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Say Their Names, Remember Their Faces: A Conversation with Hiba Schahbaz

Alexandria Deters

Sep 23, 2020

I have been an admirer of Hiba Schahbaz’s work ever since I first encountered it; and when we randomly met at some-forgotten art opening we instantly connected, becoming close friends. Her calm, composed demeanor, her inner strength, and confidence immediately put my anxious personality at ease. That tranquility she exudes is transmitted into her work; beautiful, delicate, full of reflection, and celebrating the female body while incorporating the history and techniques of both traditional and contemporary painting. 

 

Currently her practice has shifted from water-based works on paper to large-scale figurative oil painting, which can be seen in her solo exhibition, Dreaming (September 3 – October 10, 2020) at De Buck Gallery in New York, NY. It would be easy for me to discuss this new work, or even her recent miniature watercolors that she made during quarantine and which were exhibited virtually earlier this year. It would be easy for you, the reader, to read another celebratory review of Hiba’s beautiful work, uncomplicated by today’s political climate.

 

But that is not what you will find in my words. The beauty Hiba brings to her practice extends itself into every part, even the most tragic of subjects, the most difficult to confront and acknowledge. The residual trauma of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and continued dehumanization, murder, and imprisonment of immigrants, POC, and queer folks has surfaced into every aspect of society and can no longer be ignored. We learned in horror about the tragic death of Breonna Taylor, and we watched in horror as George Floyd’s life was taken from him. 

 

During this time as I was panic scrolling through my Instagram feed in early June (Where is the next protest? Another victim of police violence. Are my friends safe? The COVID19 death toll continues to climb. Where do we turn now? A cop car drives into protestors in Brooklyn….) I stopped mid-scroll.

 

Staring at me was a man with soft eyes, and a face of beauty and peace, surrounded by a halo of gold, reminding me of the portraits of saints one sees in church. The face was of George Floyd, who was murdered on May 25, 2020 by ‘peace’ officers. It was the first time I saw Floyd’s face depicted by an artist and was filled with the reverence that one may feel while praying. I thought of George Floyd’s life, his struggles and triumphs, and how much more life he was supposed to live. That halo was given to him too soon. 

 

 

(L) Memorial Portrait of Nina Pop (1992-2020), 2020
(R) Memorial Portrait of George Floyd (1973-2020), 2020
All courtesy of the artist

 

 

A few days later another portrait memorializing Breonna Taylor was on my screen and I was filled with the same sense of sadness as well as respect and honor to the person I was gazing at. Hiba’s memorial portraits did not only speak to me but to thousands of others that follow her work on social media. These portraits are meticulously done, made with literal gold to honor and remember the men and women that we have lost. By using the miniature style, Hiba “draws the viewer in”[1] and is able to channel her energy of grief into each victim’s portrait. Yet these works do not feel somber. In her work, Hiba continually strives to showcase the beauty in the world “resulting in visually appealing paintings. This delicate allure is underscored, however, by an unsettling tension. Things are not quite what they seem.”[2] This tension is created by the intimacy she gained from hyper focusing on each victim, their life, the detail of their face to make sure that each person’s inner light is able to glow through her work and even through a small cellphone screen.

 

I believe that on occasion an artist will produce work, or make design that speaks beyond them, that can and will live beyond them. This type of work is either celebrated or reviled for what it shows us. These works stand as a testament to people that have been lost[3] or have triumphed[4], events that have changed history so drastically that they stand as a testament to why and how we as a society have ended up here.[5] These works can be planned and thought out, agreed to, or come into being by happenstance.[6] In seeking a way to honor these people’s lives, Hiba has accomplished this with her Memorial Portrait series. 

 

 

(L) Memorial Portrait of Oluwatoyin Ruth "Toyin" Salau (2000 – 2020), 2020
(R) Memorial Portrait of Riah Milton (1995 - 2020), 2020
All courtesy of the artist

 

 

Now, if not soon, these victims, these names will be recognized as part of the continuing legacy for the fight for Civil Rights. Currently, The Civil Right Memorial and The Forgotten Memorial[7] display the names of men and women who died between 1952 and 1968 under circumstances suggesting they were the victims of racially motivated violence. Yet just as the Vietnam War Memorial will continue to add soldiers' names, the fight for Civil Rights did not reach its conclusion in 1968. The racism and hatred that resulted in those memorials having to be made has not ended. Rather it has transformed and evolved, now thriving as our country rolls back the equality[8] that we as a nation fought to make a reality over 50 years. 

 

 

Memorial Portrait of Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells (1993-2020), 2020
Courtesy of the artist

 

 

One day I hope this will be a distant memory and a memorial will be erected honoring the men, women, and children whose lives were taken from people that were sworn to protect them because of the color of their skin or gender. But that future is far away, and these deaths are not in the past. We do not have the luxury to reflect because action needs to happen now.

