The Artful Muslimah – Earth, Ink, Digital and Endless Possibilities with Idil Abdullahi

Community advocate, workshop facilitator, mother, and self-taught artist, Idil Abdullahi has recently returned to university to finish her first fine arts degree in ceramics, while continuing to expand her repertoire of mediums for “story telling” through visual art.

[Brooke Benoit] When did you begin experimenting with art/self-expression? When did you recognize yourself as an artist?

[Idil Abdullahi] I first began to experiment while I was in high school, mainly because my English was so poor at the time. The only subjects that I could relate to and engaged me then were the visual arts. Also, during art classes, my work was being commented on by classmates who didn’t otherwise speak to me at all, so I thought there must be something there, though I really had no concept of what an “artist” was at the time. I just knew I wanted to create, and that feeling of being so immersed in what I was doing became addictive.

My artistic journey has been anything but linear. There was a long absence from creating and then I began experimenting with various mediums which left me with more self-doubts. As such, it was still difficult until very recently to think of myself as an “artist.” It was going back to studying that has given me a fresh point of view and renewed energy to keep going and continue. Upon reflection, I think that I have come full circle and it truly feels like a coming home, Alhamdulillah.

[Brooke Benoit] What made you decide to formally study art?

[Idil Abdullahi] It wasn’t something I planned. After working in the community settlement sector, I wanted to get more qualified in that area, so I initially applied to study social work.  Around the same time, I became involved in community arts initiatives and after lots of encouragement, I got the courage to change my course just in time to fine arts instead.  Straightway, I felt like everything was fitting together so much better and being a product of community arts myself, I was looking forward to continuing to be a part of that once my studies were completed.

Just as someone may write ideas down and organise them to try and get some answers, in the same way I am driven to create – to make some sense out of it all.

[Brooke Benoit] You have emphasised that what you “hope to highlight in the works are issues and feelings of being erased from history past, present and future as the unrest back home [in Somalia] continues to worsen.” Just by creating your work, of course, you contribute to continuing the traditions and history. For people viewing your work – especially your ceramics – they may just see beautiful pottery, can you please explain what some of the meanings are behind the forms?

[Idil Abdullahi] That idea of being erased are the emotions that are fuelling my current work, and in the same way  whether it’s my ceramics or henna paintings, they are indicating questions or experiences I am wrestling with at any given time. Just as someone may write ideas down and organise them to try and get some answers, in the same way I am driven to create – to make some sense out of it all. Many times the ideas come first and they are very concrete, other times it’s a very intuitive process of being drawn to certain forms or colours.

For example, my dervish series are on the surface inspired by the graceful movements of the Sema ritual, but on another level it was a period in my life where I felt that I had to hide my belief that Tasawuf or Sufism is an integral part of Islam. The Sema itself represents growing through love and that’s what I hoped the form would embody as well as opening the door for conversation. They were my first formal ceramic works and thinking back to the days when I was making them still fills me with so much love and gratitude. Not many people notice, but on the turquoise dervish there is this very faint “Bismillah” on it, which at the time was a mark of prayer for blessed beginnings into the ceramic world.

[Brooke Benoit] You have said that you are “very much process driven, and thrive on experimentation. The making, the changes, the accidents, everything you might not see in the end product is just as important, if not more,” which is absolutely horrifying for some people who may see this idea as wasting time and/or resources or may just not be as ‘daring’ to try new things. Can you please explain what the internal process is for you when you are experimenting in artistic mediums and processes?

[Idil Abdullahi] Different materials can convey different emotions, so experimenting, in that sense, to me is important. I probably don’t do enough of it myself due to those same apprehensions you mentioned. And experimenting doesn’t necessarily mean using more materials, in fact it could mean using less.

As an example, I have used all the established painting materials and was never satisfied or enthusiastic about the outcome. And then, by His grace, I saw a window to experiment using henna as a painting medium on watercolour paper, layering it with ink and the results were significant. Here was a medium I have been using for years, but since I knew it as a medium to traditionally adorn the body, it never occurred to me to try it outside of that. So my approach now is more experimental and instinctive; I make lots of samples to begin with and see what is working and whether an idea is worth pursuing.

[Brooke Benoit] Often so much emphasis is placed on the final outcome of someone’s work or an artist’s successes. Are there any mediums you have tried and strongly dislike? If so, what lessons were you able to take with you from those attempts?

[Idil Abdullahi] I wouldn’t say I strongly dislike them, but I really struggled to paint in oils.  More time was spent cleaning the brushes and drying my work and I would ruin pieces because I kept working on them before the layers dried, so I had to start again which irritated me. What is interesting though is after my trials with oils ended, I was convinced that I like to work fast. Yet here I am today working with clay, one of the most unpredictable and time-consuming mediums there is. I don’t know how to explain it but there was this immediate magnetism to clay, whereas with oils I couldn’t wait to finish with them.

[Brooke Benoit] Please tell us about your work with Somalia Drought Relief efforts, as well as your work with refugees in your community?

[Idil Abdullahi] I was involved in various famine fundraising initiatives, primarily using the arts, to raise much needed money and the response was enormous. There is still much work to be done, and there needs to be sustainable prevention programs and strategies put in place. I don’t feel that I have personally contributed very much at all. But because of the positive response to those initiatives, we are hoping to utilise the arts again for programs that involve the community here while at the same time benefiting the community back home.

[Brooke Benoit] Have you been able to return home in the last two decades since you had to leave Somalia? Do you have any plans to do so in the immediate future?

[Idil Abdullahi] No, I haven’t been back there largely because I grew up in the capital city of Mogadishu, which is still one of the most unsafe places in the region. However, I do have extended families in other parts of Somalia and lately I have been yearning to go back, maybe because I am getting old or something, I don’t know. I have been trying to prepare myself to go next year, insha Allah and I am truly excited and looking forward to it.

[Brooke Benoit] You successfully and beautifully use a wide range of mediums – ceramics, photography, henna, performance, painting – are there any mediums or art forms you are dreaming of using in the future, but haven’t had time or access to yet?

[Idil Abdullahi] I would love to do some digital illustration of my henna designs to make them sharper and also more useful outside the body. Video is another medium that is very appealing, the way it engages all of the senses is exceptional. Right now I think the best solution is to collaborate with other artists skilled in those areas rather than taking on too much.

Idil’s work, along with several other Muslim women’s art, is currently on display, May 12th – July 8th 2012, as part of the No Sugar Added exhibit at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre in New South Wales. To view or purchase her work and learn more about aiding in Somali drought relief, visit Idil’s portfolio page and email her through there.

This article is from the June 2012 issue of SISTERS Magazine (the magazine for fabulous Muslim women). 
All images courtesy of Idil Abdullahi.

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