Sa'dia Rehman's 'Land of Promise' drawings adorn the walls at Columbus Museum of Art

The NYC artist's installation runs alongside of 'Justice in America: A Visual Inquiry,' part of the museum's Center for Art and Social Engagement

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Sa'dia Rehman's "The Land of Promise" at the Columbus Museum of Art

“Justice in America: A Visual Inquiry” features framed works from the Columbus Museum of Art's collection on the gallery walls, much like any other exhibition at the institution. But this room is different. All around the base of the walls, and bordering the room’s four doorways, faceless figures in black ink interact with stenciled images of barbed wire, surveillance cameras, checkpoints, protesters and fallen monuments.  

The wall drawings, titled collectively “The Land of Promise,” are the largest to date for New York artist Sa'dia Rehman, a Center for Art and Social Engagement (CASE) Fellow at the Columbus Museum of Art, who initially drew around the doorways in August of 2020, then added more images along the base of the gallery space in February. “The Land of Promise” both complements and competes with the museum’s collection, creating a conversation about borders, migration, protest, incarceration and more.

A detail from "The Land of Promise"

On Thursday, May 20, at 6 p.m., the museum will host a virtual program in conjunction with the exhibition: “Collectivity, Solidarity and Trajectory: Sa’dia Rehman in Conversation with Aram Han Sifuentes, Chris E. Vargas and The Brooklyn Hi-Art! Machine.” 

In a recent phone call, Rehman described how she developed her current artistic process, beginning with watercolors and sculpture, then employing stencils and cutouts while getting her MFA at Ohio State several years ago.  

"Before 2014 I was focused on silhouette, but then that transformed into stencils. And it also comes from me growing up in the ’80s and ’90s in New York City and seeing graffiti on the subway cars and all around me, but then also looking at cutouts and stencils within the home space. Those came out of more religious iconography. I saw wall hangings and Arabic calligraphy in the home hanging on the wall,” she said. “They were similar to the graffiti that I was seeing outside. It was decorative, but it was signage, of sorts, and also instructional.” 

Rehman also thinks of the stencils as viewfinders that change over time. “As the stencil is being used repeatedly, it kind of falls apart, so a new image appears as I continue to use it,” she said. 

In preparing for “The Land of Promise,” Rehman delved into the museum’s social realism collection. “It’s a collection of works that were made during the [Works Progress Administration era in the 1930s], so it was completely funded by the government for artists to go out and document the working class, the labor class and also farmers,” she said. “I was really fascinated by that collection, so while the museum was closed, I was looking at the images online and trying to gather ideas for parallels between these two moments in the pandemic and during the George Floyd protests in the summertime. … I was gravitating towards imagery of protests during that time. I was gravitating towards imagery of people getting evicted, or strike lines. And so I started drawing from those images.” 

A detail from "The Land of Promise"

Normally, Rehman doesn’t limit herself to archival research for inspiration. She often alters the work in real time based on conversations with visitors. The pandemic made that approach impossible, but Rehman found other ways to interact with the community, meeting in a socially distant setting with Maroon Arts Group, including Julialynne Walker, and over Zoom with the Returning Artists Guild, co-founded by Aimee Wissman, as well as a drawing class Rehman was teaching at Ohio State. 

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“I felt like it was important to talk to people in the community and get a sense of what they wanted to see in the space, but also what they were thinking about in terms of justice, because that was the whole theme of this CASE gallery,” she said. “In those workshops, I was doing a collective and individual vision board. We were creating those together. And some of the themes that came out of that was thinking about land, horizon, the afterlife and the future.” 

Rehman took those four themes and assigned each to a doorway in the gallery space. The Land doorway features protest signage and imagery of families hugging, grains, farming and gravestones. Parallel to Land is Horizon, with the reappearance of protesters, but also surveillance imagery (cameras, checkpoints). The Future doorway features a moon flower inspired by a drawing from Julialynne Walker. “It’s wrapping around the chain-link fence, and you don't know what's taking over, the chain-link fence or the moonflower,” Rehman said.  

Across from Future is the Afterlife doorway, which draws from Rehman’s Muslim background. “It’s an Islamic motif of an eight-pointed star. This star in Islamic art and architecture, it means unity, wholeness,” she said. “I wanted that to be a gateway — an entry point or portal.” 

The doorways are all connected, not just by the wall drawings at the base, but by the various motifs reverberating with each other. And the drawing itself, as a whole, creates a border — a term that can denote something beautiful, like a decorative adornment, but also a gateway that so often remains closed off to those looking for a land of promise.