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In conversation: Mia Bilbeisi

Meet Mia Bilbeisi, an artist who explores abjection through her work. Using found textiles and raw bodily imagery, she challenges societal notions of cleanliness and purity. By upcycling discarded materials, she highlights the destructive habit of rejection and invites the impure to coexist harmoniously. Her art blurs the boundaries between traditional craft and sculpture, subverting preconceived ideas and embracing the power of the abject.

Insights of an Eco Artist Team

4 de julho de 2023

Let's begin with you telling us a bit about your background and practice.

Growing up in the United Kingdom, I have always enjoyed being creative. Throughout my education, I loved making but felt that schools tended to desire something aesthetic, lacking purpose. After my college experience, I wanted to keep my creativity going, so decided to take a Fine Art degree not far from home in Surrey. Through this, I discovered the conceptual side of making. Motivating me to make something that didn’t follow the traditional aesthetic and decorative notions of craft and textile making. Transforming my work from two-dimensional paintings and drawings into three-dimensional pieces. Commenting on more than surface value. From this, I started to explore the connections between feminine making and craft. As well as how these connections linked to the everyday. Looking into how our bodies carry connections, influencing how we view bodies and the spaces around them. 

In your artist statement, you mention exploring the concept of abjection and its impact on those considered "other" by society. Can you elaborate on how your work aims to shed light on this social dynamic and provoke reflection?

Yes, so my work uses craft and textiles as a way to show off these concepts, which are inspired and influenced by Abjection. The concept of Abjection to me helps to understand the impacts on the ‘social other’. Through my use of craft, I initially started to look into the feminine other. As women have been made to seem grotesque and vicious within society through things like films and literature. These are just examples and ones which have been explored by others. But I guess through my research I became interested in the ambiguity of the abject. As it was commonly observed, that thing which felt different and ‘other’ to ourselves, created a reaction of discomfort. Due to their unclear nature. Here, what’s ‘other’ sits on the border, not belonging to either side. Not sitting within a clear boundary. Within contemporary art, we are seeing the forever growing and inclusion of textiles and craft. Bringing it into the fine art world. It is the concept of exclusion and inclusion which feels significant. 

Within my work, I use bodily imagery to comment specifically on the social other. And how the body is often used to make females seem abject. Within some of my previous pieces, I use imagery of my mouth. The mouth when opened is often portrayed as disgusting due to things like salvia. By enlarging the image, the piece feels more monstrous but is contrasted by its soft tactile nature. It is these contrasts which I feel are most important within the work. We see how the mouth disgusts but also attracts through its links to seductivity and fetishization. With these things, I want the works to repel and attract, creating contrasting and confusing outcomes. Which I feel in return, provokes a reflection on the bodies we are experiencing as well as the ones elsewhere. Encouraging a questioning of the associations and connections we give to bodies and the impact this has on not only them but others around them. 

Knotted by Mia Bilbeisi. Image courtesy of Mia Bilbeisi

Your choice of using found textile materials, such as old bedsheets and clothing, creates a contrast between softness and harsh bodily imagery. How do these materials contribute to the narrative of your artwork and convey the themes of rejection and upcycling?

Again, this displays the use of contrasts within the works. Naturally, textile works have a softness to them. The use of materials like bedding links the work to a place of comfort, our home. Here, we are reminded of the domestic space and what this space may mean to us individually. Materials like this which possess a softness have a tactility which literally brings this sense of comfort. This comfortability is contrasted by the other qualities of the pieces. They look intestinal and bodily. This portrays the internal space of the body, which when thought of, arises feelings of disgust. This unpleasantness doesn’t fit in. The work, therefore, repels itself, becoming confusing. The works speak of the body in a way which reflects its pleasant and unpleasant sides. Leading the viewer to question these terms. What is pleasant or unpleasant about it? Also, the use of these materials directly utilises upcycling. As the second-hand materials get used once again, in a completely different way. White plain sheets which use to cover a bed are now stained and shaped into human organs. They become almost unrecognisable, becoming a body of their own. These bodies completely alter the way we see the initial objects which they are made of.

By highlighting the unwanted and exploring the notion of impurity, your work challenges traditional notions of cleanliness and propriety. How do you believe society's perception of "clean and proper" bodies influences the treatment of those who are considered impure or outside the norm?

The social other is something that I found significant. As humans, we are social animals, and it is interesting to see the ways that society promotes a social life as well as preventing it. Through things like social media, we are encouraged to talk to one another and people that we would never have engaged with without this technology. But this inevitably comes with ways that some are pushed out of this social space. Through the many differing cultures, religions and social norms, people are almost filtered into groups of relevance. To me, I see the social abject as something which investigates the people who are deemed not relevant. Consequently, being pushed out of spaces. I think from this we start to see ways that spaces may connect to certain people. As some become spaces of comfortability for some and spaces of discomfort for others. 

