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Self-portraiture of Memory, The Materiality of Dance: A conversation with Azzah Sultan

Alexandria Deters

Oct 06, 2020

Planning an exhibition is always stressful, planning an artist’s first solo exhibition is stressful + nerve-racking (to say the least). But planning an artist first solo show during a pandemic, while also finding your first physical gallery space!? **Brain Explodes**. 


Well, thankfully no one’s brains exploded while orchestrating Sultan’s mesmerizing first solo exhibition Anak Dara at Trotter & Sholer new physical home at 168 Suffolk St., New York.



Azzah Sultan solo exhibition, Anak Dara at Trotter & Sholer, New York (Sep 10 - 27, 2020).
Image courtesy of Trotter & Sholer



Walking in the brightly lit one room gallery felt inviting, not cramped as I thought it might be. (Maybe I have become a bit jaded with the DIY Brooklyn galleries?). The space perfectly filled, room for each piece to breath and tell me Azzah’s story. The exhibition is colorful, thoughtfully arranged, and each work with a distinct purpose, the materials made for each creation chosen with care. I could feel my brain tingling with excitement, a show obviously well researched. My favorite. Lately my art brain has felt like  it has been living in the shallow wool of art mediocracy, work that is flashy with no substance. No purpose, no depth. If you try to dive deep into any of those types of works, you’ll hit your head on the pool floor (Shallow! No Diving! No critical thinking please!).


Anak Dara exhibition is an ocean of depth of contemplation. But unlike many well thought-out shows and works, you can enjoy these works even without all the extra context. 


Many artists today have found ways to incorporate new mediums into their practice, some more successful than others. Azzah is one of those successful few. Her video works to her paintings to her incorporation of textiles continually reference and complement one another, making this exhibition almost feel like a work within itself. Each work can stand alone but it is how they are presented together they become like one work, a reflection of one artist’s journey in discovering herself through her memories, cultural history, and defiance against ongoing legacy of colonialism. 


I have no idea what it is like being a young immigrant of color, or how one balances their faith with a society that has wrongly demonized it. Azzah is part of a new emerging fifth wave of feminism. A wave emerging from the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movement, a wave that that is being formed and defined in this very moment.


How do we live in the present? How do we juggle the past with its rules and regulations, and able to evolve it so the traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation, our cultural legacy, does not die out but continue to flourish and be shared and celebrated? 


Learning to navigate this terrain is challenge for anyone, but Azzah takes to it as a fish who can swim in fresh to sea water, able to take what is keenly important to her and is able to nurture it and have it able for others to see and interpret.


She does not feel the need to abandon her heritage, to hide her culture and religion to placate the ignorant misinformed dwellers in our western society. She does not see these parts of her life as burden, something that should be separate. Rather, she recognizes that these elements are innately apart of her, are deeply woven into the woman and artist she has become. 



Azzah Sultan, Memasak, 2020, 8'58", courtesy of the artist and Trotter & Sholer, New York



Having lived in the US for 7 years, Azzah could have left her roots behind. Instead in her work she is consciously seeking out new ways of understanding her own culture and personal history, transplanting her roots to the US where they can evolve, flourish, and blossom once again. Her work is made consciously with her sexuality, gender, and religion in mind, but looking at her works I can’t help but see parts of myself.  In her faceless self-portrait series, Melipat, 2020, I not only see myself and Azzah, but I can’t help but see Azzah’s  mother, grandmother, her future children, the ghosts of the past that we acknowledge, the ghosts of the future that we hope will understand us. Time is always flowing but some memories and traditions continue to exist as they were, the making of chili sauce by her mother (Memasak, 2020), the folding of your clothes, the sentimental feelings one has doing familiar task….


With these thoughts I knew I had to know more about this artist and her own unique view of the world.





- Congratulations on your fantastic solo exhibition! The NY art world is slowly opening back up after its long closure, what was like for you having to prepare for your first solo exhibition during this time? 


Thank you! It really feels great to be finally back in New York and being able to have a solo show is a dream come true. At the start of the pandemic, there was a lot of uncertainty as to what would happen to my art practice and if I am able to show my work anywhere. So, when I was given the opportunity to show my art at Trotter & Sholer Gallery, I was very excited. The preparation and development for the body of work took around 4 months, and that doesn't include the extensive research I do for my art. When I was halfway through the development of my art, that was when COVID hit in the US and the school where I was studying my MFA closed. I still had access to my studio, but it was definitely very eerie working on a campus with no one around. It did, however, give me the time to work without any distractions, I saw the start of quarantine as a time where i could fully flesh out my work. 



