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In the Studio: Alia El-Bermani

by Allison Malafronte

Alia El-Bermani makes her home in studio in North Carolina North Carolina artist Alia El-Bermani’s figurative paintings have always stood outamong fellow realists for that slight hint of something extra—a flair and edginess, if you will, that manifests in straightforward, whimsical, and evensatirical ways. These subtle metaphors and modernistic tendencies are becoming increasingly more distinguishable, as the artist willfully pushes her work into new territory and witnesses her paintings being accepted at the museum level. After creating a self-portrait where artists from around the world were asked to contribute, the artist then planned an aspect of that work’s presentationthat invited viewersto participate as well. In this work and others like it, it is clear that El-Bermani is not satisfied with creating a typical or predicable painting. She’s uncovering something more: something clever, quirky, and unmistakably contemporary.

In addition to pursuing her own personal work, El-Bermani is also a teacher and curator. The artist has just finished an exhilarating year of firsts with the launch of a teaching studio, new directions in her personal studio, and the curatorial achievement of the traveling museum exhibition Women Painting Women: In Earnest to her credit. As she begins the new year, El-Bermani reflects on the details and motivations of those projects from 2017 and shares some of her plans and inspiration for moving forward into 2018.

AM: Tell us about your new teaching studio, personal studio,and some of your plans for 2018.

AE: Just about this time last year I received the keys for my brand-new teaching studio Alia Fine Art Studios (AFAS). AFAS is a large studio space in North Carolina within Anchorlight, an interdisciplinary collective of artist studios, artist-residency spaces, and galleries, and they even have a brewery on-site in Raleigh. Getting AFAS off the ground this past year has been exciting and rewarding. Previously, I had taught at various locations, including as an adjunct faculty member of Laguna College of Art + Design, and then I began offering workshops both locally and across the nation after we moved to North Carolina. These workshops were rewarding, but because of their brevity, I was unable to seemy students grow and develop their skills over a long period of time. At AFAS, I can now play a greater part in my students’ development. AFAS offers a month-to-month, part-time program for adults and teens interested in learning how to draw and paint the portrait and figure, as well as workshops from internationally recognized artists. 

<em>I’m a Special Snowflake</em>, 2017, oil on aluminum panel, 60 x 36 in., private collection

I also have a small home studio where I create a lot of my personal works. A few years ago, my husband and I renovated the attic space over the garage, and it isnow one of my favorite places of inspiration. It has a bank of north-facing skylights, which allows me to paint under natural light. In 2017, I had a lot of curatorial projects that took time away from my own work. For this new year, I will be dedicating all my non-teaching time to exploration within my own work. I guess you could say I am currently in a moment of artistic growth, where my art-making is expanding beyond the two-dimensional painted image, into three-dimensional paper sculpture based on natural forms. I am working on a body of work in which paintings and sculpture will be exhibited alongside each other to fully activate the entire space and engage the viewer in new ways. This type of presentation will raise questions about our interaction with nature and the impact we have on the environment. I am just at the beginning of this new direction and have a lot to both discover and master, yet I feel renewed by the challenge.

In 2017 the artist launched Alia El-Bermani Studio, where she offers a part-time program for adults and teens, as well as workshops from internationally recognized artists.
AM: You, Diane Feissel, and Sadie Valeristarted the Women Painting Women (WPW) blog in 2009, and it has since grown into a movement. I know there have been a few spin-offs and separate efforts related to WPW, so I’d like to ask what your purpose was for planning the recent Women Painting Women: In Earnest traveling museum exhibition. Was this a way to take back the original curatorial mission of the group?

AE: Yes. In the past, the WPW co-founders collaborated with several galleries to create WPW exhibitions and then, as you say, several spin-offs were also launched using the same name. What we noticed was that overtime, the commercial viability of the paintings became the paramount concern for the venues, which ended up diluting the overall aesthetic and effectiveness of WPW. We wanted to therefore create an exhibition that more closely mirrored the aesthetic of the blog, and reinforced its mission of sharing extraordinary paintings that depict the variety and complexity of today’s woman. Free from the constraints of salability, museums seemed a natural venue for such an exhibition.

El-Bermani and her husband refurbished the attic in their home into the artist’s personal studio

Three years ago, Diane and I set out to curate this exhibition. We spent the first year reaching out to artists of interest and hand selected works for Women Painting Women: In Earnest. We had a clear curators’ statement, whichhelped to focus our intentions and vision of the exhibition. In the end, we confirmed 30 artists, with more than 50 paintings for the project, which we then pitched out to several museums. Originally, we had three venues signed on, with the show to open in January of 2017. As things happen, with just three or four months before the premiere, the initial venue had an insurance issue arise, which meant they could no longer take on an exhibition of this value or scale. It was back to the drawing board, and I wasforced to scramble to find a new way. Thankfully, through sheer persistence and the amazing support of the artists and the two final venues, Women Painting Women: In Earnest premiered at Customs House Museum in Clarksville, Tennessee in August and then traveled to the J. Wayne Stark Galleries at Texas A&M University in October.

<em>Paper Wishes</em>, 2015, oil on panel, 48 x 36 in., private collectionAM: I understand there was a line out the door for the opening reception of the final viewing of the exhibition at Texas A & M University in. What was it like to see that kind of response?

