Today my guest on the Gallery Girl podcast is Yasmine Nasser Diaz, a Yemeni-American multidisciplinary artist whose practice navigates overlapping tensions around religion, gender, and third-culture identity.
“The seed was definitely planted when I was in grade school. My school would take us on field trips often. I remember going to the Art Institute in Chicago”, says Yasmine, about her introduction to art, “I was really enchanted by the paintings.” She says she found colouring and doodles to be a wonderful way to lose herself. “Words have never come easily for me”, she says, “Art became a language, a way of expressing myself in a way that just felt easy.” That said, she never went to art school and found her way to becoming an artist herself. “I say that I’m a late bloomer because it wasn’t until a few years ago that I took it more seriously in terms of making a career”, she says, “The late blooming was a factor in terms of figuring out what I wanted to communicate because at its most basic art is a means of communication.” Essentially, Yasmine got to a point where there were things she wanted to say, and she couldn’t not say them anymore.
Much of Yasmine’s work draws on her own cultural experiences and her upbringing, but this was not natural for her. “It was very uncomfortable and very scary”, says Yasmine, “I was so worried about making our communities look bad…yet the issues weren’t necessarily being addressed…so I thought I would begin by going very autobiographical, so people would see this is me, this is my story, this is why I’m going to talk about these other things. I’m not speaking for everything, but this is my story, and it was a way to set a foundation.” One of her first works was an installation in LA at a grassroots community organisation called The Women’s Center For Creative Work. Here she made a bedroom, a theme that has carried through her work. For the exhibition she created a fun nostalgic space with perfumes from the 90s and 80s, but on closer inspection there were also framed documents scattered across the room from Yasmine’s own personal experiences, which were not easy to talk about. “I think installation is a really helpful way to build this space that initially feels very familiar to people of different backgrounds. And that was really important because I wanted people to feel a nostalgia even if their backgrounds were different from my own”, says Yasmine, “So they would experience that before these other details that tell the story of a complicated situation.”
Installation is something that Yasmine has carried through her work. Her latest show Soft Powers at the Arab American Museum in Dearborn was set up right as Covid-19 swept the globe. The exhibition has not been able to re-open, but all the work is still there. “With that installation I knew I didn’t want it to be autobiographical”, says Yasmine, “It’s still set in the 90s and I’m still drawing partially from my own experiences, but I decided to draw on a pair of fictional sisters.” She collaborated with a writer friend, Randa Jarrar, who wrote the text for two diaries that are in the bedroom space of two Yemeni-American girls. People would have been encouraged to read the diaries about their lives. “I definitely have a fascination with teenage-girl bedrooms”, says Yasmine, “We make these spaces like sanctuaries…even when I was a teenager, it was always so interesting to see how cousins and friends did their rooms.”
As for the lockdown period, Yasmine has been volunteering and also been working on her skills as an amateur drummer. She’s also joined a band of other Yemeni women who she’s been in touch with online, and hopes to meet in person in the future. Art wise, she has slowed down, but she explains that it was necessary. “How did we fit so much into our days before”, she says, “I don’t know if it was all necessary.”
In the immediate future, Yasmine has an installation that will open at the University of Michigan at the Institute of Humanities, where she is working remotely for the first time. It is another bedroom project. “This time it’s going to be something a bit more fun, I really needed more fun”, says Yasmine, “I’m inspired by the bedroom as a place of dance.” Besides that, she hopes to be able to work and continue to grow. “In terms of the future, I’m feeling very cautiously optimistic for the US and the world”, says Yasmine, “It’s very common to talk about how dreadful this past year has been, and rightfully so, there’s so much that’s been devastating. But, as someone who is born and raised here, but as a child of immigrants, there’s a kind of hope about the future of this country that I’ve never felt before and I wasn’t sure that I would feel in my lifetime. That’s because of the conversations that are happening and at the scale at which they’re happening. There’s no turning back from the time that we’re living in…I really, really hope that we learn from what’s happening now, that we don’t just try to move past it. We have such a huge opportunity to grow and change.”