Growing up, Omar Badrin 'wore a mask' to protect against racist bullies. Now he's made it his art

Badrin's textile art embodies the feelings of otherness that have been with him since childhood.

Badrin's textile art embodies the feelings of otherness that have been with him since childhood

Work from Omar Badrin's "Luh!" exhibition. Left: "Until the End." Centre: "Radiant." Right: "Lacuna." (Omar Badrin)

Artist Omar Badrin was quite young when his hometown began to feel alien. Or, rather, when he began to feel alien there.

"I knew my eyes were different than my friends'," he says. His classmates were all white kids. Born in Kuala Lumpur and adopted at birth by a family in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, there were few other visible minorities around. Still, he didn't know why he'd sometimes get singled out. He had an upbringing identical to that of his friends' — the same music and food and TV shows. "Their experience was the same as mine — I was just in a different suit."

A collection of Badrin's latest work is on view at Birch Contemporary in Toronto, where the 40-year-old textile artist is now based. He's titled the exhibition "Luh!" — a Newfoundlander expression for "look."

Installation view of Omar Badrin's Luh! exhibition. (Birch Contemporary)

Growing up, Badrin says, he'd get teased sometimes about his Asian features. He'd get called racial slurs. "I had to put this front on that it didn't bother me, that I wouldn't let people pick on me," he explains. "It was like a mask I had to wear."

The mask has thus become an important symbol for Badrin and his art practice. Grotesque and misshapen, woven in garish fluorescent cord, his sculptures embody those feelings of otherness. The shrouds, knit so loosely they fail to disguise, make the wearer hyper-visible instead.

In his home, draped over a credenza sat in the hallway, he points out a crochet table runner. "My grandmother made that," he says. He has kept a collection of her work. His mother and aunts also crocheted. For Badrin, the activity represents family tradition as well as the regional craft heritage of Newfoundland. To reflect on home and belonging, he has made crochet his art medium. When he first asked his mother to teach him, they began with a basic form; he chose to make a mask.

Omar Badrin's "Until the End." (Omar Badrin)

Badrin doesn't work in yarn. Instead, he repurposes materials significant to his past. Heavy fishing twine — the type used in nets, for example — is emblematic of the Maritimes. Mason line and flagging tape stand in for the years he spent working construction jobs, and he's begun using colourful paracord shipped from China. There's something "strange and interesting," Badrin says, about employing goods landed here by way of Asia.

Assembled in dayglo honey dew, flamingo and electric cyan, the textiles appear fun, maybe even funny — but also toxic. Their fluorescent colours declare an outsider status. It is a way of relating back to race without using literal skin tones, Badrin explains. "It's meant to draw your attention to the body." As a racialized person, there's always some visibility to your body. It can make you paranoid, he says. "You can't escape or hide from it."

He unfolds a full bodysuit in black fishing twine and stretches it out on the floor. It looks funerary, like a tomb effigy or a chalk outline. The words "Until the end" are affixed in cursive script to the figure's chest. Where some might read a proud expression of identity, Badrin finds a condemnation: this outsider status might follow him until he dies.

Omar Badrin's "The 80s." (Omar Badrin)

He pulls out other sculptures he's considering for the show, like an outsize mask labelled on its forehead with a racial slur (and not a slur intended for Malaysian people, he points out, but one he's too familiar with), then, a striped, arm-length glove with an extra-extra-long middle finger. He unfurls another bodysuit and hangs it over a chair as if its seated. "It's like an alien," he says, "but just its shell or maybe the skin it's shed." He's titled the work Lacuna, as in a cavity or an unfilled space. There's a subconscious void he describes, as if he, too, is lacking from the inside. "It comes from not fitting in," he says, "from not having a cultural identity that I've been accepted by. Or maybe it's that I haven't accepted it."

Badrin doesn't wear his sculptures. It makes him feel uncomfortable, he says: "It resurfaces all of these insecurities." It's through the labour of his art-making, though, that he processes that hurt. Sitting for hours, repeating a single stitch, he reflects intently on the experiences that have caused him to feel other. Surrounded by a room of crochet, "you'd think I'd have it resolved by now," he says, "but each time I unearth new perspectives." His sculptures, then, are a bit like tally strokes of an internal conversation he's having. "I go back to old problems and find new solutions and then also new problems within them." As his hooks work away, the ideas and inquiries multiply — then so do the masks.

Luh! Omar Badrin. To April 21, Birch Contemporary, Toronto.


Chris Hampton is a Hamilton-based freelance arts and culture writer. His work has appeared elsewhere in The New York Times, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Canadian Art. Find him on Instagram: @chris.hampton