Reflections on Art and Culture

Acrylic on wooden panel, “self-portrait” by Domenic Jancaterino

The practice of making art has been so comforting during the pandemic. Back in March 2020, I was staying with Elena at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, less than five miles away from the containment zone in New Rochelle where coronavirus patients were being held. At that time, I knew that I couldn’t come back to New Haven. I’d found a temporary home at SLC which had then committed itself to keeping students on campus. I remember going to the dollar store with Elena—I don’t think we were wearing masks yet. I remember buying hand sanitizer, iron supplements, two decks of playing cards, and a pack of crayons. I think the first thing I drew was a man growing out of a tree and in the background I put some teeth, plastic bags, and fish. A few days later, SLC decided that all students would need to leave. Taylor said I could stay in her apartment until the end of the month, so I got on the MetroNorth and headed to Harlem. I think I became a little crazy there. At that time, I was scared to go outside and I was living alone. I would leave videos and podcasts playing almost constantly because I felt comforted by the human voices. I would draw with my crayons a lot after those horrible Zoom classes were over. Coronavirus taught me that hobbies can literally keep me alive.

I’m so grateful that my mom encouraged me to do arts and crafts when I was younger. My parents had tried to get me to do all of the sports—the kids football coach really wanted me to be on his team because I was kind of fat. I was not having it though. I remember my mom would take me to the Fuller Craft Museum on Saturday mornings. That was such a lovely experience. Every week, a craftswoman would guide us through a project and we could take home whatever we made. Right now, the project coming to mind is a box of chocolate truffles we made out of clay for Valentine’s Day. A few years later, my mom signed me up for a ceramics class with Ms. Sherman. Long live eccentric art teachers. After that though, I didn’t make much art for years. I thought that I had to do boring stuff like economics and debate to get into college so I did that instead. Coronavirus shook that up.After watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire in August, I really wanted to become a portrait artist. I started painting some of my friends that I couldn’t see anymore. In the background, I painted in protective spirits and other love markings. I was so excited to eventually bring these paintings up to New Haven and gift them to those friends. I usually paint on paper bags with some gesso. Then I stretch the paper onto cardboard with some masking tape and apply a few coats of satin varnish. Sometimes I paint on wooden boards or more rarely on canvas. At the start of this year, my New Year’s Resolution was to paint a plant every night. I kept this up for a while and one day I hope to anthologize these paintings into a guidebook for cooking and medicine. I’m really interested in transnational stories of interconnected human and plant diasporas.

Acrylic on paper bag stretched onto cardboard, “Caramia”
Acrylic on paper bag mounted on cardboard, حبة البركة (black seed)

I later became interested in printmaking as a way to make my art more physically dispersible. For two weeks, I spent several hours every day carving plants and their Arabic names into linoleum blocks and printing on little rectangles of watercolor paper. I sign the back Layla معلوف-Gaeta. I think Layla means Daughter of the Night. The surnames معلوف and Gaeta descend from my grandmother. In the mornings, I was bringing some of my prints to free library boxes around my neighborhood in Philly. I get so happy when I see people have taken them. Sometimes I sneak communist insignias onto the prints too. I’m particularly fond of an insignia I made crossing a gun and a wooden spoon to represent the combined power of domestic work and revolutionary violence. I like the idea of one day making a cartoon about vegetables for children.

Linocut relief print, رمان (pomegranate)

Carving Arabic has been a way for me to learn important vocabulary. I’ve wanted to study Arabic for a really long time but I always felt like there were so many obstacles. I’ve heard that the people who take Arabic at Yale want to work for the CIA, but I have no interest in committing war crimes for this empire. My friends in Yale Arabic courses told me that they learn how to say “State Department” before foods or colors. Before this year, the only Arabic words I knew were Sithu and Jithu and fatayer.

 

Being in the home so much and needing to spend as little money on food as possible has landed me in the kitchen. I’ve been thinking about my grandmother so much. She passed in 2013, but she raised me when I was young. She instilled in me her love of cooking the Italian and Syrian recipes she and the women before her had prepared for our family for years. I think I become more like her every day. Sometimes I write letters to her and I like to think that some of my art honors her.

 

Other than family, I would say my art is inspired by nature, music, films, history, and politics. When I’m making art I like to listen to Arca, Elis Regina, مشروع ليلى (Mashrou’ Leila), Azealia Banks, Björk, FKA twigs, and Hatsune Miku. Thanks to my Yale-sponsored Kanopy subscription, I’ve been watching some really amazing films recently. My favorites have been Wertmüller’s Film d’amore e d’anarchia (Love and Anarchy), Kobayashi’s 人間の條件 (The Human Condition), and the work of عباس کیارستمی‎ (Abbas Kiarostami). I love propaganda art and am inspired by antifa traditions of Italian Anarchists. I’ve been thinking a lot about the erasure of Islamic history in my education. I’m frustrated to see that no Arabic dialect classes have been listed in the Yale course catalog for next semester. My experience in the American public education system left a huge gap between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. I now understand that this gap was intentional to circumscribe a static image of the Arab monster terrorist. This stereotype has been achieved through centuries of Orientalist discourse, Zionist propaganda and other ongoing Western imperial projects in the Middle East, and sensationalist journalists like Vice.

 

I’m so inspired by the achievements of Islamic artists and thinkers working all over the world. My experience with the Catholic Church hasn’t brought me the peace my mother and grandmother have found in it. However, these women taught me the value of prayer. During the pandemic, I’ve been exploring different approaches to prayer and meditation. For the last month, I’ve begun studying Islamic geometry. The experience of using a ruler and compass over and over has been very peaceful. I believe that the completed images have protective qualities and I like to hang them on my walls.For a while, I was posting my art on Instagram. I might do this again someday, but I have a lot of problems with Instagram. I recently deactivated my account and deleted my Twitter. However, I do really enjoy posting my art. Posting my project is a way for me to feel like it’s completed. Instead, I’ve been uploading pictures of my work on Deviant Art, which is an online community of artists. My name there is @LaylaGaeta. I had to excise معلوف because the website doesn’t support the Arabic script. Looking to the future, I want to print zines to leave around my neighborhood and create a mosaic.

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