Regarding the terms ‘clean’ and ‘proper’, I feel that these words are connected to ideas of purity and protection. People view ‘clean’ things as safe to touch or healthy to be around. Things like bodily fluids when outside the boundaries of the body, feel unclean. This may be because they are in a place where they don’t belong. It feels that when things are out of place (not where we expect them to be) they become anomalies. Within a world full of order, this chaotic categorisation doesn’t feel right. It feels uncomfortable. Overall, I think that a person who doesn’t fit into these categorisations within a space is therefore marginalised. With this, we can start to see how types of people are removed from certain environments and the cycle of what is desired continues. Through the work, it can question the associations to which we give things. As what feels initially out of place or improper may not be.

Hung by Mia Bilbeisi. Image courtesy of Mia Bilbeisi

Could you share an example of a specific piece or series that best embodies the themes and concepts you explore in your work? What was the inspiration behind it, and how did you translate your ideas into visual form?

Stained is a series of works which focuses on ideas around purity and impurity. The fabric which is stuffed and formed into intestinal shapes is covered in marks. These marks give attention to the topic of stains. These bodies are stained by pigments from paints, soils and other naturally found things. Through creating a textured surface, these marks refer to the veins, bruises and fluids found on and in the body. Bodies which are stained don’t only show the biological ways in which they run but also remark the ways in which they are impacted. When something is stained it is discoloured, leaving an impression which cannot be easily removed. Within Freud Lacan’s writing on Fetishism, he used the term ‘stigma indelible’. This term, when put in context with this topic, clearly states the permanent marks made onto bodies. In a less literal sense, bodies carry stigmas. These marks of disgrace are represented visually by the staining. Connecting the dirty with the unwanted. These bodies act as holders. Carrying the marks put on them by others. In contrast, these bodies are held up and restricted to the walls by metal fittings. These fittings usually found within a bathroom share a relationship with cleanliness too. These shiny metal surfaces feel sterile in comparison to the textured fabrics. They act as the ‘clean’ and ‘pure’ space. We see how the metal fittings simultaneously support the bodies. Keeping them up, holding them still. As well as restricting them. Are the bodies restrained by the fittings, or are they just overtaking this clean space? Making an environment where its dirtiness can reside. 

How has your research into the history of textiles and women's impactful impressions on the craft world influenced your artistic practice? Are there any specific historical references or figures that have had a profound influence on your work?

Overall, many textile practices have developed into something much more sculptural. Textile works have the ability to reinvent themselves. Through the materials used, textile practices are able to evolve over time. Artists like Lenore Tawney are well known for their ability to start weaving off the loom. Moving weaves away from the wall and out into the centre of the space. Here, Tawney’s works take over the space. When making my work, I feel it’s important to think about the way the works demand the space. Initially, my works felt two-dimensional. As I would print images of the body directly onto the fabric. By starting to add tufting-like effects to the fabric’s surface, it brings the work out from the wall. From this, I realised my fascination with texture. Textile materials bring with them the ability to manipulate. By starting to stuff these soft materials, I was able to reference the body indirectly, keeping the ambiguity of the work. With this, I moved away from the use of imagery and began to form sculptures which could hold themselves. When referencing an element of a body, the work carries a relatability. Through all owning bodies, we are connected. Both imagery and form have the strong ability to depict and allude to certain subjects. These differing approaches, carry opposing impacts on a viewer. I’ve found through sculptural works; a viewer gains a sense of a new body. One similar and different to their own. By simply being sculptural, we relate. But through its reinvention, we see the alternate forms that can exist. 

Within Stained, the works instantly feel familiar. Through their unique shapes, we as viewers can easily identify them as intestines. As they are something which we have. However, through their enlarged size and overexaggerated qualities, they become unfamiliar. Within many impactful works of art, I see this sense of unfamiliarity. The artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, who created her own Abakans, was able to capture this unfamiliarity. These larger soft sculptures she made questioned sculptural making. By using woven fibre, she made works which hung from the ceiling. Creating a new method of installation. Sculptures have changed since this; they do not have to be hard and sturdy. Abakanowicz, through her creation of soft, organic sculptures, aided the altered direction of three-dimensional making. 

In addition, textile works carry an association with decoration. Through the evolution of textiles and craft, the works have the ability to question utility. Décor isn’t needed. We decorate the spaces we live in to make them ‘look better’. The work made doesn’t embellish the space, it alters the usefulness of the materials it’s made of. The bed sheets which form the piece are no longer used to cover a bed. They exist in a new way. A way which may be much more important. It exists because it can. No one asked for this transformation, but it happened. Do these sculptures become completely useless? It feels that through this change of order the materials show off the alternative ways of materials. Continually moving textile making away from its traditional associations with women and the home and into the realm of contemporary art. 

Perforated by Mia Bilbeisi. Image courtesy of Mia Bilbeisi

You have curated exhibitions centered around themes such as "Body" and "Nuance." How do you approach curating shows that align with your artistic vision and concept? What do you hope viewers take away from these curated experiences?