AE: That week was a whirlwind. I traveled to College Station a bit early to help with final preparations for two related events that were hosted by the College of Architecture’s Wright Gallery. They hosted a live painting demonstration with four of the artists included in Women Painting Women: In Earnest, as well as a panel discussion the following day featuring several other artists, myself, and moderator art historian Mary Zawadzki. The week was a combination of intense work along with great socialization with the artists, and by time the opening reception came, I was already somewhat delirious. When we saw folks lining up to get into the door of the museum, I was overwhelmed with pride and joy. It was even sweeter to share that moment with the artists in attendance. The reverence their work was receiving was profound and exhilarating.

AM: Regarding your own work, what painting is currently on the easel, and what type of imagery or ideas are inspiring you at the moment?

AE: I am excited to be taking some time to move my work in a new direction. At the moment, I am preparing four large aluminum panels that are 72” x 44”. These will be mounted together to form the largest multi-figure work I have painted to date. I am also in the midst of constructing the paper form that will be the centerpiece for this painting. Without giving too much away, I am really excited about this new body of work both conceptually and by the physical challenge of creating my own subjects out of paper. I love discovering how to manipulate paper into beautiful, simplified, natural forms, andI also love the painterly challenge of representing the figure among white-on-white objects.

Looking back, there are a few pieces from the past year or two that pointed to these new ideas beginning to form. The first painting in which my fascination with paper revealed itself is Paper Wishes. For me, this painting is about the fragility of dreams, about the audacity of wishes. This painting is now in the permanent collection of the Museu Europeu d'art Modern (MEAM) in Barcelona, Spain. Another painting from this past year thathints at where my work is going is I'm a Special Snowflake. For this painting I asked artists from all over the world to send me their own cut and folded paper snowflake. I inventoried each paper snowflake so that I knew exactly who created each snowflake and whenand where. This painting is about honoring all the great talent out there right now, but it also shows how I sometimes feel lost or invisible in the midst of this blizzard of talent. In the end, the title allows me to poke fun at myself for taking things so seriously. When on exhibit, each of these paper flakes will be installed and viewers will be asked to add their own paper snowflake.

Hear Me, 2017, oil on aluminum panel, 40 x 30 in.AM: Of the paintings you have done in the last few years, which onehas received the greatest response? Why do you think that is?

AE: This past year I did a painting as a sort of reaction to the current climate in which we find ourselves. This isn’t my typical way of working. I usually prefer to leave more openness, subtlety, or ambiguityin my paintings. However, like many women, I was just fed up. Hear Me depicts an African American woman with the word “Roar” scrawled into her short side hairs, with mouth agape seemingly screaming. This painting received a lot of attention both on social media and in the press. I think it resonated with so many folks simply because it is an honest reaction.

AM: If you had to name a work you painted in the last five or so years that you feel best captures your intentions as a painter and where you are in your personal journey, which painting would you name?

AE: Well, apart from being a self-portrait, I think I would have to pick I'm a Special Snowflake. It not only shares my current fascination with painting the figure within white on white paper objects but also holds a lot of the self-doubt that both defines and propels me as an artist. I think a lot of people think of self-doubt in a negative way, but for me it helps push me. I see it as a means to strive to be better, to challenge my own ideas and ability. I would be such a boring painter and person if I was impressed with myself. I do have to keep it in check though so that it doesn’t become self-defeat.

AM: Can you name a painting that you have seen in the last year from a fellow artist that impressed you? What were the qualities that you most admired?

AE: In late 2016, I had the pleasure of viewing a small exhibition of Ann Gale’s work at the Fralin Museum of Art,which was unforgettably powerful. Her work has always intrigued me, especially her use of color and the frenetic energy of those opaque little bits of paint. Unlike many artists today who use broken reality as an effect, Gale’s fragmented realism comes more from an honest depiction of observation over long periods of time. In Rachel With Blue, the model stares over the viewer’s right shoulder, slouched in a rather uncomfortable looking chair. The shallow space behind her is defined by grey-green dashes of varying sizes, which sometimes interrupt her contour. I love Gale’s unflinching response to the beauty of the everyday person. She doesn’t idealize or glamorize her subjects. They are flawed and real — and completely compelling because of it.

The artist at work in her home studio

AM: Will you continue to curate in 2018, or are you taking some time off?

AE: Right now I am still recovering a bit from the immense effort of Women Painting Women: In Earnest, which was de-installed in December. Early last year, I also curated Sight Unseen, a group exhibition held at Abend Gallery. In this exhibition 80 representational artists were chosen for work that looks beneath the realities of the surface and reveals a greater, hidden significance. I think I am most interested in organizing exhibitions that either shed light on work that I feel is underserved by the artworld or that makes connections for viewers that aren’t already beingdiscovered. I approach curating from a problemsolver’s point of view. I see a need and try to fill it. I would love to continue to work with esteemed galleries and museums that are open to broadening the acceptance of figurative art.

AM: What was your best moment of 2017? What is your top goal in 2018?

AE: Last year was a pretty amazing year of firsts. Being able to pass on some of the knowledge I’ve gained as an artist in a more in-depth and meaningful way through Alia Fine Art Studios and that moment at the opening reception for Women Painting Women: In Earnest tie for best moments of 2017. My top goal as an artist is to continue to challenge myself technically and conceptually. I look forward to continuing this exploration into creating over-sized, natural forms out of paper to more fully engage the exhibition space and viewer.

Space Between, 2010, oil on panel, 36 x 48 in., private collection

All photography this article courtesy Alia El-Bermani Studio.