Unsung Heroes, 2003. Deconstructed dresses, pins.
Collection of Farhat Art Museum. Photo by Diane Davis.
On several occasions between the months of June 2006 and January 2007 I sat down with the installation artist Mary Tuma and talked to her about her work and creative process. Tuma’s works in a variety of fiber media contain powerful insights into the problematic nature of being human. In a conversation about horror vacui her pieces, which expand in both elegant and discomfiting ways to fill gallery spaces, offer the viewer a kind of knowledge about one’s place in the world as well as its terrifying instability.
Tuma speaks of two main bodies of work, that which deals with the physical reality of her own body, and that which deals with the social and political conditions of modern Palestine. To my mind these two categories work together to expose the inherent difficulty of being an individual, with particular emotional and physical circumstances, who nonetheless feels connected to larger groups – the circumstances of which she cannot control. As I see it, visual culture has always endeavored to articulate this difficult divide, and to provoke in viewers ideas on how to bridge it. Tuma’s work artfully prompts us to sense both the horrifying isolation and the profound resilience that mark all of our lives, and shape the conditions in which we live. She states that she seeks to connect dreams with reality – I see in this a desire to describe that which in lived experience is inarguably present, but tantalizingly ephemeral.
Fiber media, in her work, become irresistible metaphors both for the skin that forms the barrier between the internal and external, and for the costume that enables its interpretation. Her work respects fiber’s historical complexity and is likewise sensitive to the creative reception of its viewers. For me, and I speak here on both a personal and a professional level, there is a multifaceted delight in viewing her art – because it pulls at me both intellectually and viscerally. Humor intersects with her work, originating in discomfort rather than amusement, and speaks to this combination of mind and body. Organs and cartography, sewing patterns and the stitching up of wounded bodies, memory and the imagined – these visuals combine to make us uncertain of the real and the illusory. One senses the makings of answers to these enigmas in Mary Tuma’s work, yet she has left us a thoughtful space to form them for ourselves.
Jim Frakes: What was your education as an artist?
Mary Tuma: As a kid I liked art, I was always told I was talented. I began with Barbie dresses – sewing and fashion. Art seemed beyond me. I had the idea that art was automatically created by a genius, so I could never do it. I went to undergraduate school at Humboldt State, and pursued a degree in early childhood development for one year, but I didn’t like it. I wanted to make things. My mother had taught me embroidery, crochet and sewing and I had a love for the materials.
My aunts, who are Arab, thought of sewing primarily as a way for women to make money, but it also was a leisure activity for them with creativity and pleasure. The functionality of the end product was also important to them. I still have a Victorian-style blouse that one of them made for me.
As a junior I went to Egypt and attended the American University in Cairo, where I studied Islamic art, Arabic and theater. I went there with my father, who is an Economics Professor at UC Davis and was the director of the year-abroad program from the University of California. The American University at Cairo was 90% female, 80% Arab, with some Africans, Brits and Americans sprinkled in. Most everyone was rich. The street on the way to school showed the incredible poverty of Cairo’s ordinary people. It was a very weird environment.
One day my father went with a tour to the village of Kerdassa where tourist-priced version of the Wissa-Wasef tapestries were on sale. He bought one to bring back to our place, and told the shopkeeper that his daughter wanted to learn how to weave. They told him to bring me back, so I went there and became an apprentice. For two or three months I learned the tapestry technique from them. The social situation was hard for me. The weavers were all men, there were children running around all over the place, there were fleas in the yarn. With latrines and no running water, I found it all very hard to deal with – but this was village life. My teacher Moustafa was wonderful, though, and I kept it up. They’d never seen anything like me before.
When I got back from Egypt I entered the design at UC Davis, focusing in textile design and costume. At Davis, I pursued more education in weaving, in garment making, dyeing, fabric printing – but I was frustrated that there was never any discussion of content, only the look and the function, with some discussion of style or historical models. Davis was a good program for entrepreneurs, but I felt incapable of working professionally so I moved on. My next step was FIT in New York where I started on a two-year degree in Fashion Design. I ran out of money, dropped out of school and worked as a cutter in a shirt company.
