Air Cycle 9 Highlight: Rhonda Khalifeh
How did you first get interested in garment making?
I felt like my needs weren’t being met and that I wanted to make and design clothes for myself. I grew up in a Muslim family and I observed a dress code of sorts. From the age of 13 to 23, I decided to wear the Hijab. It was my choice and a positive experience, although I don’t wear it anymore. So on a basic level, my interest in garment making started out as a desire for greater options. I feel that the industry has caught up a little – at least on a basic consumer level. People and brands are more aware today that some women choose to cover their hair and that those women also make choices related to what they wear. You can see companies now like H&M targeting Muslim women as a demographic. And there are more legitimate efforts for inclusivity that you can see pushed forward by smaller brands or design labs. But when I was younger, I feel like this really wasn’t the case.
My technical entryway into sewing was quilting. My mom had signed me up for classes when I was a kid. After I had taken a couple of quilting classes then I moved onto garment making classes. I got more serious about those. I took a couple of classes at FIT when I was 14, and I shadowed a seamstress the next summer. Not too long after that I started to think about what it meant to pursue this as a career or as a lifestyle. There’s no one in my family who has pursued art, in a professional sense. Even that idea was really foreign to me – that you could choose to do that and live off of being an artist or being a designer. I sort of had to circle back to it later in life.
What was your trajectory like as an artist?
When I decided that I wasn’t interested in entering the fashion industry, I became really interested in textiles. They were still related to dress and filled that need of something that I was wearing and couldn’t always find on the market. I’m thinking about head scarves to be specific. After undergrad I decided I wanted to pursue art more seriously. I had a full time job, but I was taking continuing ed classes at SVA. I took this one course they offered, screen printing for textiles, and I’ve been working with or through textiles since. I started amassing a lot of textiles, and I started thinking I should make something with it, which brought me back to clothing. I had also taken one class at Cooper Union with Eric Hibit. I was fresh out of undergrad and one of the lectures he gave us mentioned Sheila Hicks. That really opened my eyes to topics of materiality and fiber, and artists who use textiles as a medium. From there, I started doing my own research. I eventually ended up pursuing an MFA at Cranbrook in the Fiber department studying under Mark Newport. Those two years at Cranbrook were incredibly important to my work. The past 10 months at TAC have allowed me to continue to build on my studio practice in new ways.
Throughout all this, has the process or technique central to your work been sewing, textile design?
I would say recently it’s been less heavy on the textile production side and definitely more heavy on the sewing and garment making side. There’s a lot that goes into it, especially with this interview process, which has been taking up most of my time. There’s all sorts of material research that I do and I also like to draft my own patterns – that’s another component that goes into the mix. I’ve been mostly working on this project, where I’ve been making clothes for people.
You were doing some painting, can you talk about some of the idea behind that work?
Mixed media, collage, and paintings are one part of how I process materials; textiles, print design, pattern design, and garment making are another. Where I see all of them intersecting is that I’m concerned with surface. I look at surface as anything that can be dressed. Even when I’m working with a canvas, it’s a surface that I’m dressing or manipulating, and I have no formal training in painting. When I went to Cranbrook, I deliberately left painting behind. I wanted to focus on working on a new set of materials and to challenge myself to push away from that. When I left Cranbrook, I really wanted to paint so badly, just to throw down some paint. That’s how these works came around.
My understanding of working with different material properties and what I’m expressing, even when it’s totally abstract, definitely expanded a lot when I was at Cranbrook. I started working on some canvases when I got back, and they’re sort of my break from sewing. It’s a good way for me to recycle, I have a lot of dyed fabric I never end up using, bags of scraps of wool, and I just use them and see what happens. It’s a nice way for me to do something a lot more intuitive, and think about materials and reincorporate them into purely visual works.
How has your work changed since your residency?
I think this is the closest I’ve ever ventured towards social practice just by nature of working with group of participants. it’s more about the process of communication and interaction than it is about the final product because I’m not getting the final product. The participants are more invested in the product more than I am. In that way, it’s less about me, which is new, and less about my standards. It’s more about working towards a collaborative goal- it’s just a totally new way of thinking about a finished product for me. My work before this residency definitely dealt with the body through the language of garment construction, like these shapes that people can sometimes draw connections to, or relate to, because they remind them of clothing essentially. Working on functional garments is something I’ve returned to at TAC and working with people is totally new for me.
Can you tell me about the name that you create under sometimes, Project Z?
It’s sort of…I forget what the word is, when a letter is just a placeholder or the absence of a title. And in a way that is how it’s functioning. But it also references some family history. My grandfather had a chain of luxury clothing stores in the Middle East at a time where it was very new, but fast fashion hadn’t spread fully into the Middle Eastern market. People were really interested in investing in a piece that would last, that was of a certain quality. The name of his store was Zahar, so the Z comes from Zahar. Zahar literally means “person who plants flowers.” “Zahra,” means flower. It’s like a word that exists, but it’s not one that is used in conversation really. Z is sort of an elusive letter, so that plays into this idea that it’s less about my personal vision as a maker and more about what people are coming to me wanting.
