My youngest daughter recently told me that she thought my work had come full circle. Since I had already been an artist many years before she was even born, I wondered how she could make that observation. Apparently my mother had shared with her my very odd “art-making” activities from the time I could walk. I spent a great deal of time in nature. I was our neighborhood’s master tree climber. There was no canopy that had not seen me swaying, napping or sketching. A 15-foot fall one day brought forth an immediate sanction from my parents, coupled with the hope that having the wind knocked out of me would forever end my career…to no avail.
Eel Mosaic Public Art, Smalti Mosaic,Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Public Park
Welded Recycled Steel from Water Towers, Oil Paint, 2013
When you’re an artist, it’s all about observation. I felt I was part of a secret world where I watched the hatching and growth of young chicks, I was fascinated by the textures and differing colors of bark in different stages of growth and collected bark peels from the ground to make rooftops for my various fairy houses. For me, nature was a sacred world that accepted me unconditionally and provided a safe space for reflection. I could belong, which was important for a first generation kid whose oddities and serious nature prevented me from making a good fit in any social circle. On most of my childhood walks through the woods I would create tiny shrines, fairy houses and pole structures. I would use small pieces of wood, stones, feathers and ferns to make small constructions and shrines honoring my secret places in the woods.
I’m a classically trained mosaic artist, but like most artists, I explore a variety of other mediums like encaustic, painting, wabi-sabi and mixed-media. I have been obsessed my entire life with collecting found objects, ephemera and in particular, objects from nature that seem to “speak” to me. I mostly look down when walking as I’ve never met a rusty object that I didn’t like, a habit that my children often bemoaned. I’m captivated by the physicality of nature objects and the histories they carry. I continue to build shrines around or for objects that I feel are special, but in completely unexpected places like abandoned lots or on some weird building ledge. I try to position them in a way that honors them and gives pause for thought.
In the woods, I might put an interesting rock in the fork of a tree or I might tie a colorful bit of cloth on a branch. I’ve only recently begun showing objects from my work with hierotopy, basically creating the sacred in the profane or the creation of sacred spaces. Honestly, it’s only been very recently that a name has been created for such work, but the practice is ancient and has always been around. I was very lucky that I had parents who not only supported my collecting and my need to be in nature, but they celebrated every construction, sketch and my collections of objects. They made space for me as an artist and for my stuff!
I have two daughters who I also classify as creators and who were forced to live in my live-work loft which is like a giant cabinet of curiosities filled with shelves and shelves of mosaic tesserae, bird bones and nests, water-worn ceramics harvested from the Hudson River, tiny wooden tea caddies, vintage pencils and well you can imagine what fills the thousands of jars in my studio.
Sidewalk Mosaic: Art Intervention - Main Street, Recycled plates
I’m constantly exploring my cultural identities which are also connected to two very different yet similar diasporas. The Middle East, Spain, the Bahama Islands… I live in the knowledge that race is a construct so seeking identity is a common theme in my work…it changes and evolves and is never static. I feel the same way about my work. I question what “home” is and what one needs to construct a sense of place. For me, nature is that place where identity becomes unimportant as a philosophical or intellectual pursuit. In natural spaces all who worship are accepted.
I have vast collections of product packaging from the Middle East which I also use to create constructions that challenge notions of orientalism by taking over power of the image. I play with iconography from the Middle East in my Hamza Hand series as well as my shrine constructions using the vocabulary of art to reference cultural identities. Each one of my Hamza Hands tells a childhood story from countless diaries. I love story-telling and almost every work I do has some narrative quality. I also trace this back to when I would use storytelling as a way of connecting to others as a youth while keeping intact my protective armour. If you meet me, ask me to tell you a story…I love to tell them and I have plenty to tell, including my own.
|Scholbohm: Chakra Labyrinth, Oil Paint, 2015|
It’s complicated. As a Muslim, my spirituality is an essential part of my being, but I don’t believe that highly structured religious institutions are necessary for my spiritual practice, I can discover the sacred almost anywhere and I can create the sacred anywhere with a small reed construction or an inset of sidewalk mosaic or mosaic in the crack of a wall, which is why I recently removed my head covering or hijab. Did it make me less spiritual, not at all. What I exhibited on the outside always had lived on the inside and it is the inside that I am most concerned with. I prefer to live my spirituality and connectedness to a Creator. I prefer to connect to others as myself, without a sort of proclamation which I felt my hijab had become. I’m not in the position of proclaiming anything to anyone….I’m still discovering everyday.
This is Week 21 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Haifa’s story today. To see more of Haifa's work please click on