Stephanie Sun: I’m excited to talk with you about your practice and how you think about new traditions!
Sarah Brahim: I’ve been fascinated with the idea of new traditions for a while now. I’m thinking about what it took to make the traditions that are already established and considered ‘traditional’? In a time when people weren’t communicating through global media or social media, how did this information get spread across? How did it get shared and what was the time that accumulated for this thing to now be considered ‘traditional’?
There comes a point in time when you reference something as ‘traditional’ or ‘indigenous’. You’re really referencing a point in time and a departure from something that came before. A tradition’s occurrence and all of the elements that made it what it is made sense in a specific time. And that’s part of what makes it a tradition, that you go back to it. So many things we’re doing now are under the umbrella of ‘contemporary’, but what does it take to start a tradition that would be long lasting?
I think traditional things are not just in craft or art, but in food or rituals, like celebrations or holidays or greetings. I’m curious how to move forward and establish new traditions. What does that take? What does that mean?
SS: It’s interesting to hear you talk about traditions in this way, it brings to mind this idea of evolution. As we evolve, there are certain behaviors that we learn which help us survive, so those are what we hold on to and what we carry forward in order to continue to be surviving and thriving. Maybe traditions were these actions, these community responses that, because they favored different values and were needed in different ways and kept coming back up, that’s why we have them now.
SB: Yeah, I think so. It does seem a bit difficult to start new ones and for them to really take hold, so this is something I’m interested in. If there are new ones that take hold, how are they different and are they really different or was there just a moment where there’s an erasure of knowledge and you’re actually just filling the previous traditional role, just in a slightly different way.
SS: That brings me to this question of how you think about traditions in your own creative process and in your work. I’m curious to hear if there are craft traditions or cultural traditions that weave throughout your work and collaborations.
SB: The first thing that comes to my mind is honor and honoring. In the way I was raised and the community I was around, I was always taught to honor the people that came before you, the people that developed the learning, and to specifically reference, credit and honor the person who taught you. That is really important when it comes to talking about practice and teaching and new traditions.
Obviously, everything is building on each other and inspired by what came before us, so we can only make what we can because of what happened before. So I think it’s important to be considerate of that. For me, my mother was a huge teacher and also a facilitator of seeking people out to teach me things.
When it comes to my practice, I’ve been wandering through a few different things.
The first is something I was experiencing. I was processing the grief of my mother for many years, and certain projects in my work since that happened are about that pain in the body and about grief, about creating work that can resonate with other people who are experiencing this. Art and music and dance are really what got me through this time. Especially other people’s reflections on the subject, it made me feel there’s other people exploring this, there are other answers – I wasn’t just wandering by myself.
I had to create works that were my own symbolic gestures of grief to explain to myself, what is this feeling? The series I made of cyanotype are all gestures of my hands, which was nine months of research exploring how grief is imprinted inside our body and how we experience it, and then how is the weight of that reflected in our hands. This was also inspired by the theory of epigenetics, which states that biologically you inherit three generations back, at least, of not only physical trauma, but also psychological trauma. So because you were an egg inside your mother’s body, which was held inside your grandmother’s body, you all shared the same body at one point, and the same breath for those nine months. It has been proven that that imparts her burdens and her trauma onto you. As we walk forward in this life, obviously we have issues and hang ups and some of those are because of the way we walk through life and what’s happening to us in our environment, but who we are is a little bit already formed from this theory of biological inheritance. These things are the root and the connection of healing.
To go back to the question of how traditions exist in my practice, I find it really important to know the source of things in order to use it in a context that’s meaningful now. I think it’s amazing to break rules and to feel free, but for me, I’m always very, very aware that nothing I’m doing, no tool I’m using is coming just from me. For me, a lot of the information I get is informed by where something came from.
