Tending Hearts: Laimah Osman in the StudioJuly 25, 2015
“The poems are almost like secrets,” says Workspace Resident Laimah Osman, opening the screen-printed covers of her 2013 project Ishqnama (The Book of Love), full of poetry written by Persian women of the early Islamic period. “They’re so gorgeous and contemporary, lusty and hot. Like lyrics from pop songs now.”
Struck by such powerful outcries of love, longing, and heartbreak, Laimah and her sister launched the Persian Poetry Project with other scholars and artists. They translated women’s poetry in hope of expanding popular notions of the experience of women in the region.
“Because of the ‘War on Terror,’ when you think about women of that region, you think of them as victims and as oppressed,” says Laimah. “That is a reality; but it’s only part of the story. I don’t want to fuel the representation of Afghan women only as victims.”
Using language and various printed media, Laimah’s work responds to post-9/11 representations of Muslim women in American culture. From the heady poetry of Ishqnama (The Book of Love) to her appropriation of 9/11-era newspaper imagery, she strives to bring context and complexity to narratives of invisibility, extremism, and patriarchal oppression. She also draws from her own experience, caught between two identities, two stories: originally from Afghanistan, she grew up in a small New Jersey town, learning little about her birthplace.
“There were points where I felt like we were channeling these fierce women from back in the day,” she says of the Persian Poetry Project. “It encouraged me to look at my own work and not be shy about it. [Before,] I was thinking about how other people understood Muslim women. Now, I’m thinking about my internal space and how I feel.”
In her current project, she mines her own personal writing to create vibrant, declarative text-based works that play with language, reference the heartbreak of ancient Persian women, and offer solace in Buddhist mantras. Her screenprints are bright, visual poems: overlapping blocks of color create energetic compositions of loose registration and handcut letterforms.
As the prints fold into books, Laimah’s wordplay reveals itself, transforming the phrases to take on multiple readings: HEART HURTS becomes ART HURTS; HEAT HEART becomes EAT HEART; and COLD HEART becomes OLD HEART. These shifts in language reference universal human experiences of passion, exhaustion, and loss.
While feelings of lament are a strong undercurrent, these prints move towards a new playfulness in Laimah’s work. She follows after Sister Corita Kent, a radical nun who helped establish silkscreen as a fine art medium during the 1960s and 70s. As a civil rights, feminist, and anti-war activist, Sister Corita created a highly political body of work that used bold, graphic typography, drawing inspiration from sources as varied as poetry to pop culture, philosophy to advertising.
Sister Corita’s interest in the malleability of language, and her signature technique of warping text into expressive exclamations, has greatly informed Laimah’s recent prints. Using a leafy green palette inspired by WSW’s landscape, Laimah has printed TEND(H)ER in direct homage to Sister Corita’s TENDER (1974). By adding an ‘H,’ she honors the contribution of women artists and calls for care and respect in today’s fear-charged socio-political climate. Her vivid colors and visceral strokes reflect the struggle of articulation; they gesture towards a more complex strategy of representation underlying Laimah’s overall practice. She finds a new sense of empowerment through embracing her own words and messages of self-care.
“This is how it feels. ” Laimah says, gesturing at the array of test prints lying across a large table in the silkscreen studio—four weeks worth of experimentation. “Making art has been a life raft. I can speak freely. I’m taking a step back and letting myself use my true voice.”
Laimah Osman is a Brooklyn-based artist who works with poetry, prints, drawings, and artist’s books. She received her MFA from Pratt Institute in 2010. View more of Laimah’s recent work at azadportfolio.net and see more images of her residency on Flickr.