susu attar

Susu Attar is a multimedia artist based in Los Angeles.

Tracing the Arab World is a series of family photos from the MENA and greater Arabic speaking world, Arabic minority nations and non-Arabic speaking natives of the region. Yes, it’s complicated- as it must be.
It’s an Afro-Asiatic point-of-view with influence from South Asia as well as Europe, since ancient times.
This series was installed for the Scent & Society program at Institute for Art + Olfaction in collaboration with Dana El Masri.”

For more on her work:

We spoke to her at her residency studio in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles in June 2018. 

Photo by Michelle Sui

Photo by Michelle Sui

Nü House: Where are you from?

Susu Attar: Well, I was born in Baghdad, Iraq and my family relocated back to the U.S. about six months after I was born. So I ended up growing up here in LA county hopping around quite a bit from the west side to the east side. 

NH: Did you visit Baghdad a lot growing up?

SA: Yeah, I visited back and forth, yes. And I lived there temporarily in 1996. 

NH: What was it like going back and forth during those times?

SA: Awesome. My mom would take us back often, every year, sometimes a couple times a year and yeah, my fondest most vivid childhood memories are in Baghdad. 

NH: It must have been amazing. 

SA: Yeah, it was really the family and the kind of gathering. There were cousins everywhere. Aunts and uncles who took a lot of joy in getting together with each other and sharing food and music and being together. And just riding our bikes up and down the neighborhood, you know, wandering. And you know, it’s unusual because it was war time. It was in the early 80’s and it was war time. But there was still a bit of structure to life and a sense of stability in terms of where you could go and couldn’t go. The normalcy, that doesn’t really exist anymore.  

“My mom looking at me, me looking at you.” Cairo, Egypt 1994

“My mom looking at me, me looking at you.” Cairo, Egypt 1994

NH: Do you still go back?

SA: I rarely visit now. It’s not the easiest place to get to. The last time I was there was in 2012. Yeah. So it’s been a while. 

NH: And all of your family is still there?

SA: I have a lot of family there, unfortunately less and less as the years go by. You know, anybody that gets an opportunity to leave, leaves, and a lot of people are forced to leave for their safety, so…

NH & SA: Yeah.

SA: I have family all over the world, yeah.

NH: That’s so complicated. I don’t know what to say about that. 

SA: I don’t either. There’s nothing much more to say about it. 

NH: Were you always drawn to photographs and painting?

SA: I actually was, I have more recently been using them in art, but I’ve always been drawn to photographs, so even as a kid I would collect other people’s photographs—

NH: Like people that you knew? Or—

SA: People that I knew. And then when I would travel I would collect random ones if I would find old photographs. I was just collecting, I didn’t know what I was doing with them. But close friends of mine in elementary school, if I would go to their house and see their baby pictures, I’d be like, “Can I have this?” (Laughs) And a lot of them said yes.

NH: You would just keep them?

SA: I still have them. I would just keep them, I would just add them to my family photos. (Laughs) I just really liked them, I don’t know.

NH: It’s a weird thing isn’t it? Not the fact that you like them but family photos in general.

SA: There’s something about family photos—I guess just seeing a part of somebody’s history is really interesting to me and I always found it adorable in a deep way.

Summertime (Al Habaniya, Iraq, June 1986)

Summertime (Al Habaniya, Iraq, June 1986)

NH: In your new series “Tracing the Arab World” you put out an Instagram call for family photographs of people from the MENA diaspora and recreated them in paintings. Can you talk a bit about how that came about?

SA: I was asked by a perfumer and friend named Dana El Masri to do an installation at the Institute for Art and Olfaction where she was in residence for a month with Scent & Society: Middle East & North Africa. So we were talking about this huge region with so much history and so many different parts to it and this reoccurring thing that I hear from folks, which is that they don’t really understand how to place people from that region. What ethnicity are you, what race are you? What religions are there, what languages are there, all these things… And my experience as a person from that part of the world is that it is not compatible with an American way of understanding things.

It’s a lot of different ethnicities, languages, and religions spread across two continents, influenced by even more regions. I’ve learned that in learning what my cultural heritage is. It’s been a part of the Romans and Egypt. There are Indian words that are found in the Iraqi language. It goes back to ancient history, and it’s complicated, and I like it that way. I think that’s important, right?

