We had the good fortune of connecting with Safi Alia Shabaik and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Safi Alia, how has your background shaped the person you are today?
I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, just over the hill from Hollywood, so I am an authentic “valley girl.” I was born to and raised by culturally diverse parents – my father was Egyptian and my mother descends from French, Scottish and Native American bloodlines. They made cultural and ethnic diversity a part of our everyday life, not just at home, but through attending community events, through involvement in the visual and performing arts, and through first-hand exposure from traveling. By the time I hit high school, I had already visited several countries around the globe. That first-hand experience in my youth opened my eyes and heart to so much more than books ever could, and I’ve had that itch to keep traveling ever since. I hope to see every country and culture on this planet before I die.
I am drawn to people who present themselves in unusual or unexpected ways, who might be considered outcasts in their own culture, or who are considered to be the underdogs. I was born breech and have always been a little atypical so perhaps I just instinctually identify with those who have a little something (or a lot something) unusual about them. I seek community with non-conformists. My parents instilled in me an appreciation for the beauty of difference and individuality at a very young age, which continues to shape me as an adult and has heavily influenced my creative subject matter and visual voice.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
The desire to create is not one I can suppress. If I don’t express, I will wilt – so even with the desire there, that doesn’t mean it’s an easy road to produce quality work. There are definite challenges and growth spurts within the creative process … and creative blockage occurs intermittently and can feel endless at times. I just have to push through and keep creating … allow myself to make bad work to get to the next phase which is the powerful work. Everything I make is a stepping-stone in the evolution of my own body of work.
My art takes form through various mediums – usually through photography, collage, and experimental video; sometimes through sculpture, printmaking, or drawing. Throughout my life, the backbone of my work has been an exploration of identity and persona.
My photographic work expands on that with the inclusion of various subcultures, and strives to present the humanity of all people. I’m drawn to individuals who live outside of the norm and use external creative expression – such as costume, culture, ritual, alter-egos, etc. – to find acceptance and community. With subject matter ranging from the self to street to subculture to the extremely vulnerable collaboration with my father, my work investigates worlds that the viewer may never choose to enter or even know exist … worlds that might push boundaries, thresholds or be regarded as culturally unacceptable parts of life. I explore this subject matter to bring to light that, underneath it all, we are all human.
My collage work is an exploration of my subconscious as well as a study of the relationship between anatomical appropriation, objects, and culturally-infused meaning. I predominantly work in analog form, as opposed to digital manipulation. The many different parts of the collages are physically clipped from various sources and publications, mostly magazines geared toward women, so the imagery tends to implicitly explore and question gender roles and societal expectations – forms of identity. These collages often only exist at the moment in time when all of the loose-leaf parts come together. I call these “Transient Collages”. I document them with my camera in their new formation but don’t always make them permanent with adhesive, so they then get disassembled and can now be reused for future collages. In an abstract way, I think there is metaphor in working this way: the loose-leaf parts of the collage themselves mimic the search for identity that I play with in the actual imagery, but these clipped out images might never truly find their meaning (since they are never glued down) … or perhaps another way to interpret it would be that they keep experiencing new meaning and metamorphosis since they get disassembled and reused through time – much like one’s journey of shifting roles and self-definition over the course of a lifetime.
My experimental videos have been visual metaphors drawn from experiences in my own life. They are created mostly with a Fisher-Price PixelVision Camera – on occasion with a Super8 film camera – and, once again, bring us back to topics of self, identity and persona. From time to time, I create super crude stop-motion animations of certain transient collages – made in the traditional style of shooting multiple still images with my camera then animating them like a film strip or flip book.