Unsure of what to do next, I returned to Humboldt State where I fell back into my hippy lifestyle – I was searching. At some point, I met Mimi Mace who taught costume design in the theater program, and I began to take her classes. I made a lot of hats, which was eye opening for me. Millinery is three-dimensional, and I loved the multiple views of the work. I thought of it as sculpture for the head. I loved the process and I loved the results. This was about 1990. The teachers in the program saw that I was making sculpture and encouraged me. I had my “first art idea” – making clothes with no interior space for a body. I decided to apply to graduate school, and got into the MFA program at Arizona. I was lucky to get in, and the first year was really hard – partly because of depression and partly because I hadn’t studied much art before. It was a wonderful, horrible place.
After getting through the first year I was in my element, I had direction for the first time and was certain of myself. People said that one out of a hundred MFA’s ever successfully transition into an art career, but I felt that certainty. By 1994 I graduated and felt it was one of the best times in my life. My graduate work was one of the toughest things I’d ever done.
Dancing Girls, 1999. Tricycles, fabric, pins, ribbon, string, shadows.
Collection of Farhat Art Museum.
JF: When did you first think of yourself as a fiber artist?
MT:As an undergraduate, I did think of myself as a fiber artist – but since studying art I see fiber as a medium that’s a part of our world and can be incorporated by artists who are working in fiber or any other medium. My graduate school mentor Gayle Wimmer, the fibers professor, was working in installation – and everyone was working in installation: painters, photographers, sculptors. I think of myself now as a contemporary artist working in installation. Philosophically, fibers a confused term. Lots of people pick up a needle and embroider, and they call themselves fiber artists. Often there is no communication. They make a beautiful object, but I feel it needs content or an idea to make it fiber art. Perhaps it needs irony. Fiber Arts is in a similar position to Photography. Anyone can snap a picture, and anyone can call him- or herself a photographer, but they aren’t really. The root of the problem is really the bigger confusion about what constitutes art in the first place. Perhaps things are a bit less confusing in an Academic department, where content is required. There remains some stigma from the 70’s crafts movement, too – macramé owls, shag textiles. They are back in now, and I just read that Julia Roberts is knitting.
JF: How do you think about your viewing audience?
MT: I assume that my viewer knows everything that I know. I assume they have intelligence. I assume there will be a draw or a repulsion that is immediate. I’ve been making art for 14 years and for that time my audience has almost always been women. I made my work consciously about the experience of women. If men have feminist viewpoints, that is all well and good, but the work was about women for women. My focus has broadened recently. Now my audience is both male and female.
JF: Tell me about some viewer responses you’ve had.
MT: People often think the work is fun (they see the tricycles for instance), and viewers usually simplify the work. The tricycle piece is about children, of course, but it is really about everyone – about soul travel and leaving the body. Curators have had more exciting things to say – usually they are right on. The kids in Bethlehem, where I recently taught a one-week workshop and created a large installation, knew immediately what to think about my work. One boy said he felt like an invader, polluting someone’s brain. Women in America and in Arab cultures respond well to my work. Men’s responses are mixed.
JF: Tell me about your work on organs and the Bethlehem Cave Project.
MT: The organs are made with a single crochet stitch, simple. I start in the middle of the object and it grows. I use crochet because it is fast and sculptural, I like the way it looks. It molds easily into forms and can also be made in string-like structures. The pieces get so big they have to be stuffed, and their weight exceeds their strength, just like me. My organs are fleshy but “dressed”. I don’t think about real organs, I never look at real ones
In 2001 I had some deaths in my family, I broke up with someone I cared for, and there was also 9/11. Everything was devastation. In October I had a heart attack (although this did not cause my organ work, as many friends have thought – I began the organ project much earlier). Originally I worked on spines, as metaphors for self-support. It was a private, personal joke. Just before my heart attack I felt that my insides were all turned around. I was lovesick, I had lost three dear people, I was an Arab after 9/11 who felt a sense of shame and fear, and a surprising sense of guilt. These emotions were rearranging my internal systems, even though I couldn’t see it, and I had already begun a project called “Internal Systems” to chart the effects of emotion on the body’s interior. The heart attack then came and was proof that I was on to something.
