Whitehot Magazine

Azzah Sultan's "Anak Dara" at Trotter&Sholer

Azzah Sultan, Melipat 3. 2020. Hand stitched batik fabric, acrylic paint, on canvas. 49 x 24 in.

By VITTORIA BENZINE September, 2020

NYC-based boutique art firm Trotter&Sholer commemorates their first brick and mortar space on Thursday, September 10th with their first opening: a debut solo show presenting works by rising talent Azzah Sultan. The opening reception for Anak Dara will take place from 5:00 until 8:00PM at 168 Suffolk Street on Manhattan’s ever-trendy Lower East Side.

Trotter&Sholer’s press release explains that “The term Anak Dara literally translates to virgin, but is used colloquially to mean young unmarried girl.” Sultan’s work for this show dabbles in contradictions between past and present — a new culmination in a career contending with conflict. The release continues to explain that “Sultan works to explore the nuances of and re-frame the term in a contemporary context. Both the Malay word and the English word carry cultural baggage and assumptions. These assumptions are compounded for Sultan by elements of religious and cultural otherness.”

Sultan is a 24 year old artist with a BFA from Parsons School of Design and an MFA from Washington State University. She has shown work with institutions ranging from Sotheby’s Institute to The Bushwick Collective. Sultan moved to New York City when she was only sixteen. Seated on a mat in the empty, unchristened gallery where her first solo show will take place, Sultan told me her move to the city marked her first-ever visit to the United States.

Her father, a diplomat, escorted her, as Sultan recalled. “He was only with me for five days, and then he left. I was by myself.” She considered her early years in New York a “time where I started to learn more about myself as a person” 

Sultan hails from Malaysian descent, but she was born in Abu Dhabi. She’s lived in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Finland. Staying in touch with her heritage has been a lifelong exercise. Sultan actually decided to begin wearing the hijab in anticipation of her move to NYC. “I felt like I needed something to remind me of where I'm from and what my faith is,” she said. 

In those early days, Sultan struggled with her creative identity. “I didn't make art about my culture and my faith at first, because I didn't want to be that Muslim girl that makes art about Islam. I feel like artists of color, whenever we make art about our culture and identity, it's something that's seen as cliched,” she explained. In dodging this trope, Sultan focused on painting white people with the hopes that this ‘neutral’ subject matter might help her transcend race.

Azzah Sultan, Menyentuh 1. Hand stitched songket and batik fabric on wooden frame. 37 x 29 in.

She created her first politically-minded work within her first year at Parsons. She painted an American flag on her hand, covering her mouth. The piece read, “It's not my faith that oppresses me. It's your ignorance.” Her work garnered attacks from classmates, who told her that she should feel lucky to live in America. “I was vulnerable for the first time, and I got attacked for it,” she recounted. However, the potentially traumatic episode proved a moment of profound growth. “Even though there was controversy, that controversy needed to happen in order for a dialogue to happen. When a dialogue happens, that's when you defeat ignorance,” she decided.

By accepting controversy’s necessity, Sultan’s creativity came to flower with full force. The artist conceived of her first performance piece while earning her BFA. Inspired by Edward Said’s Orientalism, a text which many professors predictably pointed her towards, Sultan performed the Malaysian dancing her mother encouraged her to learn throughout childhood. As she danced, Sultan added a provocative twist by projecting orientalist images of ‘Eastern’ women painted by French and British artists onto her body.  

She continued experimenting with mediums, crafting an immersive experience centered around ‘Pink and Lovely,’ a satirical beauty aid mimicking the skin bleaching product Fair and Lovely. Using the humor innate to an imagined cosmetic which turns one’s skin magenta, Sultan questioned pervasive notions of colorism present around the world.  “The art became the space,” she said. “I try to envelop the space that I'm in to sort of create the feeling and the installation of what the art is about.” Anak Dara turns Sultan’s gaze towards her own relationship to the traditions which raised her.

The contemplations present throughout this new collection began in December 2019, while Sultan visited her hometown of Penang, Malaysia on winter break. “I made this entire show based on how I relate to the colors, the smells, and the touch of home,” she explained. “Back home, I'm not seen as Malay enough. That’s something I really struggled with. Making this work tied to my Malaysian culture, it isn't for me to feel like I'm accepted by my culture, but for me to feel like I've accepted my culture myself as well.” 

Anak Dara consists of two major series: Melipat (to fold) and Menyentuh (to touch).

Sultan’s Melipat works marry paint and draped fabric to give the illusion of a female form without including an actual body. After setting up the fabrics she’d bought in Penang throughout her studio in Washington, Sultan said she “started seeing the folds, and started thinking about how fabrics fold on our body and how they make up the body.” She felt exhaustion from viewers’ feedback, which frequently assessed her work predominantly through her physical appearance. “I decided I'm going to show the body, but I'm going to remove myself entirely so you have no way at all to talk about my body, except for the fact that there is the lack of it,” Sultan stated. 

Azzah Sultan, Menyentuh 3. 2020. Hand stitched songket and batik fabric on wooden frame. 37 x 29 in.

Works in the Menyentuh series explore the loaded beauty of the songket fabric, woven specifically for special occasions. Here, Sultan wrapped this material across across wooden boards, stitching silhouettes of her own hands in various states of Malaysian dance moves against the Songket’s intricate patterns. Her movements are immortalized for a moment in negative space.

The press release states that these latest works from Sultan “are representations of her in the past, her now, and of the woman she hopes to become.” She considers her former, younger self more timid. Sultan noted, “There are not a lot of Muslim women doing art, so I felt the need to present myself in a certain way.” This certain way omitted aspects of her authenticity in an effort to secure acceptance. “I'm at the stage right now where as an artist, and as a woman, I'm very confident in how I'm making my work,” she declared. In the future, Sultan hopes to only expand upon this confidence. She espoused an adage from Michael Holloman, her mentor and professor at Washington State University: “Never give away all your secrets.” She’s practicing more subtlety, unlearning the impulse to explain herself.

For those who would like to learn more about Sultan’s work from the artist herself, she will be available for socially-distanced sidewalk chats over fresh chai the night of the reception. Anak Dara runs September 10th through 27th. Trotter&Sholer is open to the public Tuesday-Sunday, 12:00 PM to 7PM. Capacity is limited. WM


Vittoria Benzine

Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // vittoriabenzine@gmail.com // vittoriabenzine.com


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