Reciting Women: Alia Bensliman & Khalilah Sabree

Khalilah Sabree (born Macon, GA; active Trenton, NJ), The Inner Compartment, 2016–17, from the series Destruction of a Culture. Graphite, oil stick, acrylic, acrylic printing ink, paper, oil paint, and photographic collage on Masonite, 121.9 × 91.4 cm. Collection of the artist. © Khalilah Sabree. Photo: Joseph HuI first encountered the work of Alia Bensliman in fall 2022 in an exhibition at Artworks, a dynamic hub for the visual arts in downtown Trenton, New Jersey. Captivated by her intricately patterned portraits, I went on to see her work at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie Mansion and the Hutchins Galleries at the Lawrenceville School. I viewed more of her images of Amazigh women, which celebrate the visual traditions and cultural perseverance of the Indigenous people of North Africa.

My first meeting with Khalilah Sabree occurred soon after in Sabree’s studio at Artworks, a space as rich with painting materials as with finished works, neatly wrapped and organized by series. As we stood before the paintings she had set out, Sabree described her series Destruction of a Culture, in which a single photograph that she took during her pilgrimage to Mecca in 2004 is reproduced, transferred, and reworked across several panels to become a meditation on the physical and spiritual destruction that results from global conflict.

In some ways, Bensliman’s and Sabree’s lives and artistic practices are worlds apart: Sabree is a devout African American Muslim born in Macon, Georgia, who has spent her childhood and motherhood living in Trenton; Bensliman, a secular Muslim, was born in Tunis, Tunisia, and immigrated to the United States twelve years ago. Sabree received a master of fine arts degree in painting from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and works with a variety of materials—acrylic, oil stick, and graphite—often engaging with her subject matter through its materiality. Bensliman studied fine art and product design at the École d’Art et de Décoration in Tunis; she uses fine-tipped Micron pens and homemade watercolors to evoke the decorative motifs of Islamic and Amazigh textiles, architecture, and script, familiar to her from her family and life in Tunisia.

Yet these contrasts also reveal points of convergence, among them a shared spirit that led—after a series of wonderful joint conversations—to this exhibition. Both Sabree and Bensliman draw as much on Islamic architectural motifs as on personal and spiritual experiences to question boundaries between ornament and figure, painting and photograph, and traditional and modern imagery. Both artists rely on visual repetition to articulate the challenge and wonder of negotiating multiple intersecting identities. Their work platforms questions of Indigenous identification and activism, global concerns about Islamophobia, and widespread gender inequity. Human rights struggles and individual journeys meld, in works by both artists, into prayers for empathy and human connection. Seen together in Reciting Women, their paintings take on a contemplative form of storytelling, or recitation, that draws on memories and histories to peer into the future with resilience and hope.

I invite you to hear from the artists themselves.

Juliana Ochs Dweck
Chief Curator

In the Destruction of a Culture series, I explore how devastating changes disrupt world cultures and impact human relationships, societal structures, and the global landscape.

I weave in Islamic references, drawing inspiration from Quranic verses and Middle Eastern patterns, figures, and textures to create a narrative.

The series began with a single image: a photograph I took in Mecca of two African women gazing over a fence, as if peering into the future. The intensity of their focus captivated me; I envisioned them as bearers of a unique power, able to foresee a changing world that remains hidden from others. As this photograph became a series of paintings, imagination was my guiding force. I engaged in dhikr, allowing the remembrance of God to infuse my work with spiritual depth and resonance. Through meditation and contemplation, I delved into the essence of the original photo, seeking through my art to unlock its message.

Working on multiple panels simultaneously, I navigated between iterations of the original image. Each stroke, each additional element, contributed to the development of a cohesive group. My intention was not to depict any specific nation or people but rather to transcend boundaries and invite viewers to embrace a collective experience.

Destruction of a Culture is not just an artistic endeavor. It is my humble attempt to shed light on the profound impacts of cultural upheaval and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity. I aim to transport viewers to a world often overlooked—a world ravaged by the horrors of war. I want them to step into the shoes of those whose lives have been shattered, to immerse themselves in the complexities and emotions of a war-torn place. Through my art, I hope to evoke empathy, prompting viewers to reflect on the universal human condition, and to inspire a sense of unity and compassion.

— Khalilah Sabree

Khalilah Sabree, Silent Observation, 2016–17, from the series Destruction of a Culture. Graphite, oil stick, acrylic, acrylic printing ink, paper, oil paint, and photographic collage on Masonite, 121.9 × 91.4 cm. Collection of the artist. © Khalilah Sabree

Alia Bensliman (born 1983, Tunis, Tunisia; active Trenton, NJ), Glorious Nights, 2022. Watercolor, ink, markers, charcoal, and colored pencils on archival paper, 30.5 × 40.6 cm. Collection of the artist. © Alia Bensliman

I grew up in Tunisia, a crossroads of Eastern and ancient art and cultures on the one hand and of Western contemporary art on the other, and so my art fuses East and West, bringing together North African, Islamic, and Amazigh art. My drawings contain symbols and meanings that reflect my views on sociopolitical issues, religion, taboos, health, and human rights. They also depict my past experiences and how they have influenced me. My artwork is therefore a sort of diary of my everyday life.

Alia Bensliman, Me, Myself and I: Unfinished Conversation, 2023. Watercolor, ink, markers, charcoal, and colored pencil on archival paper, 62.2 × 83.8 cm. Collection of the artist. © Alia BenslimanI have been interested in and attracted to art and drawing since my early childhood. I struggled with learning disabilities throughout my education. My parents and grandparents encouraged me to pursue an art education. I thrived in art school, where I felt more at ease and able to learn and communicate through art.

During the pandemic, I felt trapped and nostalgic for my origins and my roots. I decided to create a series of portraits of Amazigh and North African women against backgrounds that combine arabesque geometric patterns and Arabic calligraphy drawn from my memories of the architecture, colors, and landscapes of my life in Tunisia. Creating this series made me feel closer to home and evoked senses, feelings, and happy memories.

My goal is for my drawings to intrigue, engage, and provoke viewers’ thoughts and reflections. I use a combination of intricate lines, shapes, and repetitive patterns enhanced with ink, gold and silver paint, and watercolors that I make from organic pigments. The level of detail in each work allows the viewer to discover new aspects and meanings each time they view the piece.

— Alia Bensliman

Art@Bainbridge is made possible through the generous support of the Virginia and Bagley Wright, Class of 1946, Program Fund for Modern and Contemporary Art; the Kathleen C. Sherrerd Program Fund for American Art; Joshua R. Slocum, Class of 1998, and Sara Slocum; Rachelle Belfer Malkin, Class of 1986, and Anthony E. Malkin; Barbara and Gerald Essig; Gene Locks, Class of 1959, and Sueyun Locks; and Ivy Beth Lewis. Additional support for Reciting Women: Alia Bensliman & Khalilah Sabree is provided by the Department of Near Eastern Studies, the Office of Religious Life, and the Department of Religion.