Family Reunion (Southern California via Iran 1986)

Family Reunion (Southern California via Iran 1986)

So in reflecting on this I was led to literally share what I know through the people who have their own images and histories and who are willing to share a certain amount of their personal moments. Who come from a place and exist in another and maybe interact with a third place in a way. So all I asked people to do was send me their photos and tell me where they were, where they came from, and select a song that is a memory.

NH: They selected a song?

SA: Most of them did. A lot of them didn’t. I would say a third knew exactly which song they wanted to play. A third were like I need help on this part. So we worked together to find something that worked.

NH: Did you just post an open call on Instagram?

SA: I did.

NH: How many submissions did you get?

SA: I cut it off at 43.

NH: But you received—

SA: I received a lot. There were several that—well, in the beginning some people sent me multiples and sometimes through conversations other photos would come up. Some people were like, you know, my family has been through many many moves, over many many wars, and we don’t have any photos. And then a photo would pop up. And then another photo would pop up. Some people gave me their family albums and just dropped them off and were like, “You choose.”

NH: And then you selected all of them?

SA: It was really sweet because people ended up telling me a lot about them, where they were coming from and what these photos meant to them, so it was important to me, from a perspective of being objectified, to not allow that objectification to persist. So the question became what to reveal and not reveal. Some things are private and should be kept private. What is the difference between revealing oneself and being on display. And I don’t know the answers to that. 

Grandmother (Al Ruwais, Saudi Arabia circa 1960)

Grandmother (Al Ruwais, Saudi Arabia circa 1960)

NH: Do you mean like, in terms of identity, of stating where these people are from? 

SA: All of it. Image. The image of somebody, especially of people whose images have been used time and time again to tell a different story.

NH: Right. Especially with the history of objectification with this group of people—

SA: Yeah, to really examine that line of “Here’s an offering or revealing. You’re welcome to this part, but you’re not welcome to ask for more just because you want it.” If you’re looking at a photo maybe it’s not going to be the clearest image of the person because this is all you really need to see. Maybe the detail is for the private experience. Maybe not everything is at your will and ready for you to observe. And how much do you really need to see anyway to have a human connection. I almost feel like the more detail there is the less emotion there is because the attention becomes about the artist doing a good job at this thing. Like “Wow that’s really realistic” but photo already exists and it’s realistic, the painting doesn’t have to be realistic and it shouldn’t remind you of the painter, you know what I mean? It should send you in a different direction, if it’s successful. And sometimes it’s not, right? But if it’s successful it should lead you in your own journey with the image, instead of contemplating the person who made the image. That’s missing the point. 

NH: When I was looking at them I was really aware of myself as a viewer. Because I did feel frustrated sometimes like, “I wish there were more” or “What am I not seeing?” But I was aware that the attention was on myself. Which I like because I think it’s good for people to be aware of themselves. The one who gazes…

We Don’t Have Cable (West Hollywood, CA 1988)

We Don’t Have Cable (West Hollywood, CA 1988)

SA: Yeah especially with photography. Photography gives an illusion of knowing. You think you know something now because you’ve seen it. And so many histories have been written because photography has written captions and stories. Our media is a perfect example. You haven’t seen the war. You weren’t there. But you see those images on TV. But how do you now think you know? These are very troubling truths. So yeah I think it’s important to confront yourself in that moment.

NH: I think that’s really beautiful.

SA: And hopefully there’s something beautiful that’s being offered and can be enjoyed.

NH: I also experience that, the joy coming from all of these photos. And the songs too, they’re just so good. All of these things take you back. It’s really relatable. Like I’ve been to those pool parties.

SA: And you know in a lot of ways, because of the subject matter, they’re more for the people who are in them, than for anybody else. And I envision them with the music. So I think the best articulation of them is their online presence because they go hand in hand. The installation didn’t have an one to one musical experience. They were all installed in the same space and there was a playlist but it wasn’t the same. 

NH: What were the reactions?

