Art We Heart: Leila El Rayes

September 7th 2016

My place is placeless, Leila El 2016

My place is placelessness, 2016

Leila El Rayes’ work is fiery red, intense and sensual. Her practice is an act of cross-cultural defiance: an affecting blend of punk culture and Eastern aesthetics.

Born and raised in Sydney from Egyptian and Palestinian descent, Lelia explores the notion of ‘biculturalism’ in her art. Recently, I was fortunate enough to meet with Leila in her honours studio at UNSW Art & Design.

Working in sculpture, installation, painting, photography, video and performance, Leila doesn’t limit herself with materials to refine how she creates. She has hand painted the Southern Cross on Papyrus paper, fashioned carpets from nails, and used party bunting to montage the words “camel rider”.

“I just sit down and use whatever is closest to me,” Leila says.

Drawing on her heritage and ideas of displacement, her work explores and critiques the notion that ‘the grass is greener on the other side’. Growing up with Islamic influence in the Western suburbs of Sydney, Leila addresses the realities of existing at the juncture between Eastern and Western cultures. As she puts it: “I have an arm in each field, with my body sitting in the middle.”

Honest and humourous, her work addresses the tropes of bicultural exoticisation with a playful, tongue-in-cheek approach. Leila works with motifs of serpents and traditional carpets, alluding to forbidden fruit and female sensuality. She references the image of the belly dancer as the ultimate femme fatale.

Talking me through her practice, Leila reveals the contents of her ‘Mary Poppins bag’ of studio essentials: sunglasses, a pouch of tobacco, KFC and a metal chain skirt adorned with 50 Daiso knives.

vulnerable and volatile

Vulnerable & Volatile, 2016

This knife skirt is worn in Leila’s most recent performance piece, Vulnerable & Volatile. It is an intense and confronting work. Leila dances with grace, despite the heavy and restricting garment. Accompanied by red lights, a strobe, video projection, and a live Arabian drum loud enough to feel the beat in your bones, she demands your undivided attention. She is reclaiming the male gaze and simultaneously cutting it right off. The audience passively witness the struggle of the dancer as the piece progresses, catching a metaphorical glimpse into the realities of her everyday life.

Leila’s work examines the fine line between being visible and invisible. She explores the idea of being dissolved into a generic, predetermined culture. In her video work Bellydancer, Leila is draped in traditional fabrics that identically match the fiery red fabric backdrop behind her. She camouflages with the background as she dances slowly and effortlessly in and out of the frame.

belly dancerBellydancer, 2015

Inspired by the sounds and ethos of punk icon Nina Simone, Leila uses her practice to stay strong to her voice. By working through the lens of her cross cultural upbringing, she is able to “look into many different fields, rather than standing on one particular side”.

“You can stand on the outskirts, which is also part of being within all,” Leila explains.

You can catch Leila performing Bellydancer live at Free Fall in the Oxford Art Factory cube this September.


WHO: Leila El Rayes
WHAT: Bellydancer at Free Fall
WHERE: The cube at Oxford Art Factory
WHEN: September 16, 17, October 7, 8


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