Muna Malik: A Fluid Migration

Anxiety, fear, dread, worry: multiply all of those things by a thousand and you might just scratch the surface of an artists’ daily emotional weight. A prime example? Los Angeles-based multidisciplinary artist Muna Malik. She candidly talks about her nerves and her trepidations both in and out the studio, holding nothing back in her expression of simultaneous sadness and hope in absorbing the events surrounding us in the modern, unstoppable world. Born in Sanaa, Yemen, Malik began formulating her practice in Minneapolis, surrounded by a vibrant Somali-Yemeni immigrant community. She received her MFA from the Roski School of Art and Design (USC) this year, but has been active as a working artist for over a decade. Her work has been exhibited at The Parrish Art Museum (New York), The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (Los Angeles), Kavi Gupta Gallery (Chicago), and The University of Minnesota (Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Minneapolis).

We spoke to Malik about her first UK-based exhibition this past October, 45 (Between The Seams) in London at PM/AM, curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah and Paul Anthony Smith. She reveals not just the beauty of expanding her practice, but also the value of always commanding a window seat on a flight.

Muna Malik
Photo credit: Daniel N. Johnson


So how did you begin your journey as a visual artist then? Did it begin young, or did it begin when you came to LA?

It began young. I think the first medium or practice was just around photography. I lived in Minneapolis (Minnesota), and I managed to save up enough money to buy this really terrible point-and-shoot, which I wished I had saved. Just taking photos around the city of Minneapolis. I met a really incredible artist named Mohamud Mumin: a photographer based in Minneapolis who now runs a gallery called Soomaal House of Art. He’d heard about my photography and was like, “I think you’re talented. Do you want to try and put something together for a show at the Minneapolis College Art and Design (MCAD)?” At which point, I was pretty terrified. That was my first foray, and I got to show some photographs that I had been taking that meant a lot to me. But at the same time, I was just painting for myself. I come from a fairly conservative Muslim family. So, rather than sketching people, I found my way into abstraction. It wasn’t necessarily breaking rules around figurative painting, but I still did [it] anyway, I think. Painting was always more of this personal practice, something that was closer to me, and photography was an opportunity to express how it’s feeling. Minneapolis is big, first-generation Somali immigrant [community], but also [with] tons of different immigrant communities finding their home in Minnesota, first. I was also grappling with being in the States, trying to understand where I fit [in]. Culturally, I was Middle Eastern. Now, in a predominantly Somali community, trying to figure it out. Also simultaneously learning about American culture, blackness, and everything having to do with the landscape in the US. It was a melting pot of anxiety and the issues.

You must have continuously questioned if you fit in. Having to melt together all of these disparate, but somehow tethered, identities.

One thousand percent. I think it’s always a lot of questions. The beauty in Minnesota is you can find community in that. There’s a lot of people are asking questions and trying to find where they fit.

Are those questions hurtful, or are they helpful?

That’s a great question. I’m not sure. I think it’s a mix. With everything happening in 2020 with George Floyd, I think people have a little bit better of a view into the inequalities and equity issues that exist in Minneapolis, specifically. I think there’s a term, “Midwestern nice.” There’s an expectation of safety, everyone’s chill and chatty. In reality, there’s still a lot of clear, overlying issues that exist, there.

I’m familiar with this nagging – not a stereotype, but a personality trait of the Midwest. Grievances, concerns, or deep wounds within immigrant communities are more external. White communities tend to be more internalised. Does that sound about right?

Sounds about right, yeah. There’s a quiet grievance, where there’s clearly something. Due to interpersonal or social workings, it’s not as clear as it is in the South, you know? That doesn’t necessarily make it better. I think it’s just a different kind of tension.

Maybe less vocal, but no less dangerous.

As we’ve witnessed two very public shows of police brutality. There’s so much more than that.