 - The title of your exhibition Anak Dara literally translates to a virgin, but also means unmarried girl. In your work, and in this exhibition, you use Songket[i] fabric is worn for special occasions but has become a required garment for brides and grooms for their weddings, as in the traditional wedding costumes of Palembang, Minangkabau, and Bali. Was the purpose of this fabric something you reflected on in your work and title of your show? 


The word Anak Dara has always had a big stigma attached to it. From the start, my mother always used it as a term of endearment, as a term that signifies that I am her child that she will pass on knowledge towards. Songket fabrics are a traditional textile from Malaysia that is woven often with silk with metallic gold and silver thread. The patterns and motifs are repeated throughout the design, songket fabric is commonly associated to a royal court, it is commonly worn by brides and grooms. The word songket derives from the Malay phrase “menyongket” which means to “meaning to dig under and insert gold threads in the process of weaving.” To weave such a textile takes a lot of skills which makes it a very high quality fabric only worn for special occasions: weddings and festivities like Eid, its a material that has a lot of religious and cultural significance, which is why I have incorporated it within my work. The songket fabric reflects how traditional fabrics can be the very foundation of how culture is perceived and celebrated.



Azzah Sultan, Menyentuh 1, 2020, Hand stitched singlet and batik fabric on wooden frame, 37 x 29 in. (93.98 x 73.66 cm), courtesy of the artist and Trotter & Sholer, New York



- I love how connected you are with your culture in your art practice, especially with your use of the traditional handwoven Malaysian fabric Songket. For those works you sourced your fabric directly from the women that make this fabric in Malaysia. What part of Malaysia do you acquire your fabric and is there a certain area/group of women that you purchase your fabric? if so what is your relationship with them?


I'm really glad that you can see that through my art practice, this journey of creating these pieces have been very personal and emotional. The process of selected these fabrics was very important to me. As a child I remember having my parents bring my siblings and I to the fabric store to select materials for outfits we would either wear during Eid[ii] or weddings. We would go through lace, satin, silk, netting, batik and songket material, it was a long and endless process that would result to my siblings and sitting on the couches and playing a game as we waited for our parents to select these fabrics. Every once and a while they would ask for our input if we liked the color or texture. The thing I loved the most was that our parents always selected the same color for the entire family, it may vary in terms of style and hue but it made us look united as a front. This is a very common thing in Malaysia, especially Eid every family would have their core color. The beautiful thing about that is when we're finished with Eid prayers as the mosque you can see families reunite and giving salaams at the court all wearing the same colors. So when I went back home last year to collect these fabrics, I went through the same process with my parents. For the past 7 years my family has been all over, my siblings and I are all grown up, studying and working in different countries. The last time we were together as a family was two years ago for my brother's wedding. So going through this with my family made me a sentimental towards a time where I saw my siblings every day. 


I mostly bought the fabrics in Kuala Lumpur and in my hometown, Penang. Given my time constraint, I only had time to buy the fabrics from fabric department stores, before I had to go back to the US. My parents had their input the entire time I was selecting fabrics, which colors looked traditional and which would make an impact to viewers. My Baba is the number one person I trust when it comes to colors and fashion. He was very much the brains behind curating for the family attires, so he was my person when it came to selecting the right batik[iii] based on how the patterns looked. My Mama on the other hand is a very interested at what makes a statement and how to style the fabrics. So I had two very important mentors through out this selection process!



- In your self-portrait series The Melipat (to fold) you state that the series reflects your 'past', 'present', and 'future'. Can you explain to me which work in the series represents each stage of your life and why?


