Rajab Ali Sayed
Guest curated by Mallory A. Gemmel in collaboration with the artist
Layercake is the first virtual presentation of an extended body of work by Los Angeles based artist Rajab Ali Sayed.
Growing up as a queer man between Manilla, Philippines; Karachi and Lahore, Pakistan; and Houston, Texas; has influenced Sayed’s process of constructing physical and psychological spaces with paint. Raised and nurtured by a Filipino, Catholic mother and Pakistani, Muslim father, Sayed encounters culture through the mediation of his biracial experience. His practice is intertwined with his intersectional life experiences and composed of paintings that illustrate thickened narratives of his unique personal history. Sayed’s transience between disparate cultures, geographies, and histories foregrounds his work; he embodies paint as a means to mark and study his distinctly personal mythology, and to reflect upon specific time, place, and existence.
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Together the paintings, Cake, Drip, and Tye Dye and Leather compose a triptych of works. Each represents a different phase in Sayed’s move from Texas to California. In Drip, his first “California picture,” he illustrates the glaze of the SoCal sun — its warmth encompasses an oceanside landscape and the bodies of two young figures. As a visitor of this landscape, the California light seemed bright, healing, and promising. In 2019, he produced Cake during his time in residence at Otis College of Art and Design. Cake was prepared when Sayed was still an outsider to this new place. With a foot in the door, he engaged a fresh perspective due to the new access and resource he was exposed to in the artistic landscape of Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter, he relocated to the Los Angeles area. Finally, Tye Dye and Leather is Sayed’s latest completed work created a year after his official move. Visualizing three surfers in Malibu, Tye Dye and Leather is representational of Sayed’s affinity with water. The textured waves of the Pacific Ocean evoke a connection between different places. It's as though this mass of water connects him to the geographies across the globe where he was raised.
Perspective is important to me. How we look at something makes all the difference in the way we think about it. When I start a painting, I always consider how the viewer will enter the work, and that determines the scale and the composition of the picture. The viewer is very much present in all my paintings.
― Rajab Ali Sayed
“When you’re mixed, it’s like you’re the other and the self at the same time. Being biracial, it’s almost like I have to claim myself as separate things. My experience isn’t one or the other, it is both, and also, something new.”
― Rajab Ali Sayed
As a consistent element to his process, Sayed often under paints or codes the initial layers of his paintings with a specific colour. He begins his process by blending pigments to create unique shades of paint. He mixes colour to create muted tones, sometimes fusing pigments with white and (or) black. Instead of making use of pigments’ pure and primary states, his mixture of tones is representational of how present-day participants of visual culture, consume, communicate, and understand colour. Now more than ever, Sayed thinks of his audience — colour seems to be the vanguard of current visual modernity. Colour is among one of the various entry points he uses as a method to direct a viewer. It is both a passage into his work and objective information. Within his painting, colour describes the temperature, intimacy, light, detail of figure, and contrast of space.
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Natural Magick and What Judy Saw (pictured above) show a pattern of conceptual seriality within Sayed’s practice. Some of his works are painted from photographs that he has staged, and some are chosen from his bank of archived images. When he references archived images, it is often because they are somehow closely related to particular ideas, visuals, or compositions that he is acknowledging at that moment. Natural Magick was painted during Sayed’s time in Vermont for a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. At the same time of this stay, Hurricane Harvey overwhelmed his home town of Houston. He had a sense of guilt being in the verdancy of Vermont, while back at home, the infrastructure of Houston was threatened by water. Natural Magick grew from Sayed’s musings on the hurricane, relating it to The Wizard of Oz and the narrative of a storm or cyclone transporting Dorothy to the vibrancy of OZ. That summer he visited his friend, Sydney, who was living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He asked her and her dog, Rostin, to sit for an image taken in her wild and unkempt backyard. It wasn’t until Sayed was back in Vermont that he remembered he had a picture of a framed portrait of Judy Garland as Dorothy on the interior wall of a hotel room at the Hollywood Roosevelt in Los Angeles. He recognized the connection between the fictional imagery reminiscent of Dorothy in Oz in Natural Magick and Garland’s subtle presence as a real muse of femininity in early Hollywood in the photograph that inspired What Judy Saw.
I feel like in America you wear your identity like it’s a sleeve on your jacket.
― Rajab Ali Sayed
The ‘one’ that I am is composed of narratives that overlap, run parallel to, and often contradict one another.
― Glenn Ligon
A note from the artist and curator
The development of this exhibition was a collaborative process between artist Rajab Ali Sayed and curator Mallory Gemmel. As a curator, Gemmel is aware of her identity as a white cis-gender woman and the inherent dynamic this poses on Sayed as a queer artist of colour. This exhibition intimately considers notions of queer experience, as well as identity. Gemmel has worked closely with Sayed to speak alongside him regarding his practice and experiences. Their close collaboration aims to demonstrate a respectful artist-curator relationship in all phases of the exhibition.
Some suggested further reading and viewing material:
The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St. Clair
Sofia Coppola: The Politics of Visual Pleasure by Anna Backman Rogers
Painting Now by Suzanne Perling Hudson
500 Self Portraits by Julian Bell and Liz Rideal
Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity by José Esteban Muñoz
Rajab Ali Sayed (b.1990) is a visual artist who lives and works in Los Angeles, California. He received his BFA from the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan in 2013, and his MFA from the University of Houston, TX in 2017. He attended Augustana University in Sioux Falls, SD as a Fulbright Exchange Scholar (2011) and completed the Sam and Adele Golden Foundation Residency (2017) and Vermont Studio Center Residency (2017).
He was an artist in-residence at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles (2019) and his painting Partition was commissioned by the City of West Hollywood to be reproduced as mural on vinyl and is presently on view at the West Hollywood Public Library through December 2020. He has also taught drawing and painting at The University of Houston (2017), Art League Houston (2018). He is currently a part of the performing arts faculty at Bridges Academy in Studio City, LA.
Rajab’s work has exhibited at Barbara Davis Gallery, Houston TX, Bank of America Center, Houston TX, Lawndale Art Center, Houston TX, Craighead Green, Dallas, TX, Viridian Artists, NYC, 1969 Gallery NYC, and Unicorn Gallery, Karachi, Pakistan. He recently participated in the virtual group show, Animal Nitrate (2020) featured on Artsy. His works have been published in Friend of The Artist Magazine (2017) and Create Magazine (2018).
Mallory A. Gemmel is an emerging editor, writer, and curator working on the unceded territory of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), Stó:lō and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh), and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) Nations in Vancouver, Canada. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography and Curatorial Practice from Emily Carr University of Art + Design and a Master of Arts in Comparative Media from Simon Fraser University. As an arts practitioner, she has taken on numerous roles including archivist, programming assistant, and exhibitions assistant at various institutions in Vancouver. She currently sits on the CMA Journal board at SFU as an editor, and acted as the managing editor to Issue Five Affective Framing: Cinematic Experience and Exhibition Design. In the summer of 2019, Mallory was an attendant of the Otis College of Art and Design Emerging Curators Retreat. She has spoken at the UAAC annual conference, as well as the International Interdisciplinary Conference Memory, Affects, and Emotions about her research which considers the intersection between affective processes of cinema and curatorial practice.
Recent work ︎