Interview between Amy Boone-McCreeesh and Suldano Abdiruhman in her Philadelphia studio
Where are you from – How long have you been in Philadelphia and your current studio?
Where I’m from is a loaded question. Usually I say I’m from Baltimore because it’s where I grew up. Baltimore really is my hometown, but I was born in Ramah, NM. I’ve been back and forth to New Mexico in the past few years and it’s really given me context for understanding my own work. My parents left a year after I was born, but I feel a deep emotional and spiritual connection to that place. I grew up in Baltimore and St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands for a couple years. I’ve been in Philly for three years and in this house two of those three years. This studio is very new. I’ve only been here about a week.
You just closed a project at Vox Populi in Philly, can you talk a little about that?
The show was called Please Save Our Earth!, it was about the effects of the fashion industry on Climate change. The fashion industry is one of the largest contributors to the climate crisis, which a lot of people do not realize. This actually includes what we understand as “sustainable fashion” at this point because of it’s excess. We often forget or don’t engage with that reality because it’s not methane or car exhaust, but whether you go thrifting or to the mall you are faced with a fraction of the incredible amount of clothing in the world. The reality is there is a supply chain behind each garment, a person whose hands have touched each piece of clothing in your closet even if it’s not marketed as “handmade”. So I was thinking about how we, people who work with textiles or fashion on a small scale can work more sustainably and what that word actually means in practice.
The fashion show was a culmination of the exhibition and a way to give folks the chance to see the garments in motion. I haven’t made much in the past year and it’s been really hard to engage with my practice, so this show was a great push to get back into my studio. I need accountability or I can’t do it. I showed work from my archive, one new piece, and one small installation.
It’s funny because I never considered myself a garment maker or fashion designer, but I do work with fiber and so I have a responsibility to engage with the politics of clothing. There are many younger designers really thinking about sustainability in a present way. It’s not a what if question, but a when question. There will be a point at which buying is obsolete. We have to rethink the way we understand clothes as a survival technique. The sea levels are rising and polyester isn’t going to save us, we need transformative materials. There’s some amazing work being done by folks who are at the intersection of art, tech, and speculative fiction. This is the work around garment making that I find interesting because it might actually save our lives.
How have you been coping, in the studio and out, during the pandemic? Anything that is helping you get through?
It’s been hard for sure. I feel like I’ve definitely been really blessed because I’ve had a really stable home space. I had roommates and was living with a partner throughout the pandemic, so I was in the company of people the whole time. This offset the reality of total isolation. I was also working in person for a good chunk of the pandemic doing commercial interior finishing and plastering, which is a job you can’t do remotely. I took this job because I wanted to do something physical and feel my body and have a kind of tangible progress. I’d just graduated and I had no idea where I was going. I needed financial stability, but also wanted to feel like I was working toward something even if it meant starting over every day. I had that job for a little over a year and then quit during the pandemic.
I think often about people who work in construction, maintenance, or any kind of service job–there’s nothing you can do. You have to go to work. Those jobs are the literal gears of our cities, and many people are just realizing that now when those integral parts of our system break down. I quit during the pandemic because I had to think about the safety of the people I lived with and I also had the luxury of being able to quit. I was really reckoning with that because the anxiety of having to be out in the world when we knew nothing about the virus was just too much. That early period of the pandemic chaos and unknowing was super scary, but it was interesting to see what parts of people it brought out around me. It was humbling and terrifying.
After I quit my job, I did nothing for a couple months which was great, but then I realized I couldn’t go back to doing a 9 – 5. Our generation is broken because we’ve seen that we can survive not subscribing to that. You clock in just to be clocked in. And just thinking about that arbitrary structure–its at best not useful and at its worst just a method of intellectual, physical and creative control.
I was playing with the idea of starting my own small business. Listening to stories of folks who built brands, businesses, studios and I figured “Why can’t I do that?”. It was just a matter of what I wanted to build. I was at a point where I wasn’t consistent with my studio practice because I had to survive and I hated that compromise. I’m not a gallery artist, meaning I dont bring in my income from my art making but I’m committed to building a life around my studio practice because it sustains me spiritually and emotionally. It felt like a now or never, but being in the pandemic weirdly gave me the confidence to start taking agency over my own life.
I was talking with my friend Bokeum, who also went to MICA as a Fiber major, about maybe starting a business, sort of on our own timelines. She’s an amazing garment and textile worker and has incredible technical skills, as well as business experience. I have these grandiose plans for a lifestyle shop/exhibition space so I suggested we do something together. So we started this project called Holsol, which has kind of been a way for us to give ourselves and our friends a platform to make things. The Vox show was a perfect push for me to get back into my own practice. People need an outlet, I need an outlet. Selling my own work at my store or selling at a gallery though are two very different hats. It’s very obvious that being a gallery artist isn’t going to allow me to live. I will do it if I’m interested in the concept or connecting with other artists in a show, but really it’s about a push to make more work so people don’t forget who I am. It doesn’t financially or spiritually sustain me. So that’s why I was thinking about how I can build a life to sustain myself–financially and emotionally and spiritually, and to pull my community into it as well. So the pandemic really made me realize that the 9 – 5 option was not for me, I want something more.
You’ve always had such a tactile sensitivity, specific color palette, and soft aesthetic; a style that is specific to you. How do you make formal decisions (conscious or unconscious) in form, color, material, etc. ?