I also create Dada-inspired poetry where I tear words and phrases from old books, place them in a cookie jar, then pull them out randomly and make meaning from the new relationships. I use them as poetry, inspiration, and, at times, in my transient collages.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
This is actually a tough question. Los Angeles is so spread out and this town offers so many incredible things … I’ll just name a few, but know there are plenty more on the list. If I had a friend visiting here’s what we’d do …
I’d definitely take my friend to the museums around town. Some highlights not to miss: Ragnar Kjartansson’s “The Visitors” and Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” at the Broad, two of my favorite installations. I could sit in either of those for hours. We’d go to LACMA for Chris Burden’s “Urban Light” and “Metropolis II” then pop into an old haunt of mine, The Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. We’d visit the Getty Center, The Hammer, MOCA, The California Science Center, Natural History Museum, the California African American Museum, The Underground Museum, Valley Relics Museum, Watts Towers, and several others. The Marciano Foundation closed but they had a beautiful Mark Bradford painting in their collection. And sadly the Annenberg Space for Photography closed as a result of the global pandemic.
I love cemeteries so I’d take my friend to Hollywood Forever to explore the grounds. Depending on the time of the year, we could potentially catch a concert in the Masonic Lodge, watch a flick (Cinespia) on the façade of the Fairbanks Gardens mausoleum, or celebrate Dia de Los Muertos there. We would visit Forest Lawn and Pierce Brothers Memorial Park.
We’d swing by Venice then take a drive up Pacific Coast Highway, cruise along Mulholland at dusk, catch a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, check out the Tesla Coil at the Griffith Observatory. We’d visit some gems of L.A. like the Bob Baker Marionettes, the Magic Castle, the Velaslavasay Panorama, the Old Historic Theaters in DTLA, and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I would have wanted to take my friend to my favorite store, Necromance, on Melrose but just found out that it too is closing due to the pandemic. Perhaps we’d watch a flick at the old Cineramadome (Arclight) or the Chinese Theater, hike up to the Hollywood Sign, and see an art performance at the REDCAT.
I’d take my friend to experience L.A’s burlesque, drag, fetish, live music and underground performance art night scenes. I’d take them to the Burgundy Room, The Situation Room, and for a quick jaunt out to Joshua Tree to see the Beauty Bubble, the World Famous Crochet Museum, Pioneertown, the Intergratron and the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Art Museum. We’d catch a class or two at Fit and Bendy, and with Empowerment in Heels. I’ve never been to the Greystone Mansion gardens, The Museum of Jurassic Technology, or OUE Skyspace, so these could be things we experience for the first time together.
There are great restaurants all over town so I’m sure we’d find some new places to discover together wherever we found ourselves at meal time. Some easy old favorites include eggplant dolmas smothered in yogurt sauce at Mantee Café, beef sukiyaki bibimbap at Gyu-Kaku, spicy tuna crispy rice at Katsu-ya, bean burritos at Henry’s Tacos, pho tai at Pho Café, Lebanese food at Carnival, and Vietnamese food at Blossom.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
It’s impossible to select just one. So many people in various stages of my life have influenced and supported me in this journey of personal growth in different ways. This is just a small cross-section:
I dedicate my shoutout to my family – my father, mother and sister; my extended family; my family of close friends – who have all provided me with unconditional love and encouragement to follow my heart down quirky paths in my search of self. I send a shoutout to my instructors in the creative arts and in general education who opened up the world for me in various ways … to my creative peers and photographic communities (including UCLA, ICP and LACP) who inspire me to push my personal work further.
I’ve been fortunate to work intimately with a handful of powerful women in the public eye who have mentored me (whether they knew it or not) and shown me how to live life by my own rules, so I send a shoutout to them: Grace Jones, Catherine Opie, Micol Hebron, Courtney Love, Britney Spears.
I send a shoutout to the local creatives around Los Angeles that I have the pleasure of documenting intimately – both individuals and subcultures – who push boundaries, break stereotypes, and challenge the status quo. I send a shoutout to all of the activists inspiring us all to be better humans and who lead the way for positive change. My network is filled with artists, performers, feminists, activists, gender non-conformists, the LGBTQ+ community, counter-culture and people who think and live outside of the box. All of these people (and others unmentioned) have influenced me in some way. Relationships and interactions shape us all.
All images © 2020 Safi Alia Shabaik. All Rights Reserved.