When I started doing textiles and throughout last year when I was practicing cyanotype and also natural dyeing, I started to learn the histories of so many things like materials, the history of cotton, for example, and then the history of each color, how we got it, where it came from, when chemical colors became replicated…This all brought so much meaning and historical context into the work. Sometimes if you don’t know where things are coming from, you could be offending in a way that you don’t mean to, so it’s just good to know.
I get inspiration from these materials. For example, plants and the colors that they produce, whether they’re indigenous or were brought to a certain land, always mirror the social history at the time. It’s always, for the most part, people who brought plants to a place.
I just think that this is important moving forward in the time we’re in. Contemporary artists, we can create whatever we want from this point, but being considerate of other people in the world and where there are points of tension or struggle, being able to know and reference if your work is involved in that in any way is really important.
Even just the simplest thing, everything we wear every day and the fiber I work with – cotton – has a very tumultuous history in both India and West Africa and Mali. They were like the main place of the whole world, growing fifty or more heirloom varieties of cotton. They were colonized and it got taken away and they were left with just one or two. This adds a preciousness for me, a value, it’s not just something I take for granted. I realize where the abundance really came from and what was lost and the care that should be considered in this.
SS: You speak to this idea of making the effort and taking the responsibility of learning what you can about what you’re working with in order to fully appreciate and fully recognize the history and the weight of those materials and those practices. It sounds like it imbues your practice with this weight of time…the way in which you’re thinking about these materials, where they came from, how they were used in the past, and all of the history that’s carried along with that. It feels like there’s very strong respect and consideration of the past and how what you’re doing with the materials and the practices moves that forward.
SB: It feels more meaningful for me to connect to what came before, because it adds a lot of meaning and purpose and also informs me of my situation, where I’m coming from, and where I’m consciously meeting this thing that I’m working with. I’m very open to learning, I want to be informed by genuine sources
A major theme of my practice is connection and I’m constantly baffled by these precious moments when I’m presented with someone who is a master at something and explains it to me. It opens a whole door to the purpose and the meaning that a specific culture uses and works with something.
With the industrial revolution, capitalism and modern society are a main driver of that quest to create a disconnect between us and our environment and the past cultures that have meaning for these things – because if you don’t care where your t-shirt comes from, then you don’t care that the water in chemical dye polluted the land and so on and so forth. If you’re not connected, then it creates blinders.
An example from last year when I was studying natural dyeing, I just looked at my closet and unknowingly so many of my clothes were dyed in chemicals. I didn’t even know that there was another option. I didn’t know that all things were naturally dyed until 1850. This was a breakthrough. It created pathways of understanding for me. We already have the tools to continue this practice, certain places in the world never stopped doing natural dyes. It brought a huge awareness to my life and my practice. If I’m going to do something, I want to do it right and there is a lot of knowledge out there for doing that. It just might be a little harder to find, you might not even know what to look for.
SS: Your practice is about creating this connection, this relationship between the idea of what has been traditional and new traditions; it requires not only honoring and respecting and recognizing what has come before you, but also this openness to realizing when something that you might have been holding on to unknowingly is no longer working for you and is not something that aligns with how you want to be moving forward. Then there’s this almost backtracking to learn what came before in that area where you were previously unaware and then to start bringing those traditions back from the past and incorporating them in a new way into your life. I wonder how your creative practice has changed or transformed particularly during this past year, a time of global and social upheaval during the pandemic.
SB: It was a really difficult year, it made me question everything and brought to light a lot of realities. In our lifetime, we haven’t experienced something completely global, something where every single place in the world has a similar problem that we all have to solve and get through. I feel like a lot of people are now a little more connected than they were before, maybe. We had to rely on each other and community and relationships.
It highly deepened my practice. I was stuck in the house alone for the first year. I turned to my textiles practice and created the cyanotype body of work. Not for anything, not to show, I needed to do it, I needed to follow through. In retrospect, I’m glad that I did it. It didn’t feel good at the time, but for me, art is really vital and necessary to my life, my happiness and satisfaction; it fulfills a curiosity.
