Published: April 23, 2021

Sama Alshaibi talks about her experience in the MFA program at the University of Colorado Boulder and being a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow.

Landing in Colorado just months before 9-11 Sama Alshaibi, an Iraqi immigrant, found her world forever changed. Looking for opportunities to make work about the complex history of the US Middle East relationship, CU Boulder’s Department of Art & Art History became a home for her creativity to thrive.

“The United States government was talking about going to war with Iraq and being Iraqi, really hit me.” Sama reflects. “As my work as a freelance photographer dried up, as did most creative industries during the economic crash in the United States, I decided to go back to school and pursue my MFA.”

Silsila video installation at Marta Herford Museum, Germany, 2017

Silsila video installation at Marta Herford Museum, Germany, 2017

MFA Education as Opportunity:

“Through the visiting artist program I got to meet curators and artists who were straddling hybrid identities, being from different places, some dealing with the topics of occupation and war or the aftermath of war, some dealing with post-colonialism. The visiting artist program was excellent and reflected the complexities held within the art world.”

“The program brings in artists for a whole week and I had the opportunity to meet and get to know all those artists. I was put in charge of handling them when they were on campus and in turn they all helped me; they introduced me to the Middle East and North Africa contemporary art scene”

“My second year I received an Arts & Humanities Fellowship, it's mostly faculty, but they accepted four graduate students—that year the topic was ‘war’. I was paid to have discussions with scholars in the field, and it opened up huge opportunities for me to investigate different disciplines within that subject. We read books together, crafted papers, did presentations and my contribution was putting together an exhibition, that experience was powerful.”

“Boulder also had an incredible art program called Artnauts, Dr. George Rivera, Garrison Roots and Luis Valdovino ran it together, but really Dr. Rivera was instrumental in getting exhibitions both nationally and internationally on different kinds of topics, but mostly social, political and justice topics.” 

“The Artnauts group was invited to go to Bethlehem, West Bank, Palestine, in the summer before the fall of my third year. I had just become an American citizen that year and got my first passport in over a decade. Since that first trip to Palestine as a student, I've been there 30 times, had exhibitions and built relationships with a community of artists, many whom I met in Palestine from that initial trip as a graduate student.”

“It's amazing how many times you can say this to graduate students, that in a way grad school could be the beginning of your network for life.”

Sama Alshaibi, “The Cessation” (2019), neon, aluminum, acrylic, palm fronds, water, copper, terracotta, and sound (commissioned by Artpace San Antonio, photo courtesy Seale Photography Studios)

Sama Alshaibi, “The Cessation” (2019), neon, aluminum, acrylic, palm fronds, water, copper, terracotta, and sound (commissioned by Artpace San Antonio, photo courtesy Seale Photography Studios)

Life as a student in the Art & Art History Department:

“CU Boulder is one of those places where the graduate experience is professionalized and provides opportunities to get to work with a wonderful diverse faculty." 

"Albert Chong was my thesis chair and gets a lot of credit for the kind of artist I am today. He pushed me to dig deeper [creatively] then I had ever done before. He saw something in me and helped me find it. I found my creative voice because of him."

“I worked closely with Yumi Roth in the sculpture department. I never thought I'd ever do sculptural work when I entered, but I felt a strong mentoring relationship with her. She taught me how to produce my memorial-based sculptural project, which I performed with, in my photographs. She had a very strong influence on me and my work.”

 “Luis Valdovino, my video professor, who is probably one of the best video professors in the country, gave me an international and transnational perspective. This was at a time where a lot of schools were only teaching from the Western canon, I was so lucky in grad school, my professors, especially Luis, had a very international perspective and empowered me with real art world experiences.”

“The MFA graduate program gives agency to their students and gave me a direction, doing politically motivated work and understanding that your community is a place where you can affect change. 

“The graduate student cohort I was a part of were very active. We did exhibitions together. We collaborated; some of my best collaborations happened in grad school. We studied together and looked for grants we could apply for, we helped each other. We learned not to be competitive and realized that if we bonded together we were stronger.”

The Guggenheim Fellowship Project:

“The last couple of projects [including my Guggenheim Fellowship work] I have made are about gender violence in Iraq and how legal instruments such as the new constitution and the Iraqi Family Law are used to enshrine the subjugation of women since the United States invaded Iraq, post-911. I'm really thinking about how the urban spaces and public life has completely changed for Iraqi women.” 

“I'm dealing with sculptural elements and the construction of imagery that does not come necessarily from a camera, but presents and captures something that seems invisible or obscure. I'm interested in taking something as cold as documents or police logs or blueprints of a city, and constructing new ways of making narratives based on the lives of women and girls in Iraq. I think it's really important that the world recognize the central role the United States has in making the conditions or contributing to the conditions that exist in Iraq, but also how that has defined all of the Middle East and North Africa. That it’s an American story.”

Staging the Imagined solo exhibition at Ayyam Gallery, Dubai, 2019

Staging the Imagined solo exhibition at Ayyam Gallery, Dubai, 2019

What is the role of the arts and artists in contemporary society?

“Art is always dealing with the most salient issues of our time. They can be other things too, of course, but it offers a space where we can imagine, or question these issues and ideas of our time in a way that we can't do with anything else.” 

“I think art has the potential to resist oppression. It's got to present potential, to give voice to the ordinary and the voiceless. So, I really don't know what a society is without the arts. And that's all the arts, from literature to music to dance, but especially the visual arts, because it is a space that can be both ambiguous and very specific and is nimble enough to move and change and adjust, throughout time.”

“To me, art is everything, art saved my life. As a refugee, having the kind of experiences that I had in the world, art gave me a platform to speak from, and it gave me a way to plug in the things that really challenged me to tell a story, and then find out all these people experienced those same issues. They may not come from Iraq or Palestine or have the very specific life experiences that I had, but we can share time and space to learn and grow from each other.”