You have this incredible fluidity in your practice: a serenity in the types of lines and types of movement that you capture. They seem to be a kind of counter to the amount of aggression that you’re shown in your day-to-day. You’re perceiving it as a form of either external or internal aggression. But your paintings don’t show it. Does that mean that your work is more authoritative? Is it tactile expression?

It’s a working through. I’m really fortunate in having a multidisciplinary practise and that depending on how I’m feeling, maybe painting isn’t always the right medium for expressing that. Oftentimes, by the time I paint, I’ve already written for quite a bit. I have, maybe, overthought what I’m trying to express, and so the movement becomes more of a process of…actually, the movement becomes processing and not necessarily from a place of a cathartic emotional release, but more of a work through. If that makes sense. I like the interplay between like bold brushstrokes and more of the chaotic feeling movements and then coupling that with those linear, very direct lines that meet at certain points and sometimes will turn into forms themselves or other times just kind of live in space. And kind of the relationship between those, I think a lot of people hopefully can relate to.

I always have to have the window seat when I’m flying, doesn’t matter what time of day. It’s consistent, just so that sometimes, if possible, I can look out the window and see aerial landscapes. It’s something that I can remember back to like my first time on a plane coming to the States, and now moving forward it’s a constant, a comfort in it. But being able to see those manmade, linear lines that cut through entire communities and landscapes while still simultaneously seeing really natural typographies and texture in terms of plants and agriculture pushing through and past that. It’s much harder to see more natural forms of that in the US, because everything has been so cut up, or planned over, or over-processed. So that takes away a bit, although that breaks down when you get to the mountains, if you’re going over the Rockies. That’s something I’ve always unknowingly obsessed over, it finds its way back into the work.

I’ve always been interested in the way that architecture speaks to either resolutions of history, conflicts, or active forms of hostility. It can also be loving, open. It’s ironic to me that a lot of religious buildings, especially in the Mediterranean world, are places of great passion and great care. Public spaces tend to be more hostile. What’s your relationship to the type of architecture that you’re surrounded by on a daily basis?

Right now, I’ve been struggling with it a bit, living in Los Angeles. I have a live-work studio in on the edge of the Arts district, so I’m surrounded by manufacturing in order to be able to afford a living as a working artist. The architecture around me is austere. Also, Los Angeles deals with a considerable amount of houseless-ness, so seeing so many without any forms of safety or protection adds to the feeling of this environment. I think my more close-to-home relationship to architecture is a bit disconnected. I’m not inspired by the architecture in Los Angeles in the way that I am when I travel, or even go back home. I spent the summer in Kenya working on this, hoping to be a five-year video installation process. The project grant wouldn’t allow me to go to Somalia, but I managed to experience Somali diaspora communities that have now made their own lives in in Kenya and exist there in a really special way. In Kenya – a developing country, or a country that’s in this constant change – you’re seeing what was really beautiful, old architecture from the mosques to other places of worship. You also see colonial architecture from the British, that holds a lot of history. What was interesting, though, were these really bland squares. I never know how to describe these buildings, but the prefabricated, blocky buildings. It brings about the idea that like because people are going towards more “economical” or “cost-saving” architecture, it completely strips an entire industry of life and of character. Maybe the public space is becoming more and more sterile, and some art institutions are taking the space of what was the less-hostile architecture.

Is there a point where you can, at least, balance on two feet, if its in a studio, or onsite creating a project? Where is it that you feel most steady?

To be frankly honest, I wish I could say it was the studio, but it’s not. This is probably the least productive I’ve felt in quite some time. I think it does have to do with all we’re going through, like a collective mourning. It’s the geopolitical situation. [The] economic downturn that’s happening; I’m witnessing so many people struggling. So, the studio has not become the solace that it once used to be. In some conversations that I’ve had with a lot of artists, it’s hard. It’s almost impossible to shut off the worry, or the anxiety, or the fear about what’s happening in the world. The complete lack of control; we could all wake up tomorrow and be in some major World War. It’s weird to think that that’s possible. What I’ve been trying to do in order to get back to some level of a balance is just spending a lot of time in nature. I’m really privileged being able to drive 30 minutes out of the city, and I’m just walking amongst trees. I can hear nature in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to if I was in New York, that I kind of appreciate. That’s been the exit opportunity for finding calm. A lot of my paintings right now are just sitting unfinished. It’s also just writing, as well. Finding other modes of expressing when physical production isn’t possible.