There is an intuitive part of my practice, almost a kind of channeling, but there is also a specific kind of affect that I’m referencing all the time and I don’t know where it comes from. But I will say that going to New Mexico for the past couple of years, even though I didn’t grow up there, there’s something about being there that feels incredibly familiar. Being in people’s homes where every object looks like it’s lived there forever–the domestic has always been really present in my work, or just a feeling of vastness in the landscape. This desire to place or orient myself. In terms of color and pattern, being in the southwest weirdly makes a lot of sense to my work even though I’ve grown up in the city my whole life.
Choosing color often comes directly from nature. I suppose I’m generally not interested in the artificial, that is not to say I’m not interested in the man-made. I am simply interested in objects and material with history, things that have lived. If I’m outside in the woods or on the street and see a color or pattern or arrangement of objects that makes sense to me that is what shows up in my studio practice. There’s a lot of observing and gathering that’s going on all the time and it just filters through. I’ve found that the longer I make things, the more self referential my work becomes. To me, it feels like building a vocabulary or a world. Language is something I’m constantly working though. For me, everything’s a metaphor. If I’m trying to understand my connection to communication, I’m going to make bricks because I feel like bricks are a foundational tool. I have to start from the beginning and work my way up. I’m interested in human connection so I make textiles because it’s one of our oldest crafts and ways of communicating with each other.
You have another collaborative project, Holso Studio, how long have you been doing it and what type of work do you do together?
I run it with Bokeum Jeon who also went to MICA. She’s an incredible textile artist and garment designer. And Eloise Parisi who does our creative content production and photo/videography. So the three of us are in the core group, but we work with other people all the time.
We started in September of 2020, with a digital artist market. It was really wild, I’d pitched this loose business idea to Bokeum and she was like let’s do it and in a month the artist market was in full swing. Neither of us had experience in hosting an event like this, but we figured an outlet for folks to make some money in the absence of physical artist markets could be successful. We reached out to 14 artists we knew and invited them to contribute a few pieces to sell. We picked everything up from Baltimore and Philly, photographed, marketed, designed and fulfilled every order. It was chaotic but it was so much fun!
It was quite successful and people were excited to be seen and have a space to make something. Because we were working with folks we already knew, there was so much trust there already. As much work needed to go into it, there was just as much care and support from the folks we were working with. Part of it was also a fundraiser and raffle which gave us a bit of financial cushion to get started.
Afterward, we realized the potential of this project. We could either move forward with this or move on and do our own thing. So we decided to move forward with it! It’s really transformed since then and in March we decided to make it an LLC. At this point, we’re a studio with artist collaborations, handmade garments for the store, and we will stock artist-made home goods. It’s great because we get to pick who we work with.
As a group, we also wanted to think about how to prioritize rest–and by that I simply mean room to be a human being rather than constantly grinding things out. That kind of mindset has taken a toll on my body, my mental health, and the way I think about my work.
Collaboration as a conceptual place to work from was a way for the spotlight to not be just on us. When you’re working as a collective the labor is distributed, and when you fail it’s not just your fault. Building that into our foundation means that scaling up is way less intense. When we move away from the individual, there’s just infinite room for possibility. When you’re the person who is telling yourself what to do, failure, error, success and progress become way more malleable. It becomes a spectrum and less of a moral binary of good and bad. There’s only three of us, so we make those calls together, but the simple choices of being able to take breaks or rest when we feel overwhelmed is alone incredibly freeing.
Everybody needs to feel and experience that, and have the agency to choose what you do throughout your day. I want to keep that as my life practice, not just with studio or work. If I need to sit down, just sit down. If I need to eat, I can eat! There’s a lot of care and acknowledgement that we’re human beings. Because we’ve been socialized to prioritize the individual, we forget that many other cultures around the world have lived communally and prioritize the well being of the group. The culture of the US is obsessed with “I’m going to get mine and I don’t care about anyone else.” The pandemic really showed us the seriousness of that statement, quite literally against life or death.
What projects are you working on now, or what hopes do you have for the future?
I feel like I’m really at an emergent place in my practice where I have a lot of energy to start making again after a hiatus for almost a year. I can move in any direction. I’m feeling incredibly activated by my new studio space. I’ve been really engaging with performance and poetry lately, which have been two things I funnily enough hated my whole life because they’ve felt inaccessible to me. Despite my aversion to both of these media, they show up in my art making without my consent. I’ve felt pushed to explore, so I’m looking forward to reading more poetry and performance studies this summer.
When I went to New Mexico most recently, I traveled to participate in my friend Nikesha Breeze’s solo show Four Sites of Return in Santa Fe. Part of the show was a performative work about Black ancestral caretaking, reclamation of self, ancestral veneration and death and rebirth. I was traveling with a group of seven other people with whom I had varying closeness to. The action of participating in this performance quite literally changed my life. There was an unlocking of a door in me of having the agency and responsibility to perform and by proxy trust others. The other people I went on the trip with are amazing artists/thinkers/beings and so we started talking about how we can begin doing performative work together. We were thinking a lot about world building and agency and how much power we actually have to direct our own lives. So that trip at the end of this pandemic was pretty much like, well I can do anything now. I’m excited about this new world we’re coming into. I’m not interested in monetizing skills, but leaning into desire and having the possibility to build a life around it. And we all have the power to do that.