Interview: Huda Totonji
Luca Curci talks with Huda Totonji during THE BODY LANGUAGE 2022, at THE ROOM Contemporary Art Space.
My artwork is a document of an often contradictory existence in two cultures-the one of my birth and childhood and the other of my coming of age and education. The many challenges of being a Muslim woman in the western culture have become sites for my artistic exploration as they are urgently faced in the day-to-day moulding of my artistic approaches. It is no accident that I have one foot in so many disciplines. I choose to bounce between image and text and refuse to be pinned down in a single category. Beginning with interests in both painting and Arabic calligraphy, I have become increasingly interested in the relationship between textuality and visuality, both aesthetically and culturally. My work has moved from painting to video, performance, and text in response to investigating issues and questions about femininity and representation. My cross-cultural background informs my artistic interests. I see myself as an artist-researcher with feet firmly in two cultures. Having been born and raised in the Middle East my basis is in Eastern thought. Living my adulthood in the United States has allowed Western thought to shape my identity in the West. Many of the ideas that inform my work are generated by looking at feminist artists that deal with female subjectivity as the source. As a female artist, I establish a vocabulary through images and text. In my MFA thesis exhibition, I question the presence of the female figure. The appearance and disappearance of the female figure are alluded to through her remains, voice, shadow, vocal and written marks, and the space she occupies. I refuse to present her physically. I visit Saudi Arabia as a female artist investigating gender relations and see signs of segregation between the sexes. Working with the female gaze, I combine theory and practice to embrace both sides of my cultural heritage and experiment with modes of writing and making art.
Luca Curci – What is the most challenging part about creating your artworks?
Huda Totonji – Actually, nothing is challenging for me, because I find inspiration in Quranic texts to create my artwork, which has endless visual metaphors that one can derive so many ideas from the verses. There are 30 chapters in the Quran. For example, the human body is mentioned in the Quran from the beginning of human development in the mother’s womb. I also derive my inspiration from my travels around the world exploring different cultures.
LC – What’s your background? What is the experience that has influenced your work the most?
HT – I am an Arab American female artist. I obtained my BA in Studio Art and MFA in Art and Visual Technology from the US. I am also a master Arabic calligrapher. I worked at Dar Al Hekma College, Georgetown University, The Art Institute of Washington, as well as Harvard University and Prince Sultan University. Living in Saudi Arabia and in the US shaped my career as an artist who was educated in the East and the West. I learned traditional and nontraditional styles of art in the US through my formal art education and I incorporated Arabic Calligraphy in my works to reflect my Middle Eastern culture and Muslim Identity.
LC – What are you currently working on?
HT – I am currently working on an upcoming fashion show that will take place in the US exhibiting my paintings along with dresses from my paintings’ prints. I am collaborating with a contemporary French fashion designer, Ledon. He uses my paintings as an inspiration for the prints on the fashion dresses of contemporary Muslim Women Clothing Line.
LC – Are your artworks focused on a specific theme?
HT – My artworks focus on the theme related to the presence and absence of women in visual art in response to investigating issues and questions about femininity and representation.
LC – How is your creative process?
HT – To start off my works of art, I have different creative processes. One that is inspired by my travels. Another is inspired by the culture I surround myself with. The third is my female identity which chooses to live in two cultures that reflect Western and Eastern ideologies. Most of my works use text and images. I am inspired by verses from the Holy Quran and poetic phrases that I come across. I combine both text and image to create my artwork. I also start my paintings with acrylic paint as the base for most of my paintings because it dries fast, and then I use oil paint to give it more depth. I use mixed media as well to give some texture and dimension to the works.
LC – We were attracted by your last artistic production, has the artwork presented been created for the exhibition or as a part of preexisting works?
HT – The artwork presented was created as a part of preexisting works. After my visit to South Africa and viewing the Apartheid Museum which showed the segregation between the whites and blacks. It powerfully documented the rise and fall of racial segregation in South Africa. I was inspired by this theme in two of my paintings that were showcased in this exhibit. While the other painting visually showed an eye map into the Middle East, where I was born and raised. It showed that no matter where you live and how many places you visit, the place of one’s childhood continues to influence you the most as a creative person. The DNA Rose painting is another painting that was exhibited in Venice. I painted it when I was living in Portland, Oregon in the US. Since Portland is the City of Roses, I chose the rose as a symbol of feminism as well as to represent the culture I’m surrounded by. Since my husband was studying Biomedical Informatics, the recurring image of DNA kept on appearing in his presentations. This connected me with the female identity in a symbolic format.
LC – Do you agree with our vision of art and what do you think about the theme of the exhibition?
HT – Yes, I agree with your vision and the theme of the exhibit. What better place to exhibit one’s artwork than in a prestigious Art gallery in Venice that allows artists to exhibit infinite ways of expression to explore the connection between desires, needs, and fears through rituals that bring humankind to change, transform, and evolve their inner world. I think the theme of the exhibit is very essential in this evolving world.
LC – Did you enjoy cooperating with us? Is there something more we can provide to artists?
HT – Yes, I enjoyed cooperating with all the staff members and the director. Communication was very easy despite the time difference on the world clock. It was my honor to participate in this exhibit and show my work in Venice, Italy. I suggest that one of the services you can provide is to allow artists to network with other artists who explore similar themes and art media to create collaborative artwork that shares their ideas together.
LC – What do you think about ITSLIQUID Platform?
HT – ITSLIQUID is a platform for contemporary art, architecture, design and fashion. All these forms of expression interest me personally. Because my artwork has moved formally from painting towards video, performance, text, and fashion to develop a voice for Contemporary Muslim Women Artists.