It’s an uncanny experience to walk into a gallery and see 16 videos, organized in a rectangular grid, projected onto a wall at the entrance of a gallery. Each contains an interview that artist Essma Imady did with a Syrian refugee child. Many others did not make it out of the country.
Syrian-born artist Imady’s solo exhibition “Thicker Than Water” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art is a solemn, heartbreaking meditation on the effects of Syria’s civil war. It is also partly about the artist’s own survivor’s guilt: Through a series of coincidences, she happened to leave the country right before fighting broke out.
Bearing witness to horrors that hit close to home yet still are far away, Imady communicates sentiments of grief, elation and spirituality through precise sculptural and video works.
The intimacy of the objects makes the war feel immediate and extremely personal — a teddy bear; a kid-sized life vest; a year’s worth of e-mails from the artist’s grandmother, who remains in Syria. And then there is “Receiving Blanket,” a plush blanket imprinted with an image of destruction from Syria, juxtaposing the safety and warmth that a blanket is supposed to offer with the result of violent warfare.
These touches give the show a visceral, emotional quality. At times the work is hard to digest because it speaks to pain on a deep level. And so it is, too, for the artist, who has been in the United States since the war began and has had to continually process the unthinkable.
In 2011, Imady journeyed from Damascus for school, just as the civil war was beginning. Her husband, Bashar Shehadeh, was headed to St. Cloud State University on a Fulbright fellowship, so Imady transferred to the Minneapolis College of Art & Design to pursue an MFA. The couple have one child, Tamara, 4.
Meanwhile, violence escalated in Syria and they were unable to return. Shehadeh obtained Temporary Protected Status, so they were able to stay in Minnesota. In 2015, he got his green card. Imady’s situation was different: Although she grew up in Syria, her mother is American, so staying in the U.S. was not a problem for her; it is also why she grew up bilingual.
The artwork in this exhibition is related to the artist’s personal experience of war and displacement, deftly bringing viewers into her psychological mind-set — watching from a distance, while remaining emotionally involved in the present.
We met at the opening, then caught up by phone to talk about her show, which is part of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, coordinated by the museum’s assistant curator of contemporary art, Nicole Soukup, and on view through June 24. The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Q: You got a Jerome Foundation grant to interview refugee children in Istanbul and Canada for this project. How did the concept come up?
A: I was working on my thesis at MCAD and brainstorming projects, and one was how to explain war to a 2-year-old. Ultimately, I thought that was too big for my thesis. But the question stayed with me, in the way that good ideas keep bothering you.
After grad school I was doing this application kick — I was going for 100 rejections, to build my resilience to rejection — and one that I applied for was a Jerome Travel Study Grant [to go] to Istanbul and talk to my friends’ children [who were refugees]. Then through those connections, I would talk to other Syrian children about a huge, complicated concept like war. In talking to them I learned a few things — one was how important normality was to them.
Q: In the piece “Pillar of Salt” (2018), there’s a teddy bear wearing a backpack sitting in a pile of salt that is the weight of a child. In “Child Harness” (2016), there’s a pink kids’ harness attached to a rock, which makes me wonder if it’s more like the child grounding the parent in a way. I’m wondering about your decision to go beyond just interviewing children, and actually thinking about their physicality and perhaps discussing their absence, or loss?
A: I started with anxieties — the anxiety of language, anxiety of comfort, safety, etc. From there I then worked with childlike objects and materials I usually incorporate in my work, to communicate the feeling behind the anxiety or feeling I am going after. I made the child harness last year during the white nationalist rally about the statue in Charlottesville, Va. ... When you come to a new space [seeking safety], what can be surprising is that this new space comes with a new set of fears — it’s like “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”
The “Pillar of Salt” piece is referencing the story of Lot’s wife — she looks back and she turns into a pillar of salt — in Christianity, Judaism, Islam. It’s a strange and cruel story, but it speaks to this almost danger of looking back when escaping, of that connection to a place that is burning to the ground, of being told “the only way you will be safe is to leave and not look back.” You just can’t. Not even to save your life — it isn’t even your home insofar as providing safety and space to be held and thrive.
Q: Does the image on “Receiving Blanket” depict a specific place in Syria you are familiar with, or is it just a mediated image of war you found on a news site?
A: There is a city in Syria called Homs. It is a complex situation [but the Russians] went in and bombed it. After all of that subsided, they sent in drones and filmed the destruction and showed it on RT [the Russian TV network], with the background of this triumphant music. I remember sitting there and watching it on YouTube. I couldn’t even process what I was seeing because it was just so crazy and perverse to go into a space after you’ve completely demolished it and then project it onto the news and put on triumphant music.
I needed to neutralize these images, so I screen-grabbed an image from this photo and put it onto this blanket.