Saudi poet and artist Hana Almilli: ‘After each piece, there’s some sort of conclusion’ 

DUBAI: Saudi artist Hana Almilli and her two siblings grew up in a household where creativity and self-expression were actively encouraged. “My mom is a poet,” Almilli tells Arab News. “And my dad was very motivating in terms of doing photography.” Her two brothers, she adds, “are both talented in terms of music and art.” And with her Syrian maternal grandmother, Almilli shares a love of nature and of textiles. 

But aside from being one of the main inspirations behind her creative output, Almilli’s family are also the subject of most of it. Through her poetry, embroidery, weaving, dyeing and photography, she explores her own history and her diverse cultural identity (she has Saudi, Syrian, Turkish, Kurdish, and Palestinian ancestry).  

c93a2190 a565 4031 8b9c 91743320d7ad
Detail from ‘Memoirs 2,’ which shows Almilli’s maternal grandmother in Syria. (Supplied)

“It’s about me and my family history,” Almilli says of her work, which was most recently on display at Art Dubai in March. “It does really focus on heritage, history, personal narratives.  

“Being from all these different identities, it’s always been important to be a part of those cultures,” she continues. “They’re all very different. And sitting with each and every grandparent, which I’ve had the privilege of doing, you learn so much. Growing up I’d have Turkish lullabies from my Turkish grandma, Kurdish news on the televsion that my grandpa would translate. My memory’s not great, but those specific moments from my childhood still remain; I still write about them and I’m still inspired by them. And I still want to almost recreate them in my work.” 

Aside from her family history, the other major theme running through Almilli’s work is alienation or estrangement (as made clear in the title of her ongoing series “The Echoes of My Alienation”). That may seem odd in someone who talks so warmly of her close and nurturing family ties, but those same ties could, perhaps, have been one of the causes of her alienation. 

4 hana almilli a fragile dawn a floating wish a fleeting farewell on display at samoca
‘A fragile dawn, a floating wish, a fleeting farewell’ on display at SAMOCA. (Supplied)

It really began when she moved to the US to attend the California College of the Arts in 2014. Initially, she was studying architecture, but, “I just hated it. I couldn’t express myself in any way that I wanted to.” She shifted courses, eventually graduating with a focus on textiles and creative writing, the latter allowing her to build on her poetry writing, which began as a teenager with verses that were “hidden under the bed — ‘No one’s looking at this.’” 

It was towards the end of her college years that she began “The Echoes of My Alienation,” although the emotions it explores had surfaced almost as soon as she arrived in the States.  

“My first day in the US, there was an earthquake, and I’d never experienced an earthquake. So it was almost like the beginning of this trial of alienation,” Almilli says. “I was, like, ‘I don’t know if this is for me.’ So persevering, and staying there for five years, was an interesting experience. It grew that alienation. And I wouldn’t say it has dissipated. It still stays, because if it doesn’t then that curiosity about finding out where I come from is gone.” 

The series features a number of different works, including several self-portraits and images of family members embellished with embroidery. 

“You can see the pieces are obsessively embroidered with little maps. I was almost mapping myself out — those identities that have always been a part of my life but that, to some extent, I had lost as I travelled to the US and was far from home. My grandma had Alzheimer’s at the time, too, so that history was lost with her. My grandpa had passed away in the first year I was in the US as well, so there’s this aspect of rediscovering and recreating history through myself in self-portraits.” 

5 languages interlacing 2 one of almillis self portraits
 ‘Languages Interlacing 2,’ one of Almilli’s self-portraits. (Supplied)

The “most emotional” section of the series, she says, is “Memoirs.” In “Memoirs 2” Almilli has embroidered delicate jasmine flowers over an image of her maternal grandmother in Syria, standing among trees.  

“It’s the same technique I use every time, but I intuitively highlight specific parts of an image, whether it’s to hide or accentuate,” Almilli explains. “My grandma and I have a great connection with flowers.” 

As she explored working with textiles, Almilli also developed her poetry skills. She has even published the poems that she once hid under her bed.  

“At art school, you don’t really have that fear of exposing yourself, because everyone is. So I found the courage to take part in this school publication that went around California as well. That really re-started everything in terms of writing and, ever since, every piece I make has been inspired by a written poem.  

“Usually, my works are unique pieces representing a story, or a dream, or someone,” she continues. “It’s interesting, because nowadays, with contemporary art, you’re meant to look at it and make your own sense of it. But, to me, it’s important to know the story of what happened. Being able to write, as an artist, is very important for me because it gives context to my work — what it represents, what it feels like.” She cites her piece on display at the Saudi Arabia Museum of Contemporary Art — “A fragile dawn, a floating wish, a fleeting farewell.” “That was initially a long poem that got turned into an embroidered piece that has the poetry within it,” she explains. 

With so many different outlets for her creativity, her mind must be constantly churning with ideas, which seems like it could get exhausting, I suggest. But Almilli, who returned to Saudi Arabia in 2019, explains that she’ll often take a lengthy break after finishing a piece or a series. 

“After each piece, there’s some sort of conclusion,” she says. “For example, the piece I just spoke about talks about how, in my dreams, I meet people I’ve loved, but they’re forever drowning in my dreams. Like, my grandma had Alzheimer’s for a few years and we couldn’t get her to Saudi. It’s almost like the only connection I had with her was when she showed up in my dreams. And to be able to write that and grasp it, and put it into something that is physical… it’s very difficult, in the beginning, because you’re facing the idea of that loss in the future, but after that comes a conclusion of sorts: ‘Now I understand these emotions.’ I try to think about what I wrote when I’m making each piece, and — if it’s a difficult piece — to try and heal from it in the process. That difficult feeling becomes something you can bear, whatever it might be.” 

And even though her pieces are so personal, Almilli has found her work connects with people on a very emotional level.  

“As much as my stories are about my personal history, and my family’s oral history and heritage, at the end of the day there are a lot of people that feel an alienation, or a craving after the loss of a person for that person. So they are stories that people can relate to,” she says.  

“I cherish my pieces so much. It’s very difficult for me to let go of them, but I’ve grown to understand that it’s really about being able to share that story with people and show them that there are others going through that,” she continues. “It’s beautiful too, because I hear stories from others that they’ve never spoken about. It’s important, because it shows them that you can embrace multiple aspects of yourself, and that’s OK.”  

Leave a Comment