worthwhile. I’m also trying to build a more conscious routine: setting aside blocks of concentrated time for studio and life as opposed to trying to pick away at everything in a single day. Always easier said than done…
What are you currently working on?
George I'm currently working on Virtues Vol. 1—Remixed & Reinterpreted which is a new music project inviting 15 experimental musicians and sound artists to create new work based on a 10-track EP called Virtues Vol. 1. Created in collaboration with J. Midden, this EP is a series of sonic responses to esoteric line drawings originally produced by the Samaritan Foundation, a New Age cult my mother was involved with in the early 1990s. We are working now towards a project release comprising 17 new songs, a collection of music videos, and more.
William I'm curating an exhibition at James Fuentes Gallery which opens in July. Other upcoming projects include an Armory Show presentation with Altman Siegel Gallery, a Frieze London solo presentation with James Fuentes Gallery, and a survey exhibition at MOCA North Miami opening during Miami Art Week 2022.