Askia Bilal creates across planes of awareness. He senses his own smallness — the smallness of everyone who lives at particular points along history’s timeline, really. Bilal’s art also turns to face the great questions each generation asks, struggles to answer, then hands down like freight to the next.
It’s in the asking, Bilal says, that we broker a modicum of peace between history and what’s still unwritten, between ourselves and the waiting world.
“I feel that to be alive is no small thing,” Bilal said in an email followup to an earlier conversation with the Tribune. “I feel like I owe it to myself to use the resources available, to think and to ask questions about what this life means, and to try to do so with humility and sincerity, while I am able to.”
The Columbia artist, whose work is on display through February at Sager Braudis Gallery, demonstrates the truth that every person is a living, breathing bundle of experiences. In conversation, Bilal casually yet carefully refers to the artistic and poetic traditions of West Africa, the Platonic solids, canonical philosophers and more. Ever curious yet planting both feet on solid ground, he responds to external stimuli and existing dialogue actively yet deliberately.
Bilal’s art lives by its layers. A certain physicality attends the work, dating to school days at Columbia College, then at the University of Michigan. Restless in his pursuit and expression, Bilal never stays in one position long, sitting, standing, kneeling, traveling around his works-in-progress while in the studio.
“I think about the entire body as I’m working,” he said.
Materials such as paint, chalk, ink, oil pastels and more mingle in a creative process Bilal experiences like archaeology. Gathering elements, then tearing, drawing and marking into them, he engages in the act of digging, he said — through tangible media and more intangible ideas. Applying his hands and heart frees Bilal to begin wrapping his head around realities that existed well before him yet feel present-tense.
Two strains of his work interact in the gallery; they don’t relate like strangers, since Bilal prefers to take up multiple projects at once in his studio, but chatter back and forth. Where T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” meets Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” viewers will discover Bilal’s series of “non-portraits.”
He initiated this particular series last summer amid national outcry over the police killing of Minnesota man George Floyd. The work begins inside out, with a conversation Bilal knows well as a Black American — what it means to be “hyper-visible … but invisible at the same time.”
Giving this paradox a public — yet obscured — face requires viewers to confront Blackness and interrogate the types often encountered in portraiture. Bilal subtly shifts the terms and venue of the conversation, converting his internal monologue into something that, unfortunately, is more everlasting.
“I really want my work to push people in the direction of the human condition,” he said. “Whatever’s happening in the United States right now is just one manifestation of a thing that has happened in history over and over and over.”
Bilal’s “Wheel of Fortune” series brings an inherently human “riddle” into greater relief, the artist said. The ways fate and free will, chance and consequence intertwine to shape us — and how we accept or deny these forces — fascinates Bilal and offers a plot of common ground.
“We’re all connected in that way. We’re all subject to these same things in different ways,” he said.
Making this work and asking ever-present questions is “a way of negotiating some kind of peace within the self,” he added.
Peace comes through participation, Bilal ultimately believes. Accepting that some aspects of life sit beyond our control, yet refusing to sit by passively, we access necessary, nourishing companions like awe, mystery and wonder, he said.
Bilal and his art are too humble to suggest answers to the great puzzles of experience. Yet the work is just bold enough to keep the conversation going.
“Human nature is about the question,” Bilal said. “We’re asking all these questions about where our place is in the universe, and in life. … I like for my art to be about probing those questions, and maybe to have someone else ask that question of themselves.”
Bilal’s work remains on display at Sager Braudis Gallery through Feb. 27 alongside artists Annie Helmericks-Louder, Devin McDonald and Guigen Zha. Learn more about the February Exhibit at sagerbraudisgallery.com.
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