Joe Bun Keo: Beena, I’ve known you for a few years now. You have a background in the medical field, and you are currently the recipient of Trinity College’s Fifth Year Fellowship. From your experiences growing up in an Asian family and the presumed strictness of such, what were the trials and tribulations of venturing off into the arts, if there were even any at all?
Beena Azeem, Sajdah, 2012, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches. All images courtesy of Beena Azeem.
Beena Azeem: My family thought I had lost my mind and/or was rebelling at 30, leaving the security of medicine for something as unwieldy as art. Growing up it was always “just a hobby.” I’m not even sure I took my own art very seriously. I just knew that I loved it. In med school I was always making art, and was constantly asked why I didn’t just become an artist. Societal pressures, wanting a steady income, and the chaos of a non-linear career pathway had me tiptoeing around the idea for years. After attempting a few different directions, a moment of realization finally hit that I was compelled to make art. My happiness and satisfaction were based solely on the urgency and release of creating. This gave me the strength and focus to push on, and I haven’t looked back since. Besides, I don’t think I had the grit to be an artist straight out of high school. I needed to fight my way to it, for it to work for me.
like my paintings to evoke a complex series of emotions that touch on
difficult subject matter, and potentially open your way of thinking and
perceiving. The realism of my figures in their near life-size scale should make them relatable.
JBK: Your models’ personal lives and stories are not highlighted. They become somewhat of a vessel for others to fill with interpretation. Your work invites ambiguity. Though I know some of the people in your paintings, I don’t view it as an inquiry into the personal lives of mutual acquaintances. I too, see them as a point of departure for something more. How do you balance or distinguish from creating work that has personal references but overall is meant to be open?
BA: You understand what their personalities are like, how they will be in front of the camera.I know who is shy, who is too “pose-y”, and who needs a little time to warm up. The shoots usually take 2-3 hours. We converse, make jokes, listen to music, and I give them a little background beforehand. When posing I don’t relay too many specifics. I don’t want to lead them towards a particular emotion or narrative, and encourage them to experiment. Buried in these hundreds of shots is always that one image that captured the split second where they conveyed a powerful emotion. Blink and you’d miss it, but this is the biggest advantage of photographing these set-ups. By placing my models in these sparse theatrical set-ups, and stripping them of identifiers such as articles of clothing, or jewelry, allows that detachment from their personalities.
JBK: Sexuality, ritual, religion, the human condition, submission vs. domination, gender, social constructs, these are just some of the ideas that you integrate into your work. I don’t see them as ideas, but as perspectives. These conceptual multiple and fractured perspectives straddle the line of Cubism. Has that thought ever crossed your mind? If not, what do you think about the correlation of your work to that of Cubism?
BA: Certainly, I see the connection. However, my focus is not so much on the objectivity of the figures, and more the conceptual fragmentation and intersections of ideas. By utilizing mirrors, I am in fact heavily reliant on optical illusions to convey a visual impression. By playing with your perceptual reality, I attempt to challenge your way of thinking.
JBK: “The Reason for Reason,” “Pathos,” and “Reflections” have been titles of your most recent shows. You are meshing the world of medicine and science with psychology, philosophy and art. Is this a personal motive or happenstance? Are you experimenting out of curiosity or are you searching for that something, that one niche to focus your work? Is focus even an issue? Are your intentions to present chaos, distortion and multiplicity as stable and beautiful, or vice versa?
BA: Sometimes I think I have two (or more) people inside of me duking it out! Hah. But this is classic right-brain vs. left-brain struggle: the regimentation of med-school and my Asian upbringing, fighting my artistic nature. Half of me loves charts and diagrams with literal side-by-side comparisons, while the other half is content with a softer abstraction of fluid ideas. I’ve attempted to merge the two in some regards, but am not fighting it too hard. Alternating between the figurative works and the medical pathologies allows me to release two different pressure valves, but also gives me a brief respite from that body of work. So I come back to it fresh.
I was an 8 year-old insomniac. The problems of the world kept me up at night. Living and traveling outside the U.S. was life altering. I was slammed with these jarring, contradictory often nonsensical, and chaotic experiences that extended well beyond my realm of comprehension in the states. The resilience of the people really struck me. Despite the bitter challenges, there was beauty and tender humanity in these parts of the world. I like to channel these fragile disparities in my work.
JBK: What’s next for Beena Azeem? What are your current and upcoming projects? You’re a fellow at Trinity College’s Fifth Year Fellowship. Describe how that is contributing to your practice. Just tell us anything interesting going on in the life of Beena Azeem!
BA: I want revisit the medical pathology works I was experimenting with two years ago, both sculptures and paintings.Trinity has given me ample studio space, an artist community, and endless support to make this happen. I’ll be curating shows at Trinity’s Broad Street Gallery for the next year, which is very exciting. I caught the curatorial bug this summer putting together “Nowhere Differentiable,” at Hartford Artspace. What a great experience! I really like the idea of connecting artists at various stages of their career, and mixing artists from various cities. These are the shows I always wanted to see in Hartford, but now get the chance to have a personal hand in it.
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