At first when we were all unsure what was going on, it was just so horrific and stressful, I really had to question, what am I doing? Why is it important? This doesn’t feel relevant or like a contribution, but it was good to question and commit in a new way. I really learned through my practice and through conversations in the last year, that it’s really vital – we all needed to see a connection. We needed to see beauty. And a lot of that came through books, movies, music, visual arts, dancing. People have turned to those things, you know, to get through, and so I feel like this is how that impacted me. It was really like a restart button and a deeper commitment. I’m very sure that this is an important thing.
Being in the arts my whole life brought me the people who were in my life and the people who are carrying me through to the next phase of life, and that connection is very important. Even if it’s not about the work itself, it’s about your community and what brought you together.
I’d been tinkering for so long with natural dyes, then I finally just started doing it in the kitchen and learning from this amazing place called Botanical Colors. Tuning into that really became my structure and stability. Through their resources, I kind of just started experimenting with plants in the garden. Then I realized I needed to be gardening which led me to realize I needed to be farming. So I volunteered and started working on a farm. This created a new life for me, a new way forward and a sense of connection. By the end of the year, I started a small natural dyeing business and I was able to generate a little bit of income to get by. I felt like I wasn’t creating more damage to the Earth.
Art and my practice have really carried me through last year. Last year planted so many seeds for me that now I’m able to watch grow and dive deeper with a fuller energy than I was capable of before.
SS: Thank you for sharing that. It’s exciting to hear you talk about how your practice has shifted and it sounds like it was a fulfilling pivot. The way that you embraced it and moved forward, to be making art for yourself to get through this time, to have that cathartic experience, to have that community.
SB: Dyeing stuff takes all day. I had like four pots on the stove at all times. And, you know, I’d have bad days where I was losing my sense of time and then I’d be like, ‘you just have to wake up. It’ll be really exciting if you just try these two colors. You didn’t try this before.’ I tried to convince myself.
There are three stages to dyeing: you have to clean the material and then you have to set it for the color and those two are both clear treatments. They take a lot of time and there’s no change in material. Then you dye and can do a treatment to modify the color. So I would just start cleaning and then do the next part and then do the color pots. So it was like the end of the night, eleven o’clock at night in my kitchen…I love the first dip in the dye pot – you’ve done all the work to prepare it and then you just dip it a little bit and pull it back out and you get to see the color that it’s going to impart. This is so exciting to me every time, because depending on how you brew the color it can have completely different results. I was so grateful for a long process that consumed my day.
To give those things away to, to connect to someone and deliver it to their house, I felt like I was doing something, completing some small circle. I’m just grateful to the process and the knowledge that I came across to get me through last year.
SS: We’ve all had to find these different ways of getting through this time and to hear about your creative process, but also your mental process and how you were thinking about it is really inspiring.
We’ve kind of touched on this a little already, but are there other traditions that you are influenced by or you intentionally draw from for your work? Specific dyeing traditions that you’ve found really impactful?
SB: There’s so many and there’s so much to learn. I recently ordered this book on traditional Saudi clothing, book title (not referenced specifically in interview but would love to include name). It’s the most beautiful book. It’s done through geographical location and also by tribe. It’s really amazing because I get to wear my own culture and clothing and traditions for the first time. There’s been quite a disconnect between present day and the knowledge and practice of how they’re made and wearing them. There’s this book called ‘Tana Bana: The Woven Soul of Pakistan,’ which has also been very inspiring for me. Each stitch is a communication of the language.
The greatest inspiration I found was last year I took a Malian mud-dyeing class with an indigo master and French Malian artist called Aboubaker Fofana. He talked about the traditions of indigo in Mali and it’s so deep and so beautiful. Most dye plants are also medicinal, and he grew up Mali with his grandmother, a naturopathic doctor. She would ask him to go out and gather the indigo leaves and he discovered for the first time when he was picking them that they oxidized on his hand, turning the color blue.
