Marwa Abdul-Rahman

View of Marwa Abdul-Rahman’s “Eternal Return,” 2019.

The six sculptures that comprise Marwa Abdul-Rahman’s “Eternal Return,” on view at Wilding Cran Gallery in Los Angeles through July 27, are at once grotesque and helpless. Bursting with resin, zippers, and buttons, they look like alien monsters suspended by rebar and twine. While she was trained as a painter, Abdul-Rahman’s work has become increasingly sculptural during the last half decade. Constructing these sculptures, she began to question the nature of boundaries, freedom, and form as they are known politically, existentially, and aesthetically. Her objects are allegories with inner lives. Here, she describes the clairaudient communicative process that brought them alive.

THE SIX SCULPTURES IN THIS EXHIBITION are made out of rags, paint, gesso, resin, wax, and epoxy. The rags are the discards from my mom’s clothing drive for Syrian refugees: Whatever is too soiled, worn out, or stained is sorted for disposal. I started using these materials in my last series of paintings and sculptures for my show “Open That Shit Wide, Let Me See How Big Your Mouth Is” at MaRS Gallery in 2016. I liked taking something considered trash and manipulating it into abstract sculpture that is still at times identifiable as clothing. In these six new pieces, you can see a zipper or a button, for example, but it takes a while to identify these clues.

I’m interested in materials in general. Sometimes I make my sculptures in the backyard and roll them in dirt to stick on stones. I like forcing materials together that don’t necessarily fit. All of the sculptures, save the suspended one, are supported by cement blocks and rebar. I started making this group of works in 2017, during the intensification of the civil war in Syria. I was constantly confronted by images of collapsed buildings, where all that remained was bent rebar and scattered cement. Rebar is used everywhere to give structure and strength to buildings, yet it’s this simple rod you can buy at the hardware store. I was drawn to its rust and textured veins, so I brought some of it into my studio, just to have around. While making these sculptures, I eventually realized they wanted to stand. I had rebar, and I had cinder blocks, so I pushed them together and then tied them up. Trump had also just been elected, and he talked a lot about building the wall and the strength of rebar: “We’re gonna get rebar. The wall will be indestructible!” So I guess the material was just in my consciousness.

While making the various sculptural forms and attaching them to the rebar, I bound them with wire and twine. This served as a form of bondage and repression, as well as a form of containment, protection. Always, it’s both. For these pieces to stand, for them to have form, they need to be tied up in certain ways for balance. Wrapping the sculptures was also a means of imposing a limit—otherwise, they could spread out forever, like a favela. I’ve thought about making them even larger, and perhaps eventually I will. But in this case, and always, things need a limit. Life depends on constraints. As human beings, we have all kinds of limitations. We have to breathe oxygen; we need water and food. To exist in a certain space, you have to accept its limitations. These bindings are the limitations the sculptures need to exist.

The sculptures are made of magic, like fetishes: monstrous, beautiful, caught in a state of becoming that’s close to both birth and death. According to Nietzsche, we always come back and make the same decisions over and over again. I was thinking about the sculptures as iterations of themselves in different forms or instances of return. I believe that things are eternal and that, in a sense, birth and death are very close to each other. Both involve sliding through boundaries. There’s always a moment when things switch states or cross a boundary, and that space has always interested me.

I have been clairaudient all my life—able to hear things outside the usual frequencies. Recently, I’ve embraced it and dedicated myself to listening, to trusting and following the voices I hear. But this is the first time I’ve allowed this practice to enter my artwork in a deliberate and conscious way. Being in conversation with the invisible is like blurring a reality boundary in my daily life. I feel like these sculptures made themselves. I’d go into the studio and just sit and listen, and slowly they’d start talking to me. Often, I’d put on a piece of classical music and let it loop, then I’d be better able to hear them. I would look around and see which piece was talking to me, and I would speak back. “OK, what do you need?” And I would be told, “I need rope,” “I need to stand up,” “This needs to be taken off me!” Even at the end, while I was painting—and in a sense, I see these sculptures as paintings—I felt them guiding my hands to certain colors or tubes. I would hear whispers of life through the materials. It’s as though they willed themselves into this world: “Cut here; bind there.” “Build paper here.” “I want to stand. I am strong enough to stand.” “I need help. I am going to fall.” “I cannot breathe—pull the flap off of me!”

Everything is always here. Just as in making the sculptures, in life every mark that you’ve made or received, every difficult thing, every easy thing, everything you’ve ever gone through remains with you and forms you as a human being. Making these works helped me walk with that knowledge and truly understand it.