Today on the Gallery Girl podcast my guest is Maryam Yousif, a San Francisco based artist working in ceramics, painting and installation. Her work has been a means of processing diasporic shifts of cultural aesthetics.
“I’ve always been creative, my mom was always painting and our house was full of things she made”, says Maryam, “It was a form of expression but I didn’t have a name for it until college when I took a drawing class and felt I’d found my place.” She began her studies in Windsor in Canada, but says moving to California and attending graduate school in San Francisco changed everything. “It was a real shift in my practice”, she says, “San Francisco’s got a really rich history of art. There’s the funk ceramic history, the figurative Bay area movement, painting history. A lot of my instructors came from that. San Francisco Art Institute had a real freedom to be funky and strange and humorous.”
It was in graduate school too, where Maryam started incorporating her Iraqi and Assyrian roots into her work. “It began with little steps”, she says, “I incorporated photographs of where I used to live, or photographs of myself as a child, then it started to build from there, and I also started to mix painting and ceramics.” Maryam moved from Iraq to Jordan when she was 10, and after a year she moved to Canada. “Your brain rewires really quickly so not to stand out”, she says, “I was young enough to adapt really quick.” That said, she always grew up keeping in touch with the culture.
As for bringing ancient history into her work, Maryam had to do her own research. “No-one ever taught me about that”, she says, “My mum eventually began to speak about it when I started to show though. I had a show called Shamiram’s Delight, which was based on a conversation I had with her about a painting she made in the ‘70s.” And subsequently in 2018, Maryam visited the British Museum, seeing Iraqi and Assyrian artefacts in person.
Many of Maryam’s ceramics, which draw inspiration from ancient history, are shaped like modern handbags. “That shape is actually based on an ancient bag that I saw at the British Museum”, she explains, “It’s very common to see bas-reliefs of gods carrying bags. There was an actual handbag object that I think was found in a tomb in Iraq but I think it was of Persian origin. People think it might have been a weight or something like that.”
And speaking of handbags, Maryam’s work appears very feminine, especially with its pastel colour scheme. “I don’t know if it’s very conscious, but I do like it”, says Maryam, “I always sculpt women, female characters. I think I’m just drawn to that.” A lot of her work is about showing the power of women. “There’s confidence and fantasy”, she says, and her work illustrates many goddesses and queens from ancient history. “When I went to the British Museum, one of the things that really stood out to me was the tomb of Puabi”, says Maryam, “That led to the theme of an exhibition. I was drawn to her tomb full of beautiful headdresses of gold ribbons. She had these incredible instruments and everything looked like it would have been the cream of the crop of the period.”
But what about work during the tumultuous 2020? During the pandemic, Maryam had a garden show with her husband, where she showed work inspired by the folklore of Middle Eastern women in villages carrying things on their head. “So much of these sculptural pieces are about being containers”, she says, “These women were providing nourishment, and I also got to make them in dresses. Tying fashion back in. I was sewing during the pandemic so I was looking at vintage patterns.”
And in the future? Maryam’s continuing to work on her ceramic bags. “I’m still excited about it”, she says, “I still like the form and it has lots of possibilities.” And, having been based in Chicago for a while, she’s looking forward to going back to San Francisco.