Miami artist Jason Seife digs deep into Middle Eastern heritage at PAMM
Miami-based artist Jason Seife has his first solo exhibition in the U.S. opening at Pérez Art Museum Miami. “Coming to Fruition,” at PAMM through March 2024, explores his dual heritage. (Photo courtesy of Lazaro Llanes)
Jason Seife’s intricate paintings of near-Eastern carpet patterns may belie the fact that it is the work of an artist raised in Miami.
Born to a Cuban-American mother and a Syrian-American father who both immigrated to the United States in early childhood, the artist admits that his work seems foreign in the context of Miami’s art landscape, driven as it is by flashy pop art and immersive installations. Yet his upbringing in the very cosmopolitan city, where it was not strange for himself and his friends when growing up to have origins in other places, was crucial to his development as an artist.
He was immersed in his Hispanic identity in Little Havana and admits he wouldn’t have explored the Middle Eastern side if there hadn’t been a certain lack of exposure to it, especially after his father’s parents died.
“It was always spoken of as this like, mystery, or this utopian thing,” says Seife. Some of his earliest childhood drawings were of the oriental carpets his family would keep in the house.
“I was always drawing them, I remember, just because I loved the shapes. I didn’t think much about them, I didn’t think about making them as artwork.”
Today, Middle Eastern textile art forms the backbone of Seife’s artistry, which will be on full display in his first solo show in the U.S. and his first solo show the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). Titled “Coming to Fruition,” the exhibit realizes a childhood dream for Seife, who became interested in art as a child after visiting the Miami Art Museum — PAMM’s original incarnation.
“I didn’t even think it was fathomable,” he says of showing at the museum. “That’s why we leaned into that idea of ‘Coming to Fruition,’ because there’s that importance of walking through that space from a young age, (and) my first solo show in Miami being there.”
Seife did not go to art school and took a lengthy break from art after a traumatizing rejection from the New World School of the Arts. “It completely destroyed me… I took it in a way where it was so black and white. It wasn’t the denial of the school, it was the denial of this dream,” he says. It was only later, as he began to look into his heritage, that he returned to art and began to consider his early drawings in a new light. He began to research carpet-making practices from around the Middle East, learning about the details and histories behind certain designs from experts. Eventually, he traveled to Syria and Iran, two countries that are almost impenetrable for an American citizen, to learn from the source.
“I was actually the first U.S. tourist visa that was granted to go to Syria since the war in 2011,” he says. “It was bittersweet being there because it’s so beautiful, but also, you’re very much reminded constantly that this is a country that is still an active war zone. And even when I would check into a hotel, they saw my passport and would just look at me like I’m crazy.”
Seife was helped through the “taxing” visa processes through contacts made with locals in the Middle East on Instagram. His anecdotes from the journey are remarkable. He traveled through small towns where the novelty of a foreign traveler would cause the locals to ask for photos. In Syria, he found himself enamored with the unique aesthetics of run-down buildings in need of repair – tile missing from walls, revealing the mortar work beneath – that ultimately informed his paintings on concrete.
“I was really drawn to the natural degradations that would happen in these walls,” he recalls. “I saw these kind of buildings that had weathered away over time, and I was more attracted to the ones that were in some of the poorer cities that didn’t have the budgets to renovate them. Because you really saw the aging of time.”
Influenced by his travels, Seife’s work places the ancient craft practices of Syria and Iran into a contemporary context, blending handmade detail with modern tools. Rather than weaving, Seife executes his ornate designs as paintings, some on canvas, and many more on solid slabs of concrete that have been purposefully weathered. He uses Photoshop to pre-draw the designs before painstakingly coloring them in on the slabs, a process that can sometimes take hours and requires an almost meditative state of focus.
“The more I’m somewhere else in my mind, the more precise I am in my paintings. The more I’m thinking about a line, the more I’m gonna screw it up. I’m not a gestural painter, I’m not a physical painter, I don’t need to be thinking about what I’m doing. The process is done already in the digital stage. Once it’s here I’m kind of just bringing it to life.”
Applying his own artisanship while using digital technology is Seife’s way of evoking the same feeling of awe that he found overseas. He describes being thunderstruck by the sacred geometry of Iranian mosque architecture, and hopes his paintings can inspire a similar state of ecstasy.
“When you know that something’s handmade, you want to understand how they do this or that,” he says. “Between machine-made carpets and handmade carpets, what’s the difference there? Why do we gravitate towards (that)? Why do we feel something a little bit more when you know something was funneled through a human being? It has a spirit to it, or a soul that maybe the machine one doesn’t. So that’s something I always try to involve in my work,” says Seife.
Seife’s travels seemed to solidify this perspective in him. Generally, Seife says, the people in these far-off places were extraordinarily hospitable, despite his fears about being shunned as an American. Rather, he says that most of the people he encountered were thrilled that a foreigner had expressed such deep interest in their culture.
In one of the carpet studios he says his Iranian guide took him to, Seife recalls meeting a weaver who had gone blind in her old age and continued to work by memory and touch. In another, he was told through a translator that the weavers, most of whom were female and worked under a male designer, always left intentional errors in the rugs they worked on. “They always make mistakes because only God can be perfect.”
His ability to synthesize those experiences and the perspective gained from them with his upbringing in Miami makes him a truly unique artist.
“On either side of my family, if there were a couple of different decisions made, I would have a very different life, if I grew up in Cuba or in Syria. You kind of have to get over that and be like, I have to use this gift and make the most out of it.”
WHAT: “Jason Seife: Coming To Fruition”
WHEN: Exhibition opening reception, Thursday, 6 p.m., May 18. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday through Monday. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Through March 17, 2024.
WHERE: Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd, Miami.
COST: $16 for adults, $12 for seniors (62+ with ID) and youth (7-18), free for children (6 and under), active U.S. military and veterans (with ID), Florida educators (with ID), healthcare professionals and first responders (with ID), disabled visitors and caregiver, and museum members.
INFORMATION: (305) 375-3000 or pamm.org
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