When first glancing at Askia Bilal’s paintings, colors and shapes seem to be the main focus of the artwork. Upon further examination, however, silhouettes take their form within the chaos. Bilal has coined the term “non-portraits” for these black, humanoid shapes that are surrounded by layers of paper and lines to provide a sense of depth.
To Bilal, non-portraits are “a figure or a portrait that is not at the same time” and is influenced by western figurative art while also pulling from non-western non-figurative art. He often relates this paradox to the human experience. Art to Bilal is therapy, a sense of wholeness and something bigger than himself. He mainly works with layers, so it was fitting that he composed his True/False artist talk in the same manner.
“I use a lot of layering of materials, and so the layering is really important in terms of the technique, the method of making but it is also important in the concept that I’m trying to communicate,” Bilal says.
Bilal’s first layer to his talk was his art training. He received his bachelor’s degree at Columbia College. While there, he studied traditional drawing and perspective, which he went on to praise as the foundation of western art. Bilal became infatuated with figurative art because “you can communicate the human experience through figure, like concepts of war, greed and fear.” These, to him, were things everybody understood.
Bilal went on to get his master’s degree at the University of Michigan. There, he became interested in art that was non-figurative by focusing on abstract art and expressionism. Historical periods such as the Byzantine period of iconoclasm, where artists completely rejected figures, fascinated him. Islamic art, where artists use geometric patterns and shapes, started to influence his creative process. He took concepts from philosophy and literature to communicate layers in his work as he struggled to “find a balance between the figure — because the figure is a very weighted thing” and abstract expressionism. This is when the solution of a non-portrait came to mind.
After Bilal started creating his non-portraits, he could finally communicate his identity and connect it to the human experience. This became the second layer of his talk. “It’s almost just like a shadow," Bilal says. "It’s something that you can’t avoid, but at the same time, it's something you can’t really make out,” Bilal says.
“This in-between space in terms of identity for me as a Black American is about— I’m probably going to get a little emotional— it's about being visible and invisible at the same time,” Bilal says. “The work you are looking at is a mirror of a man who is trying to work through the world.”
Bilal was surprised when the theme of the True/False Film Fest this year was In/visible Villages. The concept of hypervisibility and invisibility had been a theme for his artwork for the past year and a half. He thought “it spoke to a collective experience that is still happening to a lot of people.”
“As much as we try to forget about history, every day I am aware of it because I move through spaces and I feel the reactions,” Bilal says. “It is as if my body by its nature is an armed thing because if someone sees your skin as a weapon, as something that is harmful, by its nature, by default, it as if you are guilty before you are proven innocent. It is as if you are powerful and powerless.”
Bilal hopes that someday, when people see his black silhouettes, it will be something that is archetypal of the conscious, paradoxical human experience.
“We have a duty on ourselves to be aware of the experiences of other people and to make sure that we are doing what we can to make ourselves less unconscious and more conscious beings,” Bilal says.