Those exhibitions in particular have been curated by a group of us. When working in a group to curate, it’s interesting to see how a theme of an exhibition can be interpreted in different ways. The term body can relate to different things. E.g. the human form or a body of water. When deciding on a theme for the exhibition, we felt that the term ‘body’ was something that anyone would relate to and bring alternate viewpoints. For me, this is what is most motivating, as I enjoy seeing how others speak of bodies. Within my practice, my work alludes to this idea of otherness. This otherness is what I feel can be explored when curating an exhibition with different artists. When viewing an exhibition which shows off many different artists' work, you can start to see the way the works relate to each other as well as contrast. Which is exactly what the exhibition Nuance was about. Through curating, I was able to see how people’s backgrounds play a role in the work. Nuance highlighted these cultural impacts. As artists showed off their sense of place. As viewers, you could see how people’s ideas of home differ from one another. Through these exhibitions, I want the viewers to gain an insight into the nuances of people’s experiences. These differing perspectives encourage new means of viewing, experiencing, and considering.

Can you tell us more about the artist talks you have given, particularly the ones focused on your research into abjection and the history of textiles? What key points or insights do you aim to share with your audience during these talks? How was the preparation process?

Within talks, I’ve found it relevant to talk about the journey of my practice and the key aspects which have aided this journey. The topic of abjection was something which has impacted the start of my practice. To me, my research into abjection helped me to consider other ways of representing the human body. Through my research, I saw the importance of sculpture within my work. To make work that feels much more bodily, keeping it allusive. When talking about my practice, I feel I stress the significance of ambiguity. Through researching abjection, I realised the importance of this. I like to talk about the relatability and unrelatability of my works. As through their connection to the body, they feel identifiable but carry this otherness. Making them unrelatable and surreal. It’s through these contrasts that I can comment on the impacts that abjection has had on my work. As a result, these opposing factors form the basis of my work. But something which solidifies it in the present is its connection to the social other. Within some talks, I like to talk less about the decisions when making my work, and more about the social impacts that I feel my work critiques. The social other is something that philosophers like Georges Bataille analyse. Exploring the ways that we as humans disgust things and why we do so. I seek to emphasise the ways that feeling disgust towards something (like bodily fluids) may be an interesting thing to understand, but it is its further connection to the reasons why we disgust each other, which feels essential. Here, I can show the ways the bodies I make don’t just represent something disturbing but represent actual bodies that do and can exist. These confusing pieces act as beings which are discarded. But are now reimagined and made desired.

By talking about the research I do, I hope that people can look at the work I make in a new light. And see the opposing qualities of the pieces. Typically, when looking at the work without this understanding, people either find it more disturbing or more beautiful. Through these talks I am able to show off a different way of looking at the work, challenging the viewer to question their initial thoughts. So, to prepare for these talks I like to remind myself of the key things I want to tell. This may be more theory-based or more driven by my processes. From doing these talks I found that considering the type of audience you have is key. Sometimes I feel a research-based talk may be too much information and I may decide to show off the making processes. When doing this, the talk can feel much more informal and better suited to different audiences. 

Bloated by Mia Bilbeisi. Image courtesy of Mia Bilbeisi

Looking ahead, what are some new directions or themes you are excited to explore in your future work? How do you see your artistic practice evolving and continuing to challenge societal norms and perceptions?

I feel that my work has only just started to play around with scale. Next, I would like to expand my work, making it larger. Through this, I can play around with making something more intimidating for the viewer. With a larger piece, I would need to use more material. By playing around with larger pieces of material, I can experiment with different ways of dyeing fabrics. From this, I can try out different textures, creating surfaces which can feel intricate in comparison. Also, I’d like to look into creating contrasts in different ways, by using different materials. Combining the textiles with harder materials like metal or ceramics. By exploring new ways of making like this, I feel the concepts will form naturally. When making, I’ve found that a lot of the time your research and knowledge on a topic will show in what you’ve made. The making becomes an expression which translates the things which you are thinking.

Lastly, what message would you like to leave our readers?

I would say that I hope my work encouraged you to look at things from different perspectives. Through art, this can be one of the main modes that we are stimulated to think in new and diverse ways. 

Know more about the artist here.

Cover Image:

Knotted by Mia Bilbeisi. Image courtesy of Mia Bilbeisi

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Mia Bilbeisi’s practice primarily focuses on abjection. A theory proposed by Julia Kristeva, which underlines the term ‘other’ and how this other causes discomfort and disgust. Through this, she investigates the social impact on the people who are deemed other and rejected by society. Within her work, she shows the ambiguity within abjection. Through using found textile materials of old bedsheets and clothing, she contrasts the softness of this materiality with harsher bodily imagery. Here, she reuses unwanted materials. Making the discarded desired again. Highlighting the destructive habit of rejection and the importance of upcycling the unwanted. By highlighting the unwanted, she explores the notion of impurity. Creating works which feel distressed and dirty, but simultaneously delicate and pure. Here, she invites the impure. Challenging what ‘clean and proper’ bodies look like. Her work, which would have traditionally been considered ‘women’s work’, moves in and out of the boundaries between traditional craft and sculpture. Subverting our ideas around what is feminine. Encouraging the abject to live among us harmoniously.


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