Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

West Neighborhood: Howard el-Yasin

City-Wide Open Studios
50 Orange St., New Haven, (203) 772-2709
West Neighborhoods: Howard el-Yasin
Oct. 20, 2007.

Scrawled in chalk on a blackboard sitting unobtrusively on top of a cabinet in Howard el-Yasin's Gilbert Street studio was a request: "Would you like to participate in my hair project? Donate your hair."

Well, this blogger doesn't have much hair to donate—and less it seems every day—but I was willing to go for a trim. el-Yasin, however, suggested I could wait until it grew a little longer. While I was visiting, though, some other visitors did offer up their locks in the interest of art.

el-Yasin is collecting the hair for an installation. He is attracted to the se of organic materials in his art, and hair is a part of that. But hair itself has a number of significations that el-Yasin, an African-American artist, finds intriguing. For one, hair includes DNA, making it a marker of individual identity. But hair texture—and texture is a fascination for many artists these days—is also a signifier of ethnicity. el-Yasin told me that, "Hair in some cultures has a spiritual reference. I have heard that some people burn their hair when they cut it."

There was a big cardboard Dell Computer box under the table where he ad set out the snacks. el-Yasin stores the "anonymous" hair in that box. Hair keyed to specific individuals-categorized by name and date of donation-is in plastic baggies in plastic containers on one of his set of shelves. There is a red plastic mesh bag with "hairballs": clumps of hair that el-Yasin has soaked in water, let the water evaporate, added hair to and compressed.

"It's playful. Since people throw their hair out anyway, why not just give it to me? I'm the keeper of their souls," he added playfully. His hair project, he noted, "aims to unite humanity. I don't want to just focus on African-American hair or just one texture."

el-Yasin's work with hair proceeds, as much of his work does, through experimentation and trial and error. But, like much of his work, many of his "hair pieces" are based on the grid format. One, "Hair Piece No. 5," is about 8" square and is composed of interwoven strips of tea-stained paper (they look like strips of wood veneer). The hair is sewn into the strips and el-Yasin then pulls out the portions that he doesn't want.

His attraction to the grid format stems, el-Yasin said, from several factors-aesthetics, the influence of Minimalist Sol Lewitt's work, el-Yasin's interest in African textiles and a desire for structure. The grid makes its appearance in his monotypes and "string drawings"—pieces of string laboriously sewn into paper in a grid layout—as well as the "hair pieces."

"I like pieces that are minimalist simplicity but are complex and time-consuming," el-Yasin said.

One of the works in his studio, hanging from the ceiling, was "Verboten," a sculpture that he recently showed in City Gallery's NEST show. "Verboten" is also based on a grid structure but extrapolated into a three-dimensional form. It is bordered by a wire frame and consists of crosshatched layers of branches bound to the outer wire with twine.

"The idea is to stand under it and look up through it and get a touch of magic," said el-Yasin.

It is a fetish, after a fashion. Some of the tips of the branches that point outward are sharpened. There are also nails driven through some of the branches at top and bottom. Their use echoes the use of nails in African Nkisi art. (Alexis Peskine similarly employed nails in a recent Real Art Ways show.) The nails "guard against evil spirits," el-Yasin told me.

While elements of the spooky work have symbolic resonances, el-Yasin also made formalist choices. The branches are arranged in layers that alternate between ones that are sun-bleached or sanded white and others that are shiny from shellac and tan.

If you are interested in donating some hair for el-Yasin's hair project, you can email him at helyasin AT


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