Melipat (meaning to fold) hints towards the human form without actually representing its physical attributes but using clothes to fabricate the body. It indicated the past as each mixed media display of a figure is based from images of myself when I was young and used to perform Malaysian dancing which was taught by my mother and a way for her to expose my sister and I to our culture as we were constantly traveling and living in places outside of our home country. There is a personal tie to the way the figure is displayed, these first started off as paintings but I decided to take it out of the two dimensional realm and include textiles to display the body as if it was coming out of the canvas. Each canvas has an acrylic painting of garments and or a veil that drapes over to convey the presence of a body. It indicated the present as I am creating the form in a more modern context, I cut, stitch and fold the batik fabric to produce specific traditional Malay clothing’s, this is handstitched onto the canvas and creates a great contrast against the burnt sienna acrylic painting. It indicated the future as there is a sense of mysticism to the works now; on each piece there is a fabric piece that flows all the way down to the ground, it’s attached to the canvas but parts away on its own, creating the illusion of the body floating. The act of hand stitching is a very time-consuming process, every fold and pleat made is intentional and corresponds to the fabric that is attached to each other. The batik used to create the garment is a contrasting color to the batik used for the background, each piece has some sort of a crown or veil to emphasize the head even if it isn’t present. The figures itself represent my past, present and future; I am able to place myself in its image at any point in time.



Azzah Sultan, Melipat 1, 2, 3, 2020, Hand stitched batik fabric, acrylic paint on canvas, 49 x 24 in. (124.46 x 60.96 cm each), courtesy of the artist and Trotter & Sholer, New York



- It is powerful and fascinating how in your self-portraits you obscure your body and face. You state that the act of 'erasing' your face, you are "creating a platform for others to see themselves within my image.” Although the Quran does not explicitly prohibit visual representation of any living being[i], it uses the word musawwir (maker of forms, artist) as an epithet of God. Is obscuring your face/body also in reference to this belief? 


The idea of not displaying my image is also a nod towards how within Islam the presentation of the face is not practiced. This is a huge influence within my work because by doing I am also defeating the male gaze and any ways of exoticizing and fetishizing my images. As I was created the body of work I started to realized how not only am I representing my cultural roots but also my faith. Erasing my face is also creating more emphasis on my mother’s performance and creating a relationship within her hand movements and mine as I start to mirror her actions, a child learning from a parent. As a viewer, you can’t see my face and you’re unaware of where my gaze is, my mother is only be represented through her hands which creates a mirror dialogue to my hands that are being shown. There is a disruption of who is being represented within this piece and our only evidence is the colors, fabrics, jewelry, and voice that is being shown and heard.



- I enjoyed your Menyentuh series, which depicts your hands in different traditional Malaysian dance poses. Do each of these hand positions have a specific meaning? If so what do they mean? 


For this series I have selected silver, gold and bronze songkets and stretched them over wooden frames to create three panels. Instead of treating the fabric in how it should be, folded; I have presented it flattened out, making the songket textile a background. I started to create hand silhouettes by tracing over my hands in movements from old pictures of myself performing Malaysian dancing when I was younger. Once I created the hand silhouettes, I exported it as a vector design and used a lazer cutter to cut out the design onto a batik fabric. I carefully selected batik designs with colors that are very contrasting to the songket fabrics. Alia Ali[v] was an artist I came across whilst doing the research for Menyentuh. Her photography series “Fluxus” really resonated with me, especially the way she handled fabric using it as a source to bring up issues of history, politics and economics. I was interested in the way she used textiles to identify the figure. Throughout my installation I have been interested in the lack of the body, in Menyentuh (meaning to touch) I am using batik fabric to focus on the hands and how it is in motion. As a viewer you are brought to the attention of the batik fabric and the songket material interacting with one another and left to wonder the origin of these textiles. The hand positions are a nod towards the three basic hand steps I made in a lot of my dances. The pieces with the gold and silver songket illustrated a hand movement that is commonly used to show a flower. The piece with the bronze songket is illustrating the hand when they are resting on my lap before I clap my hands to the beat of the song. The dances that I learned were a mixed of classical Malay dancing with influences from Indian and Chinese dance. That itself is a representation of how multicultural Malaysia is.



- Your works on view at times reference the traditional Malaysian dance that you learned from your mother while growing up. What type of dance is that specifically (Joget, Zapin, Silat, Branyo Dikir Barat, Terinai,  Asli, Mak Inang, Jikey, or  Ngajat[vi]) and do you still practice?