My project at the International Center in Bethlehem came a few years later, but evolves from the organ work. The International Center is connected to the Lutheran Church organization in the West Bank. They have a very ambitious social program including the only swimming pool where kids can learn to swim. Music classes, concerts, all kinds of things go on there. They also have art classes and studio programs – fused glass, ceramics. They invited me to do a workshop, so I went to teach a class on installation art for K-12 teachers. I worked intensively with 10 teachers for 5 days.
Two weeks before that I had installed my show in the Al-Khaf gallery, a cave that dates back some 2000 years when people were living in it. There are carved levels within it, and I’m guessing it’s about 40 feet long (I worked in meters there). It was actually only recently discovered, not more than a few years ago they started excavating to work on their gallery and found a hole in the wall, this cave was behind it. It goes under the road in a main part of Bethlehem and there’s a hole in the ceiling looking up to the street above – it has glass in it now, a kind of peephole.
Since I was crocheting internal body organs, I decided that I would install the interior body of Palestine. This cave is Palestine, so I wanted to know its insides. Amazing to me was the fact that all the children who came into the space got it immediately. They were intuitively aware of the project’s meaning, while adults didn’t quite know what to think. I think the adults hadn’t seen installation and so they didn’t expect something like that – the kids come in to look and they feel it, but the older people worry about what I mean, they’re more skeptical. They were open when I talked to them, however. People in Palestine tend to be nationalistic, so they liked that I was calling it the interior of the body of Palestine. I did cross stitching on the organs because it is a traditional Palestinian artform. But I was assured by several men there that my stitching was completely different from Palestinian stitching. I hadn’t used patterns they knew, it was a loose reference.
The cave was wet – a lot of water was dripping down. Tiny black roots from trees were hanging from the ceiling, so I added black threads to play off of the roots. One major “heart” organ was sitting on a pile of rocks on the ground – it was bout 3 x 2.5 feet and stuffed. Everything in the space was connected to this heart – and the heart was white, which has a meaning in Palestine. They say you have a white heart if you are innocent, even naïve, but they mean it in a good way, that you see the best in things. Everything sprouted from that heart, up to the drippy ceiling and out in the various directions. There was a very clear form that was like a stomach because we are a people who love our food; most Arab people get together around food, a big part of the community. Everything else was much more interpretive – lots of intestinal forms, pieces that connect. The whole show fit into one suitcase.
JF: Tell me a bit more about people’s reactions to this installation.
MT: The organizers were positive, they seems excited about it. They gave me complete freedom. When I first went down into the cave with my suitcase, for a while I didn’t want to be left alone because you could feel that there was a spirit there. The rock over my head, I worried it could cave in. I’m not a big spelunker – I’m a little claustrophobic. I think there really was a presence down there, but I came to feel that it was enjoying what I was doing. I became very comfortable down there by myself. Even though I had to come out of the cave into another white-walled gallery to breathe fresh air now and then, it was a lovely experience to be there.
Homes for the Disembodied, 2000. 50 continuous yards of chiffon.
Collection of Farhat Art Museum. Photo courtesy of Station Museum, Houston, TX.
JF: I know from past conversations that although your family had Palestinian roots, you did not always identify with them. Tell me how that identification developed for you.
MT: I was three years old when I first visited my family’s village in Palestine. I remember sensations; the smell of food or soap still brings it back to me powerfully. I didn’t return until I was 20. To me, as a kid, California was what mattered most. It was my time in Egypt that gave real form to my idea of myself as an Arab. Sadat’s assassination had marked life in Egypt at that time, the cooperation between Egypt and Israel was very new. There was connection and disconnection. Travel had not been part of my idea of myself, even though my father traveled.