 

When gazing at Hiba’s portraits depicted with her caring hand, don’t just look. SAY THEIR NAMES. REMEMBER THEIR FACES. Everyday you can go outside and breathe fresh air, remember they didn’t have a choice to not be able to do the same today. History will always be repeated unless we acknowledge the mistakes of the past, and rectify present injustices, for they will and are destroying the possibility for a better future. 

 

 

Philando Divall Castile (1983 –2016) 

32 years old 

 

Riah Milton (1995 - 2020)  

25 years old 

 

Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells (1993 - 2020) 

27 years old

 

Oluwatoyin Ruth "Toyin" Salau ( 2000 – 2020)

19 years old 

 

David "Ya Ya" McAtee (1967 – 2020)
 53 years old

 

Tony McDade (1981 - 2020) 

38 years old

 

George Floyd ( 1973 – 2020)

46 years old

 

Dreasjon 'Sean' Reed  (1998 - 2020) 

21 years old 

 

Nina Pop (1992 - 2020) 

28 years old

 

Breonna Taylor (1993 - 2020) 

26 years old

 

 


 

Alexandria Deters: These works have a powerful presence to them. When I scrolled by your first portrait of George Floyd, he looked beautiful and at peace. Honored and remembered, it reminded me of portraits I've seen of a saints/Martyr. It was very moving for me. What drove you to make this first powerful portraits and to depict these individuals?

 

Hiba Schahbaz: I saw the video of George’s murder on Instagram and it stayed with me for days. I was compelled to paint him because I felt unable to do anything else in this horrible moment, in which I understood that Black people constantly live in fear. And so I painted him as I felt and saw him. I wanted to make a memorial to honor him. 

 

 

(L) Memorial Portrait of Tony McDade (1981 - 2020), 2020
(R) Memorial Portrait of David "Ya Ya" McAtee (1967 – 2020), 2020
All courtesy of the artist

 

 

While having originally training in miniature painting, you have become most well-known for your larger-than-life watercolor self-portraits. These portraits however, are on a much more intense and smaller scale. Can you tell me more about this shift back to this scale, and the process?

 

I’ve painted these memorial portraits in materials which are traditional to miniature painting. I’ve always been deeply connected to miniature paintings and it is so precious to me that it made sense for me to paint these portraits in this format that I love and trained in.


 

 

What is your hope when someone sees one of Portraits when scrolling through their feed?

 

Each of these portraits is of a person whose life was taken too soon. I hope that I am creating a space for their memory to be remembered and reflected upon. I hope these portraits are able to create awareness and healing where it is needed.

 

 

Memorial Portrait of Philando Divall Castile (1983 –2016), 2020
Courtesy of the artist

 

 

How do you see this series continuing, evolving?

 

I began painting these small portraits very instinctively and so I don’t have a plan at the moment. I do feel I will continue painting them as long as injustice towards black people persists and the murder of people of color continues. 

 

 

Each of these portraits are breathtaking, but will never be for sale. Why is that, and because of this, for anyone who wanted to purchase where you suggest they donate their money?

 

These paintings are not for sale or profit in any way. I hope that people who are inquiring will instead consider contributing their resources to one of the many organizations on the frontline helping people who need it most, such as G.L.I.T.S., Black Lives Matter, Color of Change, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. 

 

 

(L) Memorial Portrait of Dreasjon 'Sean' Reed (1998-2020), 2020
(R) Memorial Portrait of Breonna Taylor (1993-2020), 2020
All courtesy of the artist

 

 

Remember Their Names Through Supporting Justice and Change

 

G.L.I.T.S (Gays and Lesbians Living In a Transgender Society)

https://www.glitsinc.org/

 

Black Lives Matter

https://blacklivesmatter.com/

 

Color of Change

https://colorofchange.org/

 

NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

https://www.naacpldf.org/

 

SPLC Southern Poverty Law Center

https://www.splcenter.org/

 

 


 

 

[1]Schahbaz, Hiba. “About”. http://www.hibaschahbaz.com/about. Accessed September 2, 2020.

[2]Schahbaz, Hiba. “About”. http://www.hibaschahbaz.com/about. Accessed September 2, 2020. 

[3]Maya Lin Vietnam War Memorial ‎November 13, 1982, Washington DC

[4]Amy Sherald, First Lady Michelle Obama, 2008, oil paint, linen, 183.2 cm (72.1 in) × 152.7 cm (60.1 in) × 7 cm (2.8 in), In the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC

[5]Leni Riefenstahl Triumph of the Will, premiered on 28 March 1933, Germany.

[6]Feb. 1, 1968, photo, South Vietnamese Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of National Police, fires his pistol at Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lem. (Eddie Adams/AP).

[7]https://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do/civil-rights-memorial/civil-rights-martyrs

[8]https://civilrights.org/trump-rollbacks/

 

 


 

 

Hiba Schahbaz

http://www.hibaschahbaz.com/

Instagram: @hibaschahbaz

De Buck Gallery, NY, NY
Hiba Shahbaz: Dreaming 09/03/2020 - 10/10/2020