SA: You know at first it like “Um, are you gonna keep my face like that?” (Laughs)
But I was just feeling their generosity in all the different ways. Just from the first moment of saying yes. And sharing their stories or their willingness to just think about things they were stuck on, or letting me go ask their relatives so they can figure out dates. I think what really resonated was the offering, the love I felt in working with their images and having that moment with them, I think that resonates. Luckily it’s been a positive reaction. You know, you give a photo and you kind of hope to see something that you recognize in it. And you’re recognizing something but it’s becoming pretty unfamiliar because it’s blurry. One person put it perfectly, and I’m paraphrasing, “You’ve taken the familiar and made it unfamiliar, and somehow in that, it’s familiar in a new way.”

Ibtihal, We Meet Again (Najaf, Iraq 1989)

Ibtihal, We Meet Again (Najaf, Iraq 1989)

NH: That’s awesome. 

SA: Yeah that was interesting because she was articulating a very difficult thing to articulate, that she was experiencing first a little bit of a disconnection because, they’re smudged faces. But then reconnecting with it in a different way.

NH: And that is memory, that is what it is.

SA: Yeah, we tend to think of hindsight as 20/20, and that’s not really what it is. Our memory has holes and we fill in the gaps. And usually it’s through storytelling. We remember things because we’ve told a story about it and the story is now what we remember. And so it’s interesting in terms of how our brains work, we don’t have the capacity to store all of the information so we store highlights, and then when we try to remember, our brain does the connecting for us.

NH: And that’s maybe not what actually happened. 

SA: That’s the best of our memory, or the best of our ability.

NH: “The Best Of”

SA: Yeah, the remix. Which I think is interesting information too, because we feel so sure about things all the time. And you hear people say, “No, I remember” and I’m like “Okay…I don’t know what that means anymore.”

NH: I guess a question that comes up for me is “Who is it for?” I think about this a lot in my own work, like who is my intended audience and then who is the audience that actually shows up. 

SA: That’s an excellent question. It expands with different projects, but ultimately I’m painting for me. I don’t see my image out there. I feel confined by the narrative that my image is supposed to reflect. I’m always confronted by, “Well, how does this relate to Iraq.” Basically, “Tell us your sad war story.” “Bring it in about Islam,” you know what I mean. “Tell us about being a woman in Islam.” And these are really important things and a lot of people have a lot of things to say about them, but what I’m really interested in doesn’t really have to do with any of those things. I feel like my experiences have just given me insight to things that I think are much more universal. But by the sort of corner that’s cut for me and the dance I’m supposed to do, that’s been a very frustrating thing for me. But I’ve also realized there’s no context for who I am, and very often in my life I’ve actually heard people tell me things like, “I hear what you’re saying but I don’t believe you,” or “Hmm, you’re not really believable, your story, your character.”

“Me my sister and my mother.” (Paris, France via Tunisia 1989)

“Me my sister and my mother.” (Paris, France via Tunisia 1989)

NH: You’re not fulfilling the image of an “Iraqi Woman.”

SA: Right, “You’re not fulfilling the preconceived notion of you that we’ve already put on you. So please, either fulfill it or go over there.” So, you know at times that’s really enraged me, and at other times it’s taken me out.

NH: That’s just so intense.

SA: It feels insurmountable the blocks in front of you, and so in thinking of that I’m just like, I’m just going to create my own context for myself. These are what my family photos look like, this is what I think about war. Or, war imagery. It’s not so much about war, but war media that have affected my narrative. Imaging people, flattening people, how we stick people to these stories and worst of all how people are stuck to those stories. Because it used to make me mad that other people would think of me as such and such, but it makes me the most heartbroken when I see myself buying into that story. And that’s the point that I’m coming back to is like, ok well, let me revisit my context and share it, and if people relate to it because they’re from there, or because their own stories relate to that even though they’re not from there, or even if they don’t relate to it but they’re interested as observers. Whatever. That’s up to you all. All I can do is create my own sense of context so that hopefully I can get out of it. And then talk about the things that I’m really interested in, like at the core of my existence. Like…

NH: Color…

SA: Flowers… (Laughs) Whatever I feel like. It’s back to that conversation we were having earlier about identity. Can I even be free of this conversation. And I think I just paint for myself to pursue that. Can I find my way out of it.