The biggest part of my Arab identity relates to my father and two of his sisters. My Aunt Asma was one of my family members I mentioned earlier who died in 2001. I went to Palestine then to see my surviving Aunt Milia and loved everything about the experience. I had been visiting on an almost yearly basis because I felt so at home there.
JF: Recently, your work has been widely exhibited in the traveling show Made in Palestine. Tell me about that experience.
MT: I heard about Made in Palestine from a friend who was going to be in the show. I contacted them and asked if they were looking only for artists who were born and raised in Palestine or if they were looking for people who were results of the diaspora. I guess I was asking if they considered me a Palestinian! I consider myself to be one, of course so I was interested to see if they did. I sent my slides and they replied quickly asking to include my piece Homes for the Disembodied. I didn’t realize how lucky I was at the time, but it turned out to be such a major exhibition.
Made in Palestine opened at “the Station” in Houston, a space funded by the show’s chief curator, James Harithas. He does a lot of political work and used to be the director of the Corcoran. He also runs the “Artcar Museum”. The Station was new when he did Made in Palestine. His curators were insightful, and I appreciate their essays. It opened in May 2003 with a well-attended reception – there was a full buffet of Arabic food outside, alcohol on one side and lemonade on the other; a live group played and we ended up dancing dabki, an Arabic folk dance where you dance in a circle.
Homes for the Disembodied is a single piece of fabric that is folded into five dresses. I first made it while living in Jerusalem in the summer of 2000 (it showed at Al-Wasiti, a gallery that doesn’t exist anymore). The idea was that these sheer, heroically scaled black dresses were like offerings for the people of Jerusalem who were kicked out in 1967 and never saw their land and homes again before they died. I tried to give their spirits a place to reside; it was a memorial of sorts.
JF: How have people responded to this piece?
MT: I was with my cousins, who live in Houston, and I was too excited to pay any attention to my own work at the Made in Palestine opening! The first one in Jerusalem, however, was vandalized. There were some workers who slept in the gallery space, and everyone there smoked, and I assume they were the ones who burned holes in it. It was devastating. The workers were from the West Bank, and maybe they were thinking of me as an outsider and that’s why they did it. They had to sleep on the floor of the gallery at night because they can’t go between where they work and where they live because of Israeli checkpoints. I understand that they resented this foreign person who came in and did this odd stuff that they didn’t understand. I was always really friendly with them, until they did that…who knows what they thought. I imagine they thought I was a spoiled brat who was wasting resources, and that I was a powerful woman getting attention.
But I have had lots of positive reactions to Homes for the Disembodied. Young women especially who came to the Jerusalem opening wanted to know how I got the idea. How could I imagine this thing? They were very openly warm and demonstrative. I had some sister pieces in the show that were embroidered with a Palestinian style embroidery and they were really excited about that because most of the young women now don’t know how to do that kind of embroidery and aren’t interested in it because it’s considered old-fashioned. To see an artist doing it was interesting to them. I also received an email from an older who was originally from Haifa. He saw the piece when it showed in New York in 2006 and was very moved by it.
People in the United States who encounter Homes for the Disembodied often don’t really understand it. Lots of people here think of Jerusalem as a city open to all the peoples of the world to come worship or visit. They don’t know or don’t care to know that the people driven out in 1967 are not allowed generally to go back in, and there are lots of people wanting to go back and pray in holy sites or visit dead family members and graves that haven’t been allowed to do so. Palestinians laugh at this idea, we know it is a fiction to say Jerusalem is an open city when all these people who have more right to it than anyone else are kept at bay. It is a legal apartheid. A lot of people see Homes for the Disembodied only as a memorial because they don’t know this living issue – but it is also in part a tribute to the amazing women of Palestine. They are heroic because for the most part they’re not involved in politics, and have no say over what’s happening in their world, their country, and they somehow are able to keep their families together day to day. That day-to-day mothering, or nurturing, is really very heroic. The piece is more about borders, about lack of access, and I am absolutely unwilling to let this condition go without comment. Even if the exiled Palestinians have to wait until they are dead, when only their spirits can go back to Jerusalem, then goddamn it they are going to go, if they want!
