Cover Azzah Sultan (Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk)

Parsons School of Design graduate Azzah Sultan reflects on art's ability to bring people together regardless of race, religion or background

“I always look back at the art I made during my undergrad years and go, 'Wow, I was really young and really angry',” laughs 26-year-old Azzah Sultan. The daughter of diplomat Dato’ Syed Sultan Idris, Azzah’s childhood spanned across countries, from Abu Dhabi where she was born to Malaysia, Finland, Bahrain, and Ireland. At 16, she moved to New York, later acquiring a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Parsons School of Design.

“Back then, I was frustrated with the way I was viewed as a Muslim woman. I felt like I constantly had to make work about being Muslim, and I started feeling trapped, like I was in a box or label, and that was all I had to talk about. At one point, I knew this was counter-intuitive and in a way, it sort of fed into the tropes and stereotypes surrounding me. So I started making work about my upbringing, ethnicity, nationality, cultural background—all the things that were confusing to me. I started using art as a way to navigate this world and understand it a bit more.”

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In 2016, Azzah collected head scarves from Muslim women across the US and sewed them together to create the American flag for her Home Sweet Home installation at The Bushwick Collective Art Exhibition in New York. Challenging the notion that Muslim Americans were somehow less American because of their religion, her work caught the attention of Jenna Ferrey, one of the founders of boutique art firm Trotter & Sholer, where Azzah eventually had her first solo show titled Anak Dara which incorporated batik prints from Penang in 2020.   

"I make it a point to work exclusively with galleries and people that are more open and not very exclusive. I tend to stay away from galleries that see me as a trope and use my work for hype," adds Azzah, who also has a master's in fine arts from Washington State University. Currently, Azzah is busy with her residency at The Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minnesota. 

As a Southeast Asian artist in the US, how did your ethnicity affect how your work was perceived?

At Parsons School of Design and Washington State University, it wasn’t uncommon to encounter specific situations where my race and femineity were constantly highlighted, like they were the only things people could talk about with my art.

I also noticed that whenever I would use photos of my face in my work, I would always get comments about the way I looked, mostly from men.

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What changed things for you?    

Hearing those comments made me very uncomfortable. Then I thought, what if I remove my face from my artwork? The first piece I did after that was Memasak, a video of me listening to an actual recording of my mother’s instructions on how to make sambal. Her hands can be seen in the background showing me how to make it.

That project was very freeing for me. I no longer felt like I had to present myself in a certain way. I didn’t have to think about how I looked in the video or how people would perceive me. I also didn’t have to think about the way men would sexualise me as well.

How does your Malaysian upbringing inspire your work and your world view?

The great thing about being Malaysian is we come from a place that’s extremely diverse and mixed. That’s something I love but something I only came to terms with probably very recently. My art is something that helps me figure that out. And I’m not talking about diversity in terms of ethnicity and race alone. I’m talking about diversity in terms of my upbringing, the different places I’ve seen and the people that I surround myself with. As Malaysians living abroad, I think it’s so important to surround ourselves with people who are different from us, not just with other Malaysians.

What’s the most encouraging feedback you’ve ever received as an artist?

The best feedback was from a mentor in grad school, and this was at a time when I was very confused about my art and second guessing myself. He told me that I didn’t have to give away all of my magic. I didn’t have to give away all of my secrets. Sometimes as artist of colour, when we make art, we feel the need to over-explain our art in order to make it more accessible. But sometimes when that happens, a part of your creativity dies in your work and so does the mystery.

Would you say your work is inspired by Malaysia?

Honestly, no. As I said before, Malaysia is diverse and for me to make art inspired by an entire country is kind of crazy. Not all Malaysians are the same, and that’s ok. I’m inspired by my upbringing. I’m inspired by my relationship to my family, by the batik fashion shows my mother used to put on or the way my siblings and I would make up stories as kids. I’m inspired by my relationship with my culture. So it’s very personal. I’m not trying to represent an entire group of people, but I’m trying to represent specific moments in my history, my past and my present as well.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a project around the theme of memory. I’m obsessed with this specific phrase, the fabrication of memory. The way memory changes over time, and how every time you remember something, it starts to distort and move away from its original context and reality. I’m doing a series of performance pieces, using archived video clips which my dad recorded of me and my siblings in the early 2000s. So I’ll be creating videos that are very specific to those memories, and I’ll distort them by adding videos I’ve recently filmed, subsequently creating new ‘memories’ from those older films.

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