Tarfia Faizullah on Contemporary Asian American Literature

Brooklyn-born poet and author of Seam, Tarfia Faizullah speaks at the Phillips as part of the Asian American Literature Festival on July 28. As a featured writer, we asked her a few questions about her work and the state of contemporary Asian American literature.

Tarfia Faizullah

What do you think having an Asian American literature festival means to the broader Asian American community? What does it mean in regards to the state of Asian American literature?

I think it’s always interesting to get folks of different generations, heritages, life experiences, talents, and perspectives into the same space at the same time, because it shows us what is possible, and how far we have already come. Some of the folks who will be there have provided, in decades past, the initial momentum and ambition that have helped newcomers blaze their own wondrous trails through the world of arts and letters. We have much to learn from each other, and we shouldn’t be content to merely maintain our own individual silos of experience—I’m excited about how different we all are from each other, as well as where we overlap and intersect. I hope to eavesdrop on as many conversations as I can! In all seriousness, this is an opportunity to add another point of view to our own, and to find enjoyment in each other’s company, which I don’t think should be underestimated as a potentially powerful tool of change. I just took another look at the lineup and schedule for the festival, and frankly, it means a time spent listening to, and being around, extraordinary and extraordinarily decent people who have a lot to share.

What do you want festival attendees to take away from “Tea with Tarfia”?

Registers of Illuminated Villages, Tarfia Faizullah. Releasing in March 2018.

I have so many fond memories of listening to my mother and her friends speaking intimately and openly to each other over tea. I was often surprised by how deep and vast the conversations could be. Sometimes, my mother and her friends would challenge each other’s perspectives, and it would lead not necessarily to agreement, but to understanding, which actually seems more difficult to achieve. My mother is still close with those friends, and I still return to and value the insights I got from just listening to the way others think. I appreciate that informality can lead to surprising and surprisingly deep forms of connection and intimacy. I’m hoping we’ll learn something fascinating about ourselves and each other in all sorts of delightful and unforeseen ways, and I’m hoping for laughter.

Also, these days, I’m often the one in the hot seat, so I’m excited for the chance to ask others what their current and primary concerns are. My hope is that folks who come will experience the pleasure of spontaneous, connective, and candid conversations, and that we’ll all leave with insights that may aid us in sorting through and better understanding the nuances of our own lives and the lives of others. Basically, I’ve always secretly maybe wanted to host my own talk show, and this is my chance! We’ll have tea! And I’ll have lots of questions.

Are there any themes that permeate throughout your work?

I would say there are certain obsessions that keep choosing me—memory, its fallibility/flexibility—time, basically, and how to express the strange music of all this pain and love and sorrow and joy.

Artistic Style (or Absence of)

Installation view of Markus Lüpertz at The Phillips Collection. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

The current exhibition at the Phillips is likely the first encounter many visitors have had with Markus Lüpertz’s work. There are a variety of reasons why Lüpertz has remained relatively unknown in the US to this day. Like his contemporaries, Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Jörg Immendorf, and A.R. Penck, Lüpertz’s importance in the German art world has been recognized for decades. Yet, while many of those artists have had major US exhibitions and retrospectives, Lüpertz has yet to break through to American audiences. In many ways, this is a product of Lüpertz’s prodigiousness and the range of his styles, subjects, and approach to art. Kiefer and Baselitz, for example, have both largely maintained a specific style and approach to their art that makes for a more easily digestible viewing experience: one tends to be able to recognize a Kiefer as a Kiefer immediately. Lüpertz went a different route. He’ll offer primitivistic, mask-like faces in one work and faceless, statue-like figures in another. Some works appear totally abstract; others are rife with recognizable objects and imagery. Thus, in place of Kiefer’s ashen, morose surfaces and Baselitz’s upside down, dissolving bodies, Lüpertz, the Unknown Great of German Postwar Art, gives colors, objects, forms—sometimes expressive and evocative and other times withdrawn and unyielding.

Max Rosenberg, 2016-17 UMD-Phillips Collection Postdoctoral Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art

Passion, Expression, and Physicality

Installation view of the Markus Lüpertz exhibition at The Phillips Collection. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

When Markus Lüpertz began his career, there were many trends and movements dominating the arts in West Germany. On the one hand, there was the persistence of large-scale German abstraction. Unlike Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning in the US, many German abstract painters created very sleek, crisp compositions that were often devoid of the more expressive and emotional language of the Abstract Expressionists. The Zero movement, founded by Heinz Mack and Otto Piene, was even more overt in its opposition to emotion and expression. More aligned with Minimalism and Arte Povera, the Zero artists largely abandoned traditional painting in favor of non-traditional, industrially produced materials, creating art that explored light and movement. The typological photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher, who began working in the sixties, came to influence a generation of art photographers who adopted the Bechers’ cool, rational style. International movements like Pop Art and Fluxus became increasingly popular in Germany at this time as well, challenging the relevance of traditional painting. Lüpertz, along with a handful of other artists with whom he is often associated) like Georg Baselitz and Eugen Schönebeck), was therefore unique in his contrarian commitment to expressive, ambitious, and challenging painting. As one German critic in the eighties put it, “the qualities [Lüpertz] praised were no longer rationalism, clear lines, smooth surfaces, but passion, expressivity, physicality and visionary forms and content, which leads to myth.” (Elke von Radziewsky).

Max Rosenberg, 2016-17 UMD-Phillips Collection Postdoctoral Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art