Photography by Lola Lafia
Interviewed by Elizabeth Meyer
Please introduce yourself:
My name is Stefani Shoreibah. I am a Sophomore at Barnard College, and I grew up in Florida. I am a visual artist and art history major, but I am also pre-med and studying to be a breast oncologist.
What made you decide to be an art history major and pre-med?
For me, both art and medicine are fields that critique the human condition in different ways, but their approach is similar. In that, you have to not only analyze what is in front of you, but also reflect on your own activity [and] see how you can look at something from a different angle. At the core of medicine is humanity, and I think that often gets lost in translation between all of the science classes that pre-med students have to take and the competitiveness in these classes. At the end of the day, medicine is about healing others and addressing their problems. Empathy is itself the medicine many times.
Does art also have a lot to do with empathy?
Absolutely. Art requires empathy for others and an understanding of the environment and space in which we live. You are looking at yourself and challenging how you perceive something, how you perceive the world around you. The work that I do is very personal, very vulnerable.
When and why did you begin creating?
I’ve always loved to draw, and I’ve always loved to paint. I was that kid who scribbled everywhere in coloring books because I hated staying inside the bold lines of whatever shape I was being told to draw. I would actually take my mom’s old medical textbooks because I thought they were advanced coloring books. There were all of these lines and dots and shapes and I would find myself coloring in them. My parents found me doing that one day, and it did not end well.
I went to an arts high school, and that was a huge turning point in my creative process. It was enrollment through audition only. It was a very competitive visual arts environment, but at the same time it was great to be surrounded by so many creative minds. Even though we were all visual artists from the same town and age, we approached things in a different way. It forces you to look at yourself and not only improve your technique but cultivate a better understanding of the art you were making.
How does your work manifest on campus?
I am an illustrator for the Barnard Bulletin and the Columbia Science Review.
What drew you to using both photography and hyper-realistic graphite drawing in your series, “Feet in the Desert”?
Half of my family is from Egypt; the other half is from the Philippines. My father is an immigrant, and came from Egypt to America. We go back every couple years and visit a farm my family owns on the Nile Delta. During my most recent visit, I went to all of the areas that are stereotypically Egyptian: the Sphinx, the Pyramids, and I took pictures and reflected on the idea of roots, ancestry, and heritage. Being an Arab-American in this cultural climate in America made me reflect a lot on what it means to be who I am. I chose to draw my feet because I felt that I was stepping into a space that I’m seemingly a part of, but in reality not. I’m Egyptian but only by blood, and not by experience. I grew up in America. This idea made me think of feet in the desert. The title is kind of ironic, because I’m in a state of mind trying to connect with my ancestry and while I was physically present in the land of my ancestors, I’m simultaneously detached and disconnected from being truly “Egyptian,” even if I call myself that. I thought that photography and drawing would be interesting to put together while reflecting on these ideas.
Why draw the feet instead of photographing them?
I wanted to capture Egypt for what it was; I didn’t want to touch it in drawing. I feel detached from it in a way. My feet are my own, and I wanted there to be a barrier in medium that would translate to the barrier between my identity and ancestry. This barrier also speaks to how everyone sees Egypt. What I photographed would be stereotypically something you would see in a magazine, and my photographs are not unique. They are images of Egypt of what foreigners see, people from the outside looking in, and ultimately, these images are what I see when I go back to Egypt. As much as I try to connect with ancestry, there’s always going to be this barrier, and to a considerable extent, I’ll always in some way be an outsider looking in on a place that I am supposedly rooted from.
For your sculpture, “subMERGED,” what drew you to creating a sculpture made from reused materials such as old newspapers, matches, cardboard boxes, Styrofoam, and plastic?
That was a fun piece to make, but I got into a lot of trouble when I made “subMERGED” in my senior year of high school because it was thought to be too political. I grew up in a red part of Florida, and art considered to be political was essentially controversial. “subMERGED” is a statement on American consumerism and human waste, a critique about where our environment is headed from the way we treat our planet.
The sculpture visually depicts objects submerging into the ocean. There are plastic bottles, matches, chicken wire fence, 1960s sewing pattern kits, styrofoam, newspaper, among other things. I literally went to a junkyard to gather materials. I wanted to use trash and junk, things that were tossed away, literal waste. My goal was to turn it all into something that spoke to how mankind has taken the planet’s natural resources and other living creatures for granted. The ocean is a major victim of mankind’s waste and, so much that it is practically a junkyard itself. I wanted to show all of these elements in my sculpture, a piece that I hope reflects the mankind’s carelessness in contaminating the ocean. So while “subMERGED” was thought to be political, it shouldn't have to be. Understanding environmental science should not be politicized. “subMERGED” serves to reflect the state of mankind’s relationship with Earth.
When did you start incorporating your political views into your art?
The area where I grew up in Florida is not in alignment with my political views. I began to embed politics into my work as I grew more aware of my anxiety around topics at the political forefront, such as climate change and women’s rights. Many things were happening while I was in art school, like the 2016 election, and I responded to these external events and adjustments through my art.
