Yet, I hold the memory of joy
in my bones
hold on to the sun
just beyond. 

– “The hymn of the warriors of love” by Mojeanne Behzadi and Rihab Essayh

The current moment in art has become a contrast between values professed and values practised. Many of us, as artists, curators, and cultural workers, have found ourselves in a muddle of contradiction, entering institutional and organizational structures unaware of the mess in what we expect to be professional and supportive working environments. Once inside, whether it be for a short-term gig, a degree, or a career, it can be hard, even impossible, to exit without injury.

We see the resplendent re/branding and responses to political and social failings around justice. We know the buzzwords. Most recently, “care” has become one of them, understandable given the need to maintain morale during uncertain times. With the isolation from our communities that COVID caused, it was critical to consider how ways of caring – for self and for others – could provide stability in each area of our lives, including our mental health. Yet inside these institutional and organizational spaces, more than ever, the moral and ethical underpinnings regarding care are collapsing. 

There are artists who reveal the contradictions. One such artist is Rihab Essayh. Through her work she world-builds inverse habitats retrofitted for the future. Her “immersive installations create spaces of slowing down and softening,” as she notes in her biography, and “consider issues of isolation and disconnection in the digital age.” She also considers notions of care and the feeling of being embraced by a community of support. Her 2022 exhibition at McBride Contemporain in Montréal, As With All Warriors of Love (November 11–December 17)an iteration of her MFA thesis أحلم بواحة ناعمة | Je rêve d’une douce oasis | I dream of a soft oasis (Art Gallery of Guelph, June 29–August 28, 2022)provided an embodied experience of her own articulation of the concept of care and her proposition of “radical softness,” which she defines as “an idea that suggests that showing emotions and vulnerability is a political gesture in a society that prioritizes intellect and indifference.”

Upon viewing Essayh’s show at McBride Contemporain, my initial reaction was to be suspicious of the softness. It permeated all aspects of the space – the white gallery walls entirely cloaked in drapery, the palette a pastel ombré, the drawings of “warriors” in ultra-feminine attire, the lilting sound of a woman’s voice singing. Was the sensuality immersive or overwhelming? Was I feeling embraced or resistant? The ambivalence produced a curiosity within me, one I was willing to sit with (on a plush divan) while the “Hymn of the Warriors of Love” washed over me. Essayh had designed an experience that, for the moment I was inhabiting the space, profoundly shifted my internal rhythm. This unanticipated encounter made me desire a deeper understanding of her work. What follows is our conversation about care and how it informs her practice. 

Exhibition view, McBride Contemporain. Photo : Guy L’Heureux

Leah Snyder: We go into these spaces to work, learn, and experience art. The messaging dictates “this is what care is” and yet consistently I come up against a contradiction between what is said and what is done. As I hear others say the same thing, in order to understand what needs to change I began to propose the question “how does care feel?” Rihab, how does care feel for you? 

Rihab Essayh: Care is somewhere between being seen and being embraced, but being seen can be about being showcased and being embraced can come off as performative. When it’s true warmth, I am validated and welcomed, and I feel whole. I may have to compromise on an idea but I don’t have to compromise myself. 

One friend articulated it as, “We welcome you, all of you.” 

Also, it is about nuances in registry. Without awareness of another’s needs, even with good intentions, what is assumed as giving care might register as harmful. One can ask, does this register as a caring act for you? Should I do things differently? 

When did the idea of care enter your practice? 

During my undergrad studies I made work analyzing references to trauma in art history and fiction. I was also looking at public memorials. All the lost things I miss was my first attempt at interacting with viewers by caring about their stories of loss. I put a call out on social media then wrote all the words in the responses on Mylar to form one voice. This was also my first work touching on something more collective. 

When the pandemic hit, I realized that the way I worked with trauma was no longer sustainable. It became very draining to relive it through my research. My support system was also exhausted with the situation of the pandemic. They didn’t need to see more work about the fact that we were sad. I needed a shift toward care for myself.

There is a sense that grief is part of the texture of your recent work but, because of the sensorial enchantment and how it soothes, it fades to the background. You mention your support system; can you share more about this? 

I was missing the support system I left behind in Montréal when I moved to Guelph for school. At a particularly stressful moment, when I felt alone, fragile, and inadequate, I had an encounter with the curator Sally Frater. She prompted me to ask myself, “Who is your community?” This led me to form a Facebook Messenger group chat for Southwest Asian North African (SWANA) women (in the chat were Chantal Khoury, Muriel Ahmarani Jaouich, and Manel Benchabane). We did not intend to build a community or a collective. We wanted to know one another as women of the SWANA regions interested in sharing our experiences as first-generation immigrants caught between two cultures. We invested in each other professionally and held space for each other’s individual practices. My way to honour them was to draw them into my work. They are the riders in my drawings, my knights of the new world, drawn in motion, in action, as I view them as powerful and ambitious women, a sisterhood of sand and tears.

Rihab Essayh, Sorority of Three (2022), watercolour and colour pencil on paper, 56 x 76 cm

It’s beautiful that this work was born out of a collective experience – albeit one at a distance and mediated through screens – that was about finding generative ways to cope with the collective trauma of the pandemic. In the 2022 exhibition of longing and songbirds, at Union Gallery in Kingston, Ontario, you created a structure that is a “space of refuge.”  

The tent and pillows come from my MFA critique. I made them when isolation was at its peak, mostly while confined at home and during the peak of my own depression. The soundscape of birds was recorded from my balcony at 4 a.m. when I couldn’t sleep. The work was made out of necessity as a safe space representing what I needed at the time – a hospitable structure, also one that was portable, fitting into a tote bag. It’s not referencing how tents are used here: for leisure (camping) or necessity (temporary shelter). It is inspired by Berber tents and their culture, which serves the needs of the collective.

What are the threads from Moroccan culture that factor into care for you?

It is the sense of hospitality that I witness. You welcome guests with open arms, providing food, care, and respect. 

I also wanted to relearn the customs, particularly the sport of Fantasia, a cavalry performance in which teams of riders charge and shoot rifles in a contest of synchronization. In refamiliarizing myself with the sport, I learned that there are now all-female teams competing in what has traditionally been a male sport. The women work together with the goal of being in unison. As the performance demands so much trust, it is inevitable that it will also create conflict. There is something admirable about having to support each other through conflict while planning the choreography of people and horses. 

I love this idea of “supporting each other through conflict,” even when it arises from within your circle of support. As you mentioned, the drawings are of women – the warriors – who supported you. Their attire, both in the drawings and in the performance by Emmi Boyle, are your vision. 

The costumes are inspired by the regalia of the Moroccan Fantasia. I am a self-taught seamstress. I learned to sew by watching YouTube videos in March 2020 to keep my mind busy when I was suddenly out of work due to the pandemic. Everything was made to exude movement or for functionality. Also, when considering comfort, what we wear is our first layer of protection, how it texturally feels on our skin matters. An interest in tactility has always been significant to my artmaking. During the pandemic, this became a metaphor, expressing the fear that getting close will harm, amplifying the deprivation of touch along with the cascade of negative psychological effects that followed – loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

Our discussions have been so productive and warm, Rihab! I have appreciated you welcoming me into your world.

By spending time in conversation with Essayh, I was able to parse out my initial ambivalence to her work. We are conditioned to distrust vulnerability, particularly when the wounded do not require mercy and the resolution for healing is not decided by the ones who do the wounding. Essayh’s “warriors” embody vulnerability combined with the boldness of not backing down. With that, she offers the alchemical conditions to imagine something new. 

Exhibition view, McBride Contemporain. Photo : Guy L’Heureux