The dances that I learned were mostly joget and zapin. I started of first with joget dancing at the age of 8, I was practicing alongside with my younger sister. We performed as a duo whenever there were Malaysian cultural events. Joget is slower tempo-ed and the movements are very soft and elegant which is why the garments I wore were very light and softer shades. Zapin was my favorite type of dance! It was fast, upbeat and the outfits I wore felts so much cooler to me as a child. My mother once dressed my sister and I in a Baju Melayu and Sampin, which is a traditional garment worn by men. The reason being that Zapin itself, was mainly danced by only men during religious events and as it became more of a traditional dance then slowly women were introduced into the dance. I stopped dancing around the age of 14 when my father was stationed back in Malaysia just a few years before I moved to the US. I would definitely love to pick it up again slowly as it still gives my a lot of nostalgia toward my childhood.



- You have lived in the United States for seven years, and you have seen it change quite drastically socially in the last few years to say the least! What advice would you give to young female Muslim artists moving to the US today?


Don't feel like you have to give out all your secrets and your ideas about your art. There are times where you will feel challenged because people don't understand where you are coming from, so you will feel the pressure to dilute your work to make it easily accessible and comfortable for others. But when you do that, you lose the importance for your art. Your work is always valid, you just have to find the community that will support you and help you criticize your work, a community that is coming from a place of good intentions. Research is also key, do as much as you can and find the WOC artists that you feel a connection towards. For me, I started to feel more confidence in my work when I found artists that shared the same interest as mine. Not only did this give me the framework to find inspiration but also motivated me to believe in my worth. 



 - What is the one question you wished someone asked you about your work?


I wished someone would ask me about my research process that I do before I make my art!


My research process is one of my favorite parts of my art practice. When I start off with an idea, I will go to the library and pick whichever books I find relevant and do quick skim readings. Through that I slowly start doing more extensive research on what materials I need to read and build my own bibliography for each art project. I start writing down notes on what speaks to me and what I could further elaborate on in my work. For this body of work I did a lot of research on art theory within materiality, looking into a lot of fiber and craft artists and, performance and storytelling. Once I have all my notes down, I start to highlight the important content and topics that I want to illustrate in my work. The content is very important for me because that’s how my work becomes stronger, the narrative changes sometimes but for the better. I try to summarize my research into a paragraph to explain the body of work, like a thesis statement, once that is done, I start to create the art. 


[i]Songket@Terengganu, “A beautiful tradition, handmade songket fabric by Terengganu Malaysian weavers”, Provenance.com, Accessed September 25, 2020. https://www.provenance.org/stories/songket-terengganu-handmade-songket-fabric-from-terengganu-malaysian-weavers#

[ii] The Islamic Fiqh Academy. “The Eid Prayer”, The Islamic Fiqh Academy. Accessed September 25, 2020. https://islamicfiqh.net/en/newmuslims/4/41/articles/59/the-eid-prayer

[iii] The Batik Guild, “The History of Batik”, 1999, Accessed September 25, 2020. https://www.batikguild.org.uk/batik/history-of batik#:~:text=The%20Dutch%20brought%20Indonesian%20craftsmen,developed%20mass%20production%20of%20batiks

[iv] Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Figural Representation in Islamic Art”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001, Accessed September 25, 2020. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/figs/hd_figs.htm

[v] http://alia-ali.com/

[vi] Peshawaria, Shreya. “Top 15 Dances of Malaysia - Celebrating the Country's Cultural Vibrance”, Holidify.com, 2020. Accessed September 25, 2020. https://www.holidify.com/pages/dances-of-malaysia-3862.html





Azzah Sultan received her BFA from Parsons School of Design and her MFA at Washington State University. She was born in Abu Dhabi and is a Malaysian native who grew up in Malaysia, Saudi, Finland, Bahrain and has spent seven years living in America working on her artistic practice. She has had her art exhibited in The New School, S.A.D. Gallery, The Bushwick Collective, BUFU Studios, The Ely Center, Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Blackfish Gallery, Chase Gallery, Terrain 12, KMAC Gallery. She was a panelist for Muslim Women Reclaim Their Identities at Amherst College and a guest lecturer at Chautauqua Institution. She is exhibiting her solo show at Trotter & Sholer gallery, currently on view till Sept 27th at 168 Suffolk St NY. While living in New York she was a program coordinator at Triangle Arts Association and an artist assistant for Artist of Color Block. Before starting her masters she worked as a graphic designer at the Islamic Art Museum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Azzah Sultan: 
Website: azzahsultanstudio.com / Instagram: @sitisultan

Website:  https://trotterandsholer.com/ / Instagram: @trotterandsholer
Exhibition: https://trotterandsholer.com/collections/anak-dara