Essam and gilf!: Challenging the Status Quo

New York City has an ever changing art landscape. With the countless shows that go up on a weekly basis there are many topics that are explored and a wide array of artists featured in them. One such show opening this week is Art for Progress’s “Déjà vu.” This exhibition will be on display from October 30th through November 12th with an opening reception being held on Thursday evening from 6-10 pm at NOoSPHERE Gallery.

Two of the the artists in the show, Essam and gilf! are creating art in a similar conceptual style. Essam is a New York City based artist who makes work that “seeks to create conversations on both social and political issues.” Much of the work that Essam produces is in direct reaction to his time spent in the US military. gilf! is a Brooklyn based artist who is creating art with a similar political edge. gilf’s work grew out of her need to “protest the Bush administration” which turned into a larger project responding to “ the crumbling structures of society” which uses “concept specific materials to present new perspectives to her viewers.” It is in both artists push to force conversations around difficult sociocultural issues which is helping to create a new form of dialogue around important topics.

Essam was born in New York City and raised in Maine. As a child, he was exposed to the arts early on, “I had fantastic arts educators in my early years in Maine, they really helped me realize that art was was my path.” It was these early experiences with art which helped foster Essam’s visual practice. In 2003, Essam joined the US Army where he worked as a geospatial analyst.

Essam said, “The military became the means to that end, eventually paying for the lions share of my education at School of Visual Arts. It also had a huge influence on who I have become and what I now choose to make work about. It was an incredibly disenchanting experience, and I think you will find most veterans today have a similar feeling. When you risk your life in no uncertain terms for values that your actions are directly subverting it has a profound impact on your perception of yourself and your role in society, and that’s the place from which my work is created.” After serving in the army for three years, Essam eventually found his way back to New York City. In 2006, he enrolled in the Bachelor of Fine Arts program at the School of Visual Arts. At SVA, Essam began to make work about his military experience which evolved in a larger project.
Image courtesy of Essam

In 2012, Essam gained national notoriety surrounding his drone campaign series. This work helped to develop dialogue on “the foreign and domestic UAV use.” Although the drone campaign series helped to create a larger conversation around this controversial issue, it also got the artist arrested. While his scrape with the law hasn’t changed the subject matter Essam is working with, it has changed the modes in which he works.

For the “Déjà vu” show Essam created the piece Res Judicata. Essam described how the piece came about, “Res Judicata was born out of the FAA’s decision to open commercial airspace in the U.S. to a rather large number of UAV’s by 2015. I wanted to use photography to somehow represent the changing landscape that will ensue when this transition has taken effect.” Through the use of a laser projector, Res Judicata will display “a large neon drone on the ground in front of the gallery which spins slowly firing occasional projectiles.”
Image courtesy of Essam

Responding to the same set of complicated political and cultural circumstances, gilf! makes works in a related vein. In 2003, while doing a semester abroad in Florence as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, gilf! witnessed street protests against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. She said, “I watched in awe as tens of thousands of people took to the streets in protest as America invaded Iraq. Travel is always the best way to expand one’s mind and that trip crystallized so much for me in terms of politics, and humanity. I started making political work soon after those experiences.” This experience abroad help gilf! realize the kind of art she wanted to make.

As a cross disciplinary artist with strong ties to the street art community, gilf! characterizes her work in the following way, “I have worked to create new patterns of thought in the viewer. The work is starting to shift a bit though and I’m slowly recognizing the importance of the process and how that affects me and the work itself. It’s an amazing transformation to be guided by the work instead of controlling it so much.” It is in gilf’s shift towards a process based framework which is helping her to create a different kind of art.

Image courtesy of gilf!

However creating work as a female in the street art scene, gilf! has experienced sexism, “Sexism is inherent in our patriarchal societal systems. I have to be mindful of that gap between the sexes, which means nothing is promised and I have to always hustle a bit harder to be heard and seen. I was raised to always work hard which has served me well when understanding the additional hurdle of being female in a male dominated world.” While this is a very prevalent issue within today’s society, gilf! is doing her best to work past in her own way.

For the “Déjà vu” exhibit and a larger performance piece, gilf! wore a prison jumpsuit for the month of October. gilf! Described how the idea came about in the following way, “I’ve been spending time with the band The Last Internationale- an activist rock band based in LA. They’re throwing a free concert on October 30th to raise awareness around Prop 47, a proposition on the ballot in California this Election Day to lower or abolish mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses. They’re rockin prison jumpsuits for the show and asked me to create some work on them. After the idea sunk in, I wondered what kind of effect would be had by wearing a jumpsuit all month.” Through wearing a jumpsuit for the month, gilf! has interacted with people in a different way. She said “Wearing a jumpsuit everyday for a month has allowed me to interact with the general public and have all sorts of crazy discussions with strangers, get people thinking, and aware about the crumbling structures of our justice system. It’s been so educational and eye opening for me. I’m really enjoying the experience.” gilf’s performance is not helping to raise awareness about proposition 47 in California, but also about the prison system in the U.S. in general.

Image courtesy of gilf!
It is both Essam’s and gilf’s art that are asking the hard questions and is making viewers confront a variety of social realities today. By creating thought provoking work, more conversations can begin to be sparked which hopefully can led to the changes in the world both artists hope to see.

Join Essam and gilf! for an artist’s talk on November 12th from 6-8 PM at NOoSPHERE Gallery.
–Anni Irish