Internal Power, 2004, with artist in background.
Collection of Farhat Art Museum. Photo by Anton Stephan
JF: As you speak you bring to my mind as aspect of your work that I find very stimulating, the co-existence of an individual body (yours, the viewer’s) with a body politic. Tell me about that relationship.
MT: The relationship comes out of my feminist work. I responded powerfully to the idea that women do not have to be interpreted by society, that we are not the ground on which society writes its script. One of my first works was Straight Jacket and was made out of measuring tapes – external systems of measurement that have come to mean something horrifying to us. Another was called Disfigurement Gauge: Perceptions, which was a funhouse mirror with weight scales in front of it like a tiled floor. The scales were set to reflect the distorted views in the funhouse mirror. If the mirror made me disappear, the scale would read zero, if I appeared to be normal it was my normal weight, and if it reflection was enlarged, the number would rise considerably, and so on. I have always been struck by our jagged inability to perceive ourselves. I have always felt like I can’t really tell what I look like. I like the idea of distortion. I have often been overweight and there is an automatic judgment of this by society. It becomes part of who we are. I try to make myself a subject, not an object.
The choice to use fiber media to explore this relationship surely comes from my childhood love of textiles, their in-hand tactility. Also they are historically women’s media so there is a lot to say about women through them. I love fiber construction methods. This love began because it was a way to express myself without arguing. I felt like fabrics and yarns were my own special place. I could be my own special place.
JF: What are you working on currently?
MT: I am making a second group of works titled Unsung Heroes. This is a series of deconstructed dresses about the quiet heroics of women. These works are related to Homes for the Disembodied but are more about my mother and other women I have known. I cut away all but the seams and some defining features of these dresses. The dress disappears and the woman’s presence is revealed, unmasked in a way, and a personality emerges. It’s a little bit about being a supporter rather than a star – about staying quiet when you have an opinion and yet affecting the world in such a strong way, in a quiet way, in a way that people don’t often celebrate. That’s the usual life experience of western women, and really I’m thinking of American women.
JF: What are your thoughts about horror vacui?
MT: Do I fear empty space? Apparently I do, because no matter what I keep filling it up! I think I also have great love of empty space, but maybe what you love and what you fear is the same thing.
My art might work against a horror vacui in a way because I am taking all this stuff away and deconstructing. I love minimalism and wish I could do it. I always have to add one more thing. There is a minimality, if that’s a word, to these Unsung Heroes dresses because if I cut away anything more they’re going to fall to the floor, there’s nothing left, they’re merely threads. But again, like Homes for the Disembodied, they create spaces for the spirit, in which the spirit can dwell. Recently I was writing an artist statement and it came to me that everything in the statement was probably bullshit and that really all my work is about death. When you write these artist statements you try so hard to express what something is in another language. You’re saying something visual, and are forced to verbalize it. Of course sometimes it doesn’t translate, everyone knows that. But you find yourself bullshitting even yourself. Here is my framework, here is what it’s about, you create slogans or ads for what you’re doing. Suddenly you realize it’s really about death, about the space that’s left there after death, and all the other words just float off.
JF: Into a vacuum?
MT: That’s as good a way to describe what remains as any!
Internal Power, 2004. Al-Khaf Gallery, The International Center in Bethlehem, West Bank.
Collection of Farhat Art Museum. Photo by Anton Stephan
Dr. James Frakes is a professor of Art History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, specializing in Roman art and architecture. His research interests include urbanization in the Roman provinces, sculptural and architectural decorative programs, and the visual cultures of the diverse ethnicities living in the Roman Empire. He teaches the art of all ancient Mediterranean cultures and is currently researching Roman visual culture under the Severan Dynasty (193-235 CE). He is also likes to keep an eye on contemporary global visual culture.
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