He taught us that as a master of indigo, it’s traditional to master these 12 shades. It goes from the lightest color, which is very hard to achieve – it looks like something between the lightest blue you can imagine and white, it’s called the ‘blue of nothingness’ – and then the darkest color is very hard to see and very hard to achieve. It’s something between a very dark blue and black and it’s called ‘profound night sky.’ The masters of Indigo are able to have a client come up to them and point up to the sky at any point in time, and they can achieve that color with the indigo dye.
These are very peripheral things about Indigo and the practice, but just shows how much meaning is in this scale of color. When a baby’s born, they wrap them in indigo, and when somebody passes away, they wrap them in indigo. It was one of the main places in the world where they grew, farmed, and cultivated indigo. Because of its natural properties, it also served as a UV blocker of the sun. Aboubaker was talking about the meaning of a garment or clothes in general, serving as a protection, as our armor and second skin.
Studying with him and hearing his stories had a huge impact on how I see things, the history I feel I need to know about things. It created a special connection for me; for example, I don’t have to wear a t-shirt, because it looks good outside my body, but I could dye my clothes with a fig tree from my yard that my dad planted. Then I’m able to carry more connection and meaning into what I’m doing. And that made a lot of sense to me, even though that doesn’t really exist in a culture I’m involved in. I think you can impart meaning in a very personal way through inspiration through these practices.
SS: The note that you ended on reframes the way that I think many of us have been raised to perceive T-shirts, to perceive clothing as always having to do with the latest fashion trend and however it fits your body, et cetera. And I love the idea that by literally embedding your own meaning, your own history and stories into this piece of clothing, it can become so much more for you and step outside what is often a very toxic narrative surrounding women’s bodies and the fashion industry. It feels like that’s a way to step forward and to return to these traditions and bring them forward in a way that’s better for all of us.
SB: I think that’s definitely one aspect of it. The other aspect is having your eyes open to the fact that everything around you and every plant has a history socially, culturally, maybe medicinally, and almost all of them impart color in some way. It’s this very beautiful, holistic cycle with natural dyeing. As soon as you’re into it, you start looking for plants and then you start looking for plants that have specific colors or you start identifying them more and then certain plants become special – and then all of a sudden you’ve created a new map of your city.
I started having friends, giving me plants. My friend’s mom had an olive tree and some extra yarn. And I was so excited to dye that yarn – I didn’t need the yarn, I was just dyeing it and learning from it and then giving it back to her. I think the beautiful thing isn’t just the fashion and how things appear and the disconnect, but it also reconnects with the environment. It’s like a medium for talking to people, for experimentation, asking questions. You reconnect with the plants and then that’s a cycle to reconnect with the people, via making something and maybe somebody’s wearing it. Or if it’s art, making something and seeing it and resonating with it or taking it home, all these things.
SS: I’m interested in the different layers of connection, the way that you’ve come to know the place that you live in and the people, new and old, in your life.
SB: It’s been a beautiful journey, honestly, and I feel like I have so much still to learn. Currently, I’m in a residency in my home country, Saudi, and I’m trying to begin documenting the color of plants here. Even just asking people about it and telling people that I’m doing it is exciting people and opening doors, opening curiosities and making connections. I love that. I I think it’s a medium that is open to anybody because we all have things in our kitchen that make color and things outside. I’ve been really enjoying what is brought to my practice.
Also the group of people. I was looking for like-minded people for a long time, and I really found it through natural dying. The people who are interested in it tend to be an intersection of people who care about tradition and ancestral practices and the environment and art.
SS: You’re a very good advocate for the medium of dyeing.
SB: I mean, I love so many things. I work with film and performance and textile and now dyeing and cyanotype photography…and there’s so many special aspects to every medium. But I think in particular because we’re talking about tradition and new traditions, it feels like a vessel of all those things and really came into my life because of the pandemic.