“I”, 2016, Jamil Hellu. Image courtesy of the artist.
Where and how did the idea for “I” originate?
Although I am of Syrian descent, I did not learn Arabic growing up. With the war in Syria causing the tragic amount of Syrian refugees around the world, I began to think about language as a cultural foundation. While claiming my Arabic heritage in my work as a gay man, it became crucial to me to use language as a bridge to connect people.
What have you learned from the process of learning Arabic?
In the video, I am looking directly into the camera as I am listening to a native Arabic speaker. An important fact I realized is that one of the ways we learn another language is by looking at the mouth of the speaker, gradually acquiring the knowledge of how words are pronounced orally through mouth and tongue movements. As you watch the video, you can listen to my mispronunciations. That became a metaphor about the many misunderstandings that a lot of people have regarding Arab culture. In addition, learning a new language takes time. It is a complex process that requires a deep interaction and intimate relationship with someone’s culture.
What do you hope people take away from your showcase?
I wish people can connect to my work by pondering on the importance of cultural differences. Instead of racial division, there are so many ways in which we can celebrate one another without promoting political and social barriers.
What lies on the future radar for you as an artist?
Due to our current government, more than ever, my efforts as an artist is to create works that express optimism and connections between people beyond social borders. We are facing very negative times. A lot of us feel confusion and frustration. I want to continue producing works that express a sense of hope while being critically responsive to our political moment.
What is the vision that you as an educator at Stanford have for your students?
I am committed to instill in my students a strong conviction of the value of self expression. It is vital for me to educate students about the agency they can have when using tools such a photographic camera to voice their thoughts, concerns, and dreams.
About Jamil Hellu:
Jamil Hellu is a multi-interdisciplinary visual artist, whose work is a hybrid of self-portraiture and political narrative. His projects revolve largely around representations of cultural identity, particularly engaged in exploring interpretations of sexuality. Hellu has recently been selected by the Fleishhacker Foundation for the 2018 Eureka Fellowship. He was awarded the 2015-2016 Kala Art Institute Fellowship in Berkeley and was selected for the Artist-in-Residence Program at Recology San Francisco in 2014. He received the Graduate Fellowship Award at Headlands Center for the Arts and was granted a residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts. Hellu holds a BFA degree in photography from the San Francisco Art Institute and a Masters of Fine Arts in Art Practice from Stanford University, where he now teaches photography.
About the Interviewer:
Tara Chandi is SOMArts’ Communications & Gallery Events Intern. She is pursuing a Master’s in Interaction Design at the California College of the Arts. Her work is focused on designing for sustainable solutions and systemic change.