Art is my voice; my outlet of expression, as it is for a lot of people. I felt it even more so in a town where so many people were against what I believed politically and pushed back. That’s why I wanted “subMERGED” to be my piece for an exhibit we were doing senior year. My instructors insisted that it was not going to be received well. I thought to myself, if we are capping our voices and limiting how we can express ourselves, is what we are creating truly art?
In what ways do you incorporate nature and anatomy into your art?
With “subMERGED” and other pieces, I went outside and collected dead things. This will make me sound crazy, but I like to collect dead parts of nature. Not just dead leaves, I like to collect dead flowers. One time I found a butterfly wing and thought it was really beautiful and put it in a piece. I think it’s just artistic preference, to incorporate of anatomy and nature into my work. I like to think that my art reflects me responding to the space I’m in. Nature being actual, literal mother nature, but also the nature of our culture and of our political environment. Art reflects the space where I am and how I incorporate this into a piece reflects how I’m responding to a space.
Regarding anatomy, I love the human body. I think it’s so beautiful in its different forms, and I love drawing hands and feet. There’s an aesthetic to the human body that is raw, something simultaneously fragile and formidable. Anatomy is an essential aspect in studying medicine, and likewise, in studying art. Every art class sequence incorporates some aspect of anatomy. Anatomy is the the strongest visual tie between medicine and art.
In what ways do you work to achieve a binding between the arts, current events, and perception of self in your work?
I made a collage that responded to the Women’s March, and I think it really speaks to art reflecting on current events and my perception of self. When I made the collage, there was tension between cultural identity, personal identity, and what the 2016 election symbolized and threatened. There was also tension surrounding how people in our country could explore their identity. The Women’s March happened in January of 2017. I had a piece that I was working on for school, and the news was on while I was working on it. I thought, ‘I’m not doing this anymore,’ pushed it aside, and I started making my collage. As I was watching the screen, I was illustrating the women I was seeing protesting. This made me think of myself. I began to wonder, ‘What does this mean for me as a woman of color?’ Watching the Women’s March made me question so many different things, and I projected the anger, frustration, and anxiety that I was feeling onto this physical entity that became this collage.
To create the collage, I went back to old Radio Guides from the 1940s and 1930s, another time in which America was experiencing political tension, as well as war and the Great Depression. I ripped out ads of women of that time from the radio guides as well as photos of women in the domestic space cooking for their husbands. I put their faces next to the illustrations that I had drawn of women marching in the Women’s March. This was to show unity, in bringing women of different times and generations together, but I also did this to show stagnancy in the pursuit of gender equality. Women have come so far, but at the same time there’s a long way to go. It was a way for me to bring these women from the forties and thirties next to us in spirit as we enter another era of tension that already jeopardizes the rights of women.
In your portfolio you say, “There’s always a bit of vulnerability revealed in sharing art, but that’s a vital part of why I started my art blog.” In what ways does sharing art reveal vulnerability for you, and why do you feel that is a vital part in sharing your creation? Do you think vulnerability is an essential part of being an artist?
Art is my voice and a lot of times it expresses my thoughts and feelings in ways that words cannot. A lot of vulnerability goes into sharing parts of yourself that can’t always be expressed in words and conversation. Sometimes I have to project anxiety, tension, and internal conflict onto a physical entity. Art is a literal manifestation of voice and how I’m responding to something in a moment or over time. It’s important for artists to share so that we can see how others are feeling about something we might be responding to as well. Art goes back to human connection, which is also why I love medicine. Medicine is about human connection and looking at humans in their most vulnerable state. Art for me is a form of healing and medicine is healing as well. As I’ve grown, I’ve realized that medicine is an art itself. The worst thing is to have passionless art and passionless work. Passion is embedded into everything I do, and especially into my art.
What does the intersection of art and medicine mean to you?
I think the intersection of art and medicine speaks to the human condition in its most vulnerable state. Art, I think, is a critique of self. Art admits vulnerability, anxiety, and inner tension. By creating a physical piece, you’re releasing that energy into something that is going to be viewed by the world.
Medicine is learning to better yourself as a physician through working with a patient. There is often a power dynamic put into place between patients and physicians, something that must be eliminated. Of course, as a physician you have the education and training to address physiological problems humans experience, but you never know how that knowledge is going to be applied until you meet and converse with your patient and see what they want. It’s often said that medicine is about preservation of life, and I think it is about saving people, but saving someone differs with each patient. As an aspiring oncologist, and especially in oncology, life is such a fragile, vulnerable conversation. In the clinical experiences I have had, I learned that sometimes a patient doesn’t want the treatment meant to save their life, because perhaps, saving their life could mean something else for them, something that doesn't involve taking numerous medications or having radiation treatment. Empathy and understanding are especially crucial in oncology because of this. Humans are much more complex than the idea of “saving lives” because there is a point at which this differs among individuals.
Art and medicine as a whole speak to the complexity of the human. Both reveal that there is always, always more beyond the surface. Both teach to approach new situations with listening ears and an open mind and heart not only to others but to yourself.