“I believe that forms are capable of continuing or starting a conversation.”
Iman Issa’s work is driven by her intense interest in history and her insistence on questioning the preconceptions that govern knowledge. She asks how we come to know a place, an object, or a piece of history; how memory intersects with understanding; and how imagination can help us to radically re-envision what we think we know. “In art,” Issa has said, “you can show someone a chair and say it’s a table, and they might believe you. The magic is in the possibility that the chair is both unique to itself and that it can signal a lot more besides.”
For her series Heritage Studies (2015–present), Issa begins her process in encyclopedic museums, where she takes walks, gravitating toward ancient objects that strike her as resonant. She takes notes and makes sketches based on her observations, particularly noting the scope and nuance of the stories told by the museum in its joining of seemingly simple historic fragments with short pieces of interpretive text on their origin, date, location, and symbolism or ideological function. For Issa, these elements also tell a related story about how an individual object travels from its place of origin to end up a historical artifact, on display in a specific vitrine within a particular museum.
What is generally understood as an activity of leisure and contemplation—an aimless stroll through a museum—is for Issa the origin of inspiration. She returns to her studio with her notes and sketches, and conceives a new object and text pairing that responds to and interprets what she has seen and read. The resulting work is a form of knowledge deconstruction, challenging the assumptions we make about the transparency of historical evidence.
The Heritage Studies combine Issa’s sense of beguilement in the museum with designed and built forms. In some ways these objects seem familiar: they are displayed in typical museum fashion, in vitrines or on white pedestals. However, the artist tends to incorporate elements that can trigger a sense of mystery. These can include motifs that recall religious practice, such as the crescent moon, which was adopted as a symbol of Islam during the Ottoman Empire. Cradled in a small white box, the symbolism of the crescent is displaced, hidden, safeguarded—or perhaps reinvented.
Note: Opening quote is from Iman Issa and Andrew Weiner, “Iman Issa by Andrew Weiner.” BOMB, July 15, 2017. https://bombmagazine.org/articles/iman-issa/.
Rebecca Lowery, art historian, 2018