Brazilian-American artist Fiona Aboud creates images rooted in photography that are inspired by painting and natural elements. Aboud’s lyrical and humanistic style frees the imagination while challenging issues of perception, multiculturalism and stereotypes.
Aboud’s practice is influenced by photographers like Edward Curtis who documented Native Americans whose culture was in danger of disappearing. This mindset influenced Aboud to create projects that preserve cultures through photography, such as Sikhs: An American Portrait. Inspired by hate crimes and American realist painters explore what it means to be American and examine the human prejudice of physical differences. This series received numerous awards from American Photography, grants from the Sikh Foundation, was exhibited at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C and acquired for the Microsoft Collection.
Her show at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle in May 2018 explored the central character she created from the cartoons of Vishvijit Singh. Inspired by Singh’s cartoons, she encouraged him to dress up as Captain America, which led to his persona becoming an internet sensation. His image and messages of tolerance are used in classrooms around the country to teach cultural understanding to school children.
Her project for Sports Illustrated on Amputee Soccer players in Sierra Leone in 2007 inspired the making of the documentary “The Flying Stars” and the sale of her prints has raised thousands of dollars for job training for Amputees in Sierra Leone.
More recently, Aboud’s work has pivoted toward abstraction to address narrative about self-perception and identity. With her Imperception Series, she creates a visual allegory for our distorted self-perception by projecting an image into water and then photographing the projection. Aboud collaborates with water to create a decisive moment infused with energy from our physical world.
Aboud’s work has been published in Time Magazine, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, New York Magazine among others. Her work is collected by the Library of Congress, the Microsoft Corporation, the Polaroid Collection and many private collections. She attended Columbia University where she graduated Cum Laude with a degree in Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures with a focus on culture and identity. Raised in Rio de Janeiro and Boston, Aboud currently lives and works in New York City.
How did the arts find you?
I like to joke that art is more of a mental illness than a choice. I am driven to create it is just part of who I am. Art has deepened my humanity and gives me new insights everyday.
Who has been a big influence to you in your career?
I am heavily influenced by many different art forms- film, painting, theater, land art, performance art- whatever grabs me on an emotional level influences me. I remember seeing the movie Bleu by Krzysztof Kieślowski when I was 17 and being struck by how it stunned me visually and emotionally because it was so solemn and raw.
When I started to learn the craft of photography by assisting other photographers and spending hours in the NY Public Library, I was drawn to surrealist and dada photographers. Photographers like Erwin Blumenfeld and Hannah Hoch were foundational to me because they showed me that photography can challenge perception, trick the eye of the observer into seeing what lay beneath, forcing a sense of distorted reality.
When you hit a creative block, how do you move forward?
I believe that you cannot be creative unless you are creating. I will go into the studio and work–sometimes something comes from it and sometimes I need to put down the camera and seek other sources of inspiration. If I feel blocked in my photography, I will go to the theater or learn a new artistic skill. For instance over the Christmas break last year I had the chance to take an acting workshop where I could explore issues related to the female body and our perceptions of our own bodies, using an art form that was completely unfamiliar to me. This experience freed me to consider other ways of expressing ideas of self-perception that I address in my project “Imperception.”
How do you define success?
My first long-term artistic project was documenting Sikhs around the United States, in response to the increase of hate crimes against that community after 9/11. Because of their religious practice of wearing turbans, Sikh men had been murdered in broad daylight at their place of work, harassed, beaten up- this treatment was not only unjust it was tragic because after sikhs began to arrive in large numbers in the 1980s most just wanted to blend into the mosaic of american immigrants. By showing American Sikhs in their everyday American environments it is a visual metaphor for Americans to start to see Sikhs as American and not as an “other.”
Six years into the project, I came across Vishavjit Singh – an editorial cartoonist and creator of Sikhtoons ( a sikh-american cartoon about the Sikh-American experience). In 2011, Singh drew a poster for New York Comic Con featuring Captain America with a turban and beard. With the poster as inspiration, I sought to photograph Singh clad like his character. Self-conscious about his thin physique, Singh demurred. But after a bit of coaxing, Singh finally acquiesced in 2013 to embodying his own vision of a Sikh superhero by donning a Captain America costume for a photo shoot. I gave him the pics, and forgot about them. Then, six months later, I see that he’s got a documentary, he’s been on TV, he’s traveled around the country! Armed with superhero confidence inspired by the photo shoot, Singh quit his day job and became a full time cartoonist and keynote speaker – addressing issues of stereotyping and unconscious biases. When we went to the Women’s March in 2017, teachers from around the country came up to him: “we teach you in our class about tolerance!”
This project showed me the power to inspire and educate people through art. Art can be more than something aesthetically pleasing; it can be a vehicle for social change. If someone can walk away from my work and have their mind opened in some capacity, I have succeeded.
What do you hope your work communicates?
My work has to do with self-perception and our perceptions of others. It is fascinating to me how we formulate our prejudices and biases, how we look at ourselves and make assumptions based on our own experiences in life. I hope my art can open people up to new perspectives. A great story that illustrates this change of perception was when photographing Vishavjit Singh as Sikh Captain America in Central Park he had a discussion with a boy who was puzzled by his appearance:
Boy on Rock: “You can’t be Captain America. You are not White.”
Vishavijt: “Captain America is a fictional character created in 1941. Today he can be Black, Hispanic, or with turban and beard.”
Boy: “Black, yes. Hispanic, maybe. Turban and beard, no.”
Vishavjit: “I am not offended. Just remember, for the rest of your life there is an images of me dressed as Captain America in your head which you will never be able to delete.”
What has been an important lesson you have learned during your career?
Don’t listen to the voice of doubt in your head. Never compare yourself to others. Always be bold – even if it gets you into trouble. Practice your strengths and outsource your weaknesses. Always mentor or teach people in your field because it gives you perspective and you learn so much from witnessing the magic of people learning.
What advice might you give to your younger self?
Don’t worry about having a career with linear success. Success and achievement come in waves. Life gets in the way sometimes and that’s ok. Always have mentors or advisors. It is helpful to see yourself through someone else’s eyes. You don’t always need to listen to these people, but know that they’re valuable and can help you grow. Have a support structure in place: an advisor, a therapist, a life coach, a spiritual advisor–whatever is your thing. That way, when you encounter challenges, you have tools to cope with them instead of being swallowed.