To flesh out her multifaceted experiences in her latest work, “Anak Dara,” artist Azzah Sultan had to upgrade her tools to match by experimenting with and doubling down on video, performance and installation aspects.
“I felt like the topics I was focusing on were so complex, I felt like the medium it was displayed on needed to be as complex as they were,” Sultan said.
Sultan shared her story as a Muslim immigrant who channels her experiences into her art, and how her work has evolved, in her lecture “Navigating Culture and Faith Through Art.” It was released on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform at 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, July 16, as part of the Week Three Interfaith Lecture Series theme: “Art: A Glimpse into the Divine.”
Sultan received her MFA a few months ago from Washington State University, but her reputation as an innovative artist precedes her. Earlier in the week, art historian and Chautauqua regular Ori Soltes praised her portfolio as a powerful set of installations on the politics of gender.
Part of a Malaysian diplomat family, Sultan was born in Abu Dhabi and grew up in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Finland and Bahrain. She first came to the United States seven years ago at 16 years old to study at Parsons School of Design.
I use my art to express frustrations in the society I am living in. By doing so, my feelings would be felt and my voice heard — without antagonizing anyone or jeopardizing my true faith.”
Maureen Rovegno, the director of Chautauqua’s Department of Religion, led the subsequent Q-and-A, which lasted 36 minutes. She delivered questions that the audience populated through submissions via questions.chq.org and on Twitter at #CHQ2020.
“You are bringing this authority into this very different American context, in which you have to deal with the multiple sorts of conditionalities here in America, such as dealing with racism and ethnicity, which people often conflate here and don’t distinguish,” Rovegno said.
Sultan left home to study art, but also retains her connection to her home through practicing art — and her religion. She started wearing a headscarf shortly before leaving for the United States.
“I started to realize that my faith was the only thing I could hold onto (from home), which is why I found it important to highlight aspects of my religion within my art, as the Islamic faith has molded me to what I am today,” Sultan said. “I use my art to express frustrations in the society I am living in. By doing so, my feelings would be felt and my voice heard — without antagonizing anyone or jeopardizing my true faith.”
Sultan’s body of work turns Islamophobic and racist ideas of the West on their heads while also celebrating her own experiences as a Muslim woman with family lineage reaching through India, Pakistan and Malaysia.
In her installation “Radical Media,” Sultan stitched video clips of news pundits misusing terms to describe Islam — “radical Islam,” “radicalized,” “moderate Muslim,” “jihad,” and “sharia law” — so they played on the same screen in unison. It’s a 7-second clip on a constant loop, which is meant to emphasize how often Muslims hear these words used against them and how negative news media can perpetuate a hatred of a peaceful religion.
“Islam is peace, to me,” Sultan said. “Islam means peace.”
While working toward her master’s degree, Sultan dove deeper into performance art with her installation, “Oriental Woman,” which flashed images of 18th- and 19th-century European artwork that depicted “women of the East” as objects.
“These images of oriental women embody images of fantasy, myth and exoticism,” Sultan said.
While the images projected onto her body and the background, Sultan performed a traditional Malaysian dance she learned while she was a child.
Her installation, “Perfectly Blushed,” tackles companies like Fair and Lovely that market skin-bleaching products to South Asian women.
In this project, Sultan models in a mock commercial where her skin synthetically pinkens to an unnatural color, playing on these products’ claims to create a “rosy” complexion as a result of having whiter skin. She said she does not fault anyone who uses these products, since they are simply caught up in expectations fueled by white supremacy and colonialism, but seeks to guide her audience through questions of what it means for a person to change their skin tone.
“Women of color are often encouraged to use methods of skin bleaching, as it promises them a future in which they can succeed in their own careers, love life and any obstacles that they face,” Sultan said. “The removal of dark skin tone is akin to the removal of one’s history and past. ‘Perfectly Blushed’ is an examination of the way marketing works to sell this fantasy.”
Her latest work, “Anak Dara,” includes five installations focusing on childhood nostalgia, materials of memorabilia and familial ties using digital media. It’s her master’s thesis. Her mother is featured prominently throughout, teaching Sultan how to make sambal, or Malaysian chili paste, in a video, as well as through her material items. While wearing a greenscreen suit and covered with a vibrant batik wax print background, Sultan wraps her headscarf like her mother does in one performance. In another, she plays with the sounds of her mother’s jewelry. Partway through the video, she hides her hands with a distorted batik background.
“My hands are a signifier to my race, and the lack of (skin shown) in the other clips creates emphasis on the jewelry worn and the patterns of the batik, a nod to my own culture,” Sultan said.
Due to the coronavirus, Sultan could not host a traditional reception for her thesis and couldn’t show her parents the end result of her work, despite the fact that they inspired it. One element of the installation — spice sachets reminiscent of the smells of Sultan’s family home, which viewers would have been invited to carry around while they explored the other installations — while innovative, would be too high risk of a contact point in a live viewing.
But even in a virtual viewing, Sultan’s description of her work ignites all human senses.
“My current art serves almost as an altarpiece, enshrining my culture by representing it through visuals, smells, colors and textures,” Sultan said. “I am making art as a tribute to where I am from, and an investigation of how I perceive myself through garments and objects of personal memories. The viewer is invited into this space to reflect on their own personal connections through their past and cultural background.”
As a young artist, Sultan’s work continues to evolve. She said that the Western influence has crystallized and misread the femininity of cultures and faiths, and she is considering exploring a wider range of what the term “feminine” means in future installations through craft, materiality and video distortion.
“I’m at this point right now where I want to create art that’s very open to interpretation, but at the same time very present as well,” Sultan said.