Muna Malik
Mapping Flow (2023)
Oil, charcoal, oil pastel, soft pastel
67″ x 65″
Courtesy of the artist


Do you find that your writing takes shape sort of on the tail end of producing other types? Or is it happening all simultaneously?

I think it’s happening simultaneously. Paint takes a long time to dry so in between the painting I’ve gotten some incredible book recommendations. That guide, thought process, and then I just free-write to help support them. The book I’m reading right now is called Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture (by Kevin Everod Quashie). I think it’s one of the most important books for artists to read. I got it as a recommendation by Rashid Johnson on a studio visit, and it’s a really simple concept: it asks you a fairly easy question like, ‘What were you making when you didn’t have these external pressures and the need to produce for a thing?’ For me, they were the fun, abstract paintings that I didn’t have pressure around, and I find myself going back to those and making even sketches of them as a way to reset.

How did you find your way to the PM/AM exhibition? How did that come about?

I have known Larry [Ossei Mensah] now for a few years, but I it’s probably even been close to five. We initially met at the Derek Addams opening, his very first opening with UTA, which feels like a very long time ago. Five or six years, at least. So, we met there and have been in similar spaces. I’m a big fan of Paul’s work, so when Larry reached out with an opportunity to show work and contact about the overall objective of the exhibition, it felt fully in line with what I’ve been working on. It was just an amazing opportunity to be able to work with an artist who I really, really appreciate and respect. I think Larry has been doing an incredible job in terms of supporting young artists and old, giving opportunities where oftentimes they’re overlooked. I think it was connecting two really strong people. I’ve never shown in London before, I haven’t shown in Europe, technically, so it was also an opportunity to be able to explore a place I haven’t gotten a chance to spend enough time in. I might be doing a residency in Berlin next year with PM/AM, which is really exciting, to be able to get out of this landscape for a long period of time I think will also be important and needed.

Larry and I had dinner with my father in a tiny Italian restaurant just north of West Palm Beach, about ten years ago. We met during Art Week in Miami. The funniest thing ever was, as Larry was sitting next to me in a booth, my father sat opposite, he crinkled his eyes asking, “You’re a what? A curator?” He’d never heard of the job title in his life. It was really amusing. Trying to explain it to a half-Polish, half-English neurologist? I said, “Dad, curators are a thing, I promise.”

You’re describing my whole experience being back in Kenya. I brought back a bunch of unusable Somali money and every time I was trying to do an exchange there, they would be like, ‘Why do you want this?’ And I’d explain that I’m an artist and it’ll turn into something that I’m working on.

It’s incredible how vocabulary disappears when you cross over certain borders, or into certain rooms. What, for you, is missing in the public discourse of contemporary art? What could there be more of?

I really want more engaging, conceptual, not so commercial art. I understand the need to sell, and the marketplace is a thing. But what if the selling still happened behind the scenes, in the backroom, and painters could paint. The gallery space is the exhibition space, to create room for installations or sculptures or the crazy ideas that we all clearly have. Some artists’ salons, or inviting artists over to talk. Everyone has crazy ideas about the thing that they want to make, but how is it going to exist in the world? The only way is if you get institutional support, and that really only goes to established mid-career/late career artists.

Muna Malik
Blessing of the Boats: River To River (2020)
Mirrored acrylic, origami-style
15′ x 7′ x 4′
Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) co-presented with Battery Park City Authority, New York (New York)
Courtesy of the artist

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