When did you realize you wanted to become an artist?
Growing up, I lived in Windsor, Ontario, a small town in Canada, with my family. I didn’t have much exposure to galleries or museums, but in college I took a drawing class. There was this moment walking into the art building where it smelled weird and things looked interesting and I realized, “Oh yeah, this is where I have to be.”
How would you describe your art in three words?
Assyrian, queen, funk. “Assyrian” is an indigenous group of people from the Middle East, from which I’m descended. “Queen” because I’m inspired by artifacts of ancient Mesopotamian queens and powerful women in general. “Funk” because it’s a way to describe a genre of ceramics that is humorous and colorful.
Tell us about your working style, ideal studio environment, or any routines you have.
I share a studio with my husband, Nick Makanna, who is also a ceramicist. We have a level of understanding and comfort that makes working in the same space ideal. Having our dog there is a bonus. We call him our studio assistant!
What role does tradition play in your work as you create something contemporary?
My art is a constant process of researching ancient Mesopotamian artifacts and forms, then reintroducing them through a contemporary lens in clay.
What does craft mean to you?
Craft is cultural memory. It’s an archive of stories and experiences. It’s knowledge that’s been passed down over generations, especially as it relates to clay, which has followed human development over the past 20,000 years.
The ceramic handbag is a recurring motif in Yousif’s practice. While fashion is important to the artist, she borrows the notion of the cosmic handbag, meant to hold the knowledge of the world, from Sumerian and Assyrian art. In Cosmic Handbag Figurine: Out of Body Experience, the handbag is fused with a figurine. The sets of blue eyes are a reference to Sumerian sculptures placed in temples to serve as proxies for the worshippers: the large eyes symbolized the ability to better see the gods. These feature pupils made of inlaid lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone known for its distinctive intense blue color.
Many of Yousif’s sculptures are contemporary interpretations of ancient objects from Mesopotamia, partly located in present-day Iraq, where the artist was born and raised. In Brati’s Throne, Yousif has installed many figurines, including the eponymous Brati, at the top, wearing couture Viktor & Rolf, as well as cosmic handbags and palm trees, on a stepped platform resembling a ziggurat, or Mesopotamian temple. The sculptures are contemporary artifacts that combine ancient forms and symbolism with playful renderings and haute couture.
Yousif’s work honors the women who have influenced her throughout her life—from family members such as her mother to pan-Arab pop stars and Queen Puabi, an ancient Sumerian queen believed to have ruled on her own more than three thousand years ago. The artist’s figurines are effigies of strong women who are also nurturing and supportive of each other. In Infinity Strength, she has quite literally depicted a woman sustaining another woman on her head.
Typical of Yousif’s practice, Habibti Herself depicts a woman with a tender expression in a blue dress with pink ruffles, carrying a tiny cosmic handbag. Habibti means “my love” in Arabic.