Image description: A header illustration in shades of red featuring a skull hovering before a blood-spattered mirror. End ID
Image description: A header illustration in shades of red featuring a skull hovering before a blood-spattered mirror. End ID

Illustration by Ahmed Bilal and Sidra Dahhan

The cathartic process of artistic self-reflection

The importance of writing and taking the time to reflect on one’s practice lies in the ability to resist the culture of productivity that we are constantly embracing in a place like NYUAD.

May 8, 2023

Last week I defended my thesis Illegal Alien, an unfinished project that took around a year of multiple micro-processes and stages, all my weekends in the fall and immense amounts of emotional energy. But most of all, it required a lot of love beyond what I alone could provide.
Through Illegal Alien I tried to develop a research-led art practice that explores various aspects of gendered migration. Illegal Alien interweaves artistic forms to archive Venezuela’s contemporary history while exploring the politics of agency and representation; inquires about marriage as a pathway to legality; and lastly, provides components of art activism as it proposes policy interventions to current social issues that affect Venezuelan migrant women experiences inside the United States.
While my art practice engages in research about migration, human rights and the possibilities of new forms of film representation, it also grapples with what in Spanish we call ‘migratory nostalgia,’ that constant feeling of longing or what my mind understands as haneen and saudade that I can not describe in English.
Every time I am about to leave places and people, once again, this feeling compresses in my chest and I feel the need to do something about it. Just when I feel something is unfair, I feel the need to do something. Some might think I love fighting. Well, yes but I do not do it because I like it. It is actually exhausting. Art, then, helps me communicate what my impulsive self might not be able to constantly say.
At some point, I felt that this project had become my life. And at some point it was. I felt that, especially in the Arts, projects like this involve more than intellectual engagement — it requires you to be uncomfortable and comfortable with vulnerability. It requires you to be okay with exposing parts of yourself that you are not even conscious of until you are in the process or choose to reflect on it.
I chose to write a paper about the exhibition as a whole — although I was not required to since I could only submit my Social Research and Public Policy paper — because I felt the need to write in an attempt to understand in what ways this project had changed me.
By writing my exhibition paper I realized how much migratory mourning, a feeling that I am constantly surrounded by, is the driving force of my work. But also, the overwhelming feeling that sometimes inhibits me from feeling whole. I am in my seventh year of living abroad, and even though I know where I am heading next, the idea of packing my whole life in two pieces of luggage, all over again, makes me anxiously grapple with the idea of migration without a destination. Again.
Unlike the women who I interviewed for my research, I had the privilege to ‘choose’ when to leave and was provided with a safety net during my journey. Unlike other migrants, educational opportunities in Norway, Brazil and the UAE have safeguarded me from the precarity that forcibly displaced people experience. Yet, I do mourn the uncertainty of not knowing if I will ever feel whole ever again. Especially, knowing that I will never have all the people I love in the same place.
Perhaps I am naive. What is the big deal? We are all constantly moving (not true) as the world becomes more ‘globalized.’ Some of us have the possibility of moving graciously between places while others are burdened by the immobility our passports offer as nation-states continue to tighten their borders.
Ten years ago I knew I wanted to go far from home because my surroundings overwhelmed me. But today, I am tired of escaping. Through my work, I try to carve the paths that keep me connected to a place that no longer exists and that, for many beyond myself, became a romanticized idea of a place called ‘home.’ Not because it was pretty, but because we were closer to each other. At least not thousands of kilometers away, and definitely not alone and/or isolated.
Illegal Alien has given me strength to imagine the ways in which I can contribute beyond solely condemning what I think is unfair and violent in the places I come from, the ones I have been but also the ones life will take me to.
Research-based art practice has allowed me to appreciate new forms of political engagement beyond sole logic. Instead, thinking in the ‘in-between’ can be a form of epistemic disobedience by allowing me to engage in actively rejecting the ways in which we continue to produce the same type of knowledge because we continue to use the same frameworks. In this case, my exhibition allowed me to engage in deep listening as a methodological tool to inquire beyond the text for the purpose of an argument.
As much as university is meant to be a place for learning, to me it was mostly about unlearning ideas of truth and facts I was raised with. NYU Abu Dhabi, just like any other place, is an institution that teaches you about institutionalizing practices while also connecting us with inspiring people who — although seldom recognized by the institution — have taught me the freedom to question and reject the rules and boundaries that I don’t identify with.
Because I continue to juxtapose different areas of study, today I feel confident about resisting the form, the rigid structures that implicitly reproduce inequalities of language and discourse. While acknowledging that we might never manage to completely exist outside of the norm, art practice gives us the freedom to explore ideas — even when incomplete — that might be useful to continue investigating what that new path that we might want to carve together can be. This applies whether it is epistemic, political or social. Even when we do not know what is the best approach, art allows us to imagine outside of the form.
But also, throughout my four years at NYUAD, I was grappling with the tensions between having to make and write because they both require energy, time and an intention. The importance of writing and taking the time to reflect on one’s practice lies in the ability to resist the culture of productivity that we are constantly embracing in a place like NYUAD. Through writing, we not only recognize the incredible amount of thinking and effort that is required to create, but also archive our thoughts — even when messy — which have value beyond the product that we make. Why should we not be interested in thinking about what interrupts and inspires our lives but only the results of it?
Our thoughts escape us all the time. Believe it or not, they are valuable and worth sharing, if not read by anyone, for your future self. Just as the Venezuelan women whom I interviewed profoundly changed my life because they helped me recognize what feeling motivates my work, I hope whatever motivates you and inspires you makes you write about your process.
Pamela Martinez is a Contributing Writer. Email her at
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