Do you feel a familial connection, or a legacy to continuing textile work within your family?
Before my grandpa had clothing stores, his grandfathers used to trade wool, so there’s this material theme that’s passed on from generation to generation, but applied in different ways. When I first got into textiles I was definitely thinking about that- identity and family history. It’s less about that now, it’s more like a subtle reference, a nod.
Can you actually talk about all the ideas you have behind the project that you’re doing for the final exhibition?
I’m interested in exploring models of making and also the ways in which people interact and consume clothing. A garment is such a loaded object, they’re so many levels you can explore and unpack, but I would say mainly I’m looking at the language or languages that surround the making and wearing of garments and how that reflects culture and community.
I was interested in creating this sort of relationship through making a garment for someone and exploring the conversation that came out of it- that very much is what my project is right now. I’ve been interviewing nine participants or subjects, I give them a questionnaire to fill out, which they send back to me. The questions range from pretty standard- are you allergic to any materials, things that I should know if I’m going to be making garments for them, to their preferences related to style and fabric and whatnot.
But also, the nature of asking questions about dress expands into these personal narratives or stories and it’s really interesting to see which questions spark what in different people. In the beginning I was more fixated on the end product,and to have a look for each person. I was thinking of it more as the EP to the album, like if I was going to have a brand this would be the EP to my brand. But as I started interviewing people, I became really interested in the interview process itself and how I could relay that to a larger audience.
What do you see as the culmination of the project?
Each person will get to keep an article of clothing or set that’s very much a product out of this collaborative, almost co-design process. The interviews, process photos, and other materials will come together in a book form that I’ll be collaborating on with Danielo Garcia of Open Projects.
Take me through a day in your studio practice – how do you work?
I have sewing intense days that are straight-forward production days. Other days are more about planning – I’ll take some time to see where I am with the different garments that I’m making and what stage of the interview process I’m at with each participant. I try to devote a couple of hours a day to transcribing these interviews, because it’s just a task that you have to sit down and do it, there’s no way to make it shorter or easier.
I also set aside time for some painting and material manipulation. I’m in a group show in Santa Fe in July and I’m trying to finish these pieces for that. It’s all just a balancing game, how many hours to devote to a certain thing a certain day.
Has there been any persistent concept within your work?
Definitely exploring the lifespan of materials and objects. More recently, I’ve been trying to understand what it is that people keep and throw away – I guess there’s a train of thought related to consumption. There are a lot of young brands that play on this idea of a community that’s built around your brand. I’m toying with that idea a little bit. At the same time, I’m totally playing the dressmaker and trying to understand what makes this process different from going to a dressmaker to have something custom made. It’s consumption, community, conversation…I guess I have three C’s.
What are some of your other interests outside of the studio?
Oh my god. Do I have interests outside of the studio? This is a crisis I have been having. Lately I’ve been spending all of my time in the studio. I haven’t really been working strictly on textile design projects since I’ve been here, and that’s sort of something that I try to keep up outside the studio, just because it’s more on the digital side, and I have been really focused on this project- between transcribing the interviews and making the actual clothes, it ends up being a full time job, honestly.
Who are some of the artists or designers that you look at or that have inspired your work in some way?
One is a design duo, Bless, that’s based in Berlin and Paris. The way they work, the way they build their archive- they sort of put out these thematic clothing collections, but they also have a shop in Berlin that’s a functional apartment- it’s someones home and a shop at the same time. They play with a lot of different investigations related to clothing. I interned for Eckhaus Latta, before I went to grad school, it must’ve been 2014, it wasn’t brand new, but it was still a young brand at the time, and I think it was a really great time to be working for them – they were doing most of their production- from knit production to actual garment samples in-house. They also both come from art backgrounds. I feel like I almost learned a lot from that internship in retrospect after I went to grad school. People in the arts can be really hostile to the idea of fashion existing within an art context. Operating in-between spaces of art, fashion, and design is not an easy feat.
Also along the lines of sort of archive projects, Susan Cianciolo, has been of huge interest to me, both because her practice has a community element, and also because she makes collections out of collections. I’m always keeping my eyes peeled for any sort of artist that is using garments in their practice, whether it’s repurposed clothing or anything else. There’s an artist named Donna Huanca, based in Berlin whose works have more direct references to garments. She’ll have these mixed media works where you can see parts of the garment, I don’t know if she makes them or if she’s playing with the idea of found objects, but it seems to be a pretty constant thread throughout her paintings. She also does these sort of, performative works where she has like, I don’t know if she would call them performers or models, but she’ll paint on them, so it becomes this sort of environment, and there are little bits where it hints toward fashion and clothing. I don’t know if it’s intentional or if it’s a byproduct of using a human body in your work, which has another side of implications and concerns. I think it’s thought provoking for me to think about how all these different visual elements can come together.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you or about your work?
… To reach out to me if they’d like to fill out a questionnaire.
You can learn more about Rhonda’s work and process by visiting her website and following her on Instagram, and stay tuned to textileartscenter.com for more info about AIR Cycle 9′s final exhibition this fall.