DUBAI: The third in our series focusing on contemporary Arab-American artists in honor of Arab-American Heritage Month in April, this week we speak to Egyptian-American artist Dahlia Elsayed.
In her fictional landscape paintings, the artist dreams up her own colorful world. With an element of fantasy, compounded by bold geometry, she creates “a sense of a new place,” she explained.
“I think about this place as something that occurs in a different time,” Elsayed tells Arab News from her base in New Jersey. “Sometimes I feel that it could be historic or it could be the future.”
In her earlier work, which she describes as “psychological maps,” a central theme she tackled was belonging — a comparison of places that were personal to Elsayed. Her body was in America, but her mind was in Egypt. “I was thinking about how do you carry these two places with you as you navigate the world,” she says.
Elsayed was born to Egyptian parents in New York, and that heritage has hugely impacted her art. “Our house was like a mini-Egypt,” she says. “Everything was decorated the way an Arab house is. Our food, our language, the smells — all of that really affected my aesthetics and my understanding of place, color, shape, and form. It’s like the soundtrack that’s playing in your head, but in a visual way.”
She still visits the buzzing streets of Cairo, where every corner — from a bakery’s signage to a display window — is a source of inspiration. “When people go to Egypt, they say that it’s so beige because of the sand. But when you look past that, it’s incredibly colorful,” she says.
Features of Arab architectural design, such as the Islamic patterns that adorn tiles and mosques, are present in her work. The resulting images are delightful and positive. The more you look at them, the more it feels as though you are contemplating natural scenery. “They will have an horizon line, for example — and then a sense of sky or land mass, and structures,” she says.
Recently, her work has gone beyond the canvas. Major organizations, such as Newark Liberty International Airport, New York’s Pennsylvania Train Station, and Hermès, have commissioned her for large-scale projects to be enjoyed by the public.
“It’s incredible that they knew about my work and that they trust me,” she says. “Having your ideas be human-scale is wild.”