The Lab

The Lab is a nonprofit experimental art and performance space located in the Mission District of San Francisco.

Bessma Khalaf interviewed by Esther Willa Stilwell

Over empanadas in The Mission, I sat down with Oakland based visual and performance artist Bessma Khalaf to talk about immigrating from Iraq, burning things, and Bay Area art. Khalaf exhibited at The Lab's 2008 show, “Détourned Menu: Food in the Form of Activism.” Bessma has also exhibited at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, NY; Steven Wolf Gallery, San Francisco, CA; Southern Exposure, San Francisco, CA; Gallery Four, Baltimore, MD; 18th Street Arts Center, Santa Monica, CA and the ISE Cultural Foundation, New York, NY.  She’s also been in publications such as Zyzzyva, Artforum, the San Francisco Tribune and Baltimore City Paper.  – Esther Willa Stilwell, Summer 2016 intern at The Lab.


So, what have you been working on lately? 

Lately I have been really fascinated with landscapes and burning. I always [start with] the concept, I have a weird idea triggered by a dream or a weird thought I have and I will write it down and then kind of meditate on it and think about the best way to illustrate that idea without diluting it, working from the conclusion. [I’ll] come at it at from different perspectives and mediums. Would it work better as a sculpture or performance? Sometimes they develop into multiple works. 

Bessma Khalaf:  Old Faithful ,  2014; archival pigment print; 19 in x 18 in.; courtesy of the artist.

Bessma Khalaf: Old Faithful2014; archival pigment print; 19 in x 18 in.; courtesy of the artist.

You tend to use mediums in unconventional ways. Can you tell me more about your relationship with those mediums? 

My videos are not fancy, very still. This comes from a photography background – I think about it as a moving photo. My films tend to be silent because I want them to live with other things and not draw too much attention to them. So I like that idea and still play with it, but now I sometimes add nature soundtracks. [My photography] is really a process. I have been working a lot with collage, with old travel books. I rip out iconic places from them, just go to a crappy old bookstore, and take the very American places. I’ll burn them in ways that mimic the landscapes so it's like a controlled type of burn, obliterating these beautiful landscapes.

Bessma Khalaf:  Meadow,  2014; archival pigment print, 23 in x 20 in.; courtesy of the artist.

Bessma Khalaf: Meadow, 2014; archival pigment print, 23 in x 20 in.; courtesy of the artist.

What is your relationship to the landscapes you burn?

I’m originally from Iraq, and I moved here when the first Gulf War started. I was a 12 year old when I left. I have some images, but not landscapes. Babylon was an hour away, with beautiful ruins that were a thousand years old. I think these new pieces I have been working on are almost an act of terror on these beautiful places but they start to create these little landscapes where you can’t tell where the landscapes end and the burn begins. I love the abstraction. I don’t know, it's peaceful, new things come from it. Burning things is so cathartic. 

I want to….. wait, there are some naked men! Hello, they are waving at us. Oh, it’s naked bike riding. Make sure you use baby powder on those butts. I don’t think it looks comfortable. 


Haha! So anyway, what was it like moving from Iraq to California? 

I migrated to the place that's actually destroying the place I came from. I’m seeking safety in this place where... I don’t know, like seeking shelter at your abuser’s house. I think that's really what fuels my art making. It comes from a conflicted place, but I will never go back. My family is Catholic, so there's just no way for us to go there safely. After landing at LAX I went to a [U.S.] supermarket for the first time and I was like, holy shit there is so much food. I had never seen anything like that before – Iraq is not like that. I still get weirded out by it. Just the abundance. Food and indulgence is fascinating to me. It really is the land of plenty, but it's so over the top. 


Does that indulgence and abundance influence your work? 

I’v always been attracted to convulsive beauty. I love gross things being beautiful. So [in grad school] I made the eating video. I made the food sculpture. it was really fun. At first it was just a sculpture and then I was like--I could eat it. Then I made another one, but bigger and I took a video of me eating it. There is lots of self punishing and pushing my comfort. I want to see if I can do it. It's part of a challenge like if I can do this, I can do that. I just did a piece at Southern Exposure where I stared at a painting for 8 hours for the 8 hour work day they had. I kept on tasering it every hour. At the time there was a lot of protest in Oakland about police and guns and tasers. 


What is it like being an artist in the Bay Area? 

I have lived in the Bay Area for 11 years. Its really hard here, it's conservative if you’re not making the right kind of work or schmoozing with the right people. It’s small. Here there is a theme with work because people know it's popular. So I took a break from making actual work. I was having these ideas, but where am I going to show it? Will it just sit in my studio? There is so much money up here, but no one wants to give it to the arts. 

Bessma’s studio and popup shop in downtown Oakland.

Bessma’s studio and popup shop in downtown Oakland.

Can you tell me about the show you did at The Lab? 

The show at The Lab was all based on food, so I used chocolate. I had this weird idea of regurgitating oil because I’m from Iraq. It was kind of a joke because I was like an Iraqi oil fountain: all this black matter coming out of my mouth from above the screen that just never ends. There was a lot of cool stuff. I’m pretty sure I got drunk, but it was fun. It’s a cool space. 


Okay, one last question. When did you decide you wanted to be an artist? Why do you make art? 

I didn’t get into art until my third year of junior college.  I realized I enjoyed it so much and I was good at it. It was getting something out of me. Not spiritual, but it made me feel good. Making things with your hands, maybe because I’m a Taurus. 

Example of Kokedama fern (also referred to as "poor man's bonsai”).

Example of Kokedama fern (also referred to as "poor man's bonsai”).

Me too!

So we like making beautiful objects, functional and tactical things. When I see a beautiful chair I’m like who who did this? I touch it and i’m like, Ooooh. The thing is with my work I tend to make it beautiful somehow to hook people. It’s like my cheap trick. If you can capture their attention then they will stay. That's very American, learned from commercials. Nature is so beautiful and it is not ignored.

Oh! Lately, as I’m getting older, I am getting into more meditative shit. So I started doing these accent bonsai plants. You take them and strip the dirt from the roots... and encase the roots around this clay. You take that and wrap the clay in moss and then wrap string around it and they survive like that. I love them. I’m kind of obsessed with them. So Taurus, beautiful objects. I even have some in my shower.

scarf copy.jpg

Bessma and her partner make silk screen scarves: