Zina Al-Shukri

Painter, San Francisco // March 2011
Often I’m most proud of individual pieces rather than bodies of work. Sometimes I manage to hit on exactly what I’m trying to say in just one painting. That’s what I’m after.

Zina’s studio sits in a massive, somewhat dilapidated building on an industrial tract of land along San Francisco’s central waterfront. The Noonan Building, which still belongs to the Port of San Francisco, now houses artist studios instead of offices spaces. The stairwell smelled of cedar wood and not-quite-dry paint, and in the hallway tiny dust particles drifted in and out of shafts of afternoon sunlight. Zina’s studio is big and bright with lots of windows that look out towards Oakland across the water. There are plants on her windowsills, small geometric shapes made from wood and cardboard and a bundle of dried sage, sun-bleached to an almost bone white. There is texture, form, dimension and color everywhere. There are ideas and stories in every detail. I noticed a half empty bottle of Gentleman’s Jack, a book titled 536 Puzzles and Curious Problems, and stacks and stacks of family photos. I was struck by the easy functionality of her space— a high wall hung with portraits in progress, a napping couch, a desk off to the side, a big broad table in the center, littered with sketches and paint tubes. Zina seemed to so completely occupy her space. She rolled and smoked cigarettes while Klea and I freely moved about her studio, taking photos and asking way too many questions. She talked openly, in a voice that slowly and thoughtfully moved out into the room, generously sharing her ideas on her work, her life, and her inspiration.

When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I say, ‘I’m an artist’, with a smile.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What questions & ideas occur/reoccur in your work?
I work with all different mediums: Charcoals, paint-anywhere from gouache to oils to inks, sculpture, ceramic, video, and sound.

My subject matter consists of different issues ranging from the emotive human condition across several races and cultures, the body, science and technology, religion, etc. It really boils down to how we humans make our way through the world.
The questions that arise in my work are usually process driven, such as, ‘how is this going to look in accordance to this’ or ‘oh God, what the hell am I doing?’

What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them? How do you navigate the art world?
My biggest challenge to creating art is time and money. There just isn’t enough time right now, or ever, and I would be glad to do away with the world’s financial exchanges all together, but I make an effort to be in my studio every single day. I’m often here for at least six hours, six days a week. I navigate the art world by making (and keeping) friends and having continuous conversations with them.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I just finished a series of gouache portraits of people who are of color, meaning, not white. Portraits are a very emotional experience, a lot of connection needs to happen between me and the sitter. I need to dig around quite a bit, ask a lot of questions, get them talking to capture the exact mood and emotional state my sitter happens to possess. I know I will never actually be done with portraits, seeing that it is a gift of talent bestowed upon me (lol). But, right now I am focusing on a film I am making of my family about an Arab family living in the South (U.S.). Film in some ways is just another iteration of portraiture; it’s an intimate view into someone’s life.

Of everything you have ever made, what are you most proud of?
Often I’m most proud of individual pieces rather than bodies of work. Sometimes I manage to hit on exactly what I’m trying to say in just one painting. That’s what I’m after.

What do you want your work to do?
Entice people to look at it and question our current state, and to examine our emotional and mental spheres, which are always being impacted by the outside world. I’d like to think of myself as picking up where Alice Neel left off.

To see more of Zina’s work: