The Fear of Emptiness: An interview with Aneesa Shami

Aneesa Shami holds a BFA double major in Fiber and Art History from The Kansas City Art Institute. She moved to Los Angeles in 2015  to expand her practice as an artist in California, an epicenter for fiber art. Since then, Shami has assisted in the studio of renowned Mexican artist Tanya Aguiñiga, exhibited her work nationally, collaborated with Textile Arts L.A., and most recently opened Studio 203, an artist-run space in Los Angeles offering exhibitions, workshops, and performances. In her work, the artist employs a range of materials, incorporating harmonious palettes and dynamic patterning, to create intricate pieces that surpass the simplest connotation of craft that is often associated with her practice. With imagery influenced by Islamic folklore and memories of the landscapes in Lebanon where her father’s roots are, Shami has created a body of work that captures the blending of cultures that have informed her style. In her compositions, she meticulously fills every space with interwoven symbols and abstract lines drawn from poetry and remembrance. For this interview, I visited Shami’s studio remotely to talk about her recent projects. We discussed what it is like to adjust as an artist and an entrepreneur during the Coronavirus crisis. Followed by our initial conversation, we engaged in a more extensive dialogue via email.

Claudia Pretelin: How would you describe your art practice and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?

Aneesa Shami: My work encompasses a few different spheres, but the uniting theme across my work as an artist, educator, and researcher is how one connects to the creative process. I am drawn to methodical and tedious ways of working, like many fiber artists, and most of my work is process-oriented. The meditative state achieved when one’s hands overtake the conscious brain is where I thrive. My research is collected during this meditation, the act of making, relying on personal observations while I am creating. I am very interested in Jung’s theories about the human conscious/unconscious/collective unconscious, and how it relates to the decisions I make in my own imagery and compositions. Relying on intuitive decisions, my work is reminiscent of abstract expressionism but with a level of horror vacui (fear of empty space) that William Morris would desire.

The Prophet, 2017, ink on paper, 12” x 12” unframed

CP: Can you tell us about the art projects that you’re working on currently?

AN: I’m always working on several things at the same time, so there is a lot in progress.

I’m building a curriculum that shares techniques I’ve used in my practice, including collage with fabric, fringe weaving, and intuitive drawing. The Collage with Fabric workshop is in a digital format available on my website (, with other topics to follow.

I’ve started a new body of work, titled “The Scheherazade Project,” that utilizes National Geographic magazines. Each piece is built through layers of deconstructed magazine pages, adhered to unstretched canvas in 1” torn sections, bunching the fabric to create a tapestry-like effect. I am documenting the changes to the picture plane by photographing the composition after each page is added to the collage. I hope that by assessing the documentation in sequence, the viewer can retroactively see how the composition is assembled.

I am also collaborating on a short film and exhibition, creating a few costume looks that will be worn by dancers and captured in slow motion. More information will be available soon on my website and Instagram, and the project will be completed by the end of 2020.

Scheherazade, 2017, collage on unstretched canvas, 4’ x 6’

Scheherazade detail

CP: I understand that your work process starts with collecting materials, thinking about them, and then creating a project from what you’ve collected. During this process, how do you envision the scale and the materials that you will use for a specific project? Is it instinctive for you to use certain materials, colors, or shapes?

AS: After collecting the materials, most of my focus is on how to transcend the look of the material. Since I use textile scraps and castoffs normally headed for the landfill, it is easy for a piece to fall into a patchwork/folk-art connotation. I’ve found the best way to combat the patchwork look is to deconstruct the material into a state that is not immediately recognizable (e.g., creating my own yarn out of felted sweater scraps). I also enjoy playing with the viewer’s eye, using traditional two-dimensional techniques like drawing or collage to mimic textile construction. Lately, I’ve played with applique techniques to achieve a “paper collage look” using fabric. I like that the material and/or method is not immediately recognized when looking at a piece.

Seafoam Muppet, 2018, knotted yarn scraps, 12” x 12”

CP: You are constantly repurposing fabric samples, books and magazines, and other recycled materials. In terms of conservation and the lifespan of the artwork, do you think about how these materials will age?

AS: Conservation is always at the top of my mind! Textiles and fiber material can be fussy, especially if they are made from natural fibers. The paper I use tends to be decades old, which is already in a fragile state, and will continue to age as time moves forward. Since I use reclaimed materials in my work, sometimes I don’t know the fiber content or the state of the material before I acquired it. I’ve had to deep-freeze many textile donations, just to be sure there were no moth eggs present! I keep fabric and yarn stacked in airtight bins with lavender satchels to discourage bugs, out of sunlight, and in a temperature-controlled space. I do my best to keep textiles and fiber material in the best condition while they are in my studio, which hopefully helps the longevity of a piece. I use matte medium to layer magazine/book pages in my collages, which seems to hold the printed color well. My work isn’t old enough to truly know what happens over time, but so far everything I’ve made has survived.

Baba’s Goldmine, 2019, reclaimed fabric applique, 18” x 24”

CP: Tell us a bit about how your days have been during the Coronavirus crisis?

AS: Day to day activity has changed a lot from the beginning of the crisis to now. I felt unable to work the first few weeks into the shelter-in-place order, holding my breath like a lot of folks and unsure of what was going to unfold in the immediate future. I focus on things I can control, like tidying up my space and wrapping up projects that are nearly complete. I’ve borrowed many e-books from the Los Angeles Public Library these past few weeks, and read at least an hour every day. My husband and I are loyal patrons to La Rocco’s pizzeria, and order a pizza every week, which is something nice to look forward to. I write morning pages daily and hope that everyone is journaling these days – we need archives for the future!

CP: How do you think this moment is informing your practice?

AS: I’ve found peace by staying present and not overthinking the past or the future. It is hard to plan large projects and carry out old goals now that so many variables are unstable. We recently acquired a larger studio space, and planned several collaborations with fellow artists for 2020, which are now on hold. Some things can’t be translated into a virtual setting. Using Instagram has helped tremendously with my battles with loneliness and fear of irrelevance; I am inspired by fellow makers and friends who are doing their best in light of this strange time, and still sharing their daily triumphs and joys.

CP: Before we end, other than your own medium, what’s your favorite instrument of memory?

AS: Listening to music is my favorite way to connect with memory, and it is a daily part of my studio practice. Recently, I have been listening to Kimbra’s Primal Heart, along with a Spotify playlist of “Songs from the 2010s,” and am eagerly awaiting Lady Gaga’s new album to be released.

CP: Thanks, Aneesa! 

Aneesa Shami is an artist and researcher based in Los Angeles who uses recycled materials to create fiber art. Her work references world mythologies and the sublime to evoke a sense of the collective unconscious. Shami received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees in both Fiber and Art History from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2015. She was the Textile Arts | Los Angeles artist-in-residence at Helms Design Center in 2018 and was a Fellow for the Mildred’s Attention Labs: Lane Order of the Third Bird 2015. Her work has been exhibited in local museums, including the Torrance Art Museum in Torrance, CA and the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art in San Luis Obispo, CA.

If you are interested in collecting fiber-based work or learning more about Shami’s process, check out her website, or follow her on social media @aneesashami. In addition to this interview, don’t miss Shami’s takeover for the Instruments of Memory Instagram account!

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