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The Edge of LegibilityKameelah Janan Rasheed

October 20, 2021

Visit our Awards page for this film’s honors and recognition.

logo·​phile | \ ˈlȯ-gə-ˌfī(-ə)l : a lover of words. A self-described “learner,” immersed in books since childhood, text-based artist Kameelah Janan Rasheed is uniquely fascinated with the written word and its power to both define and destabilize how we understand the world. Rasheed photocopies pages from books and printed materials, cuts out words and sentences, and re-arranges them in poetic, provocative, or even confusing combinations. The resulting sprawling wall collages, billboards, films and public installations encourage viewers to do the work of understanding. “It’s really an invitation,” says Rasheed, “Come think with me.” This short documentary film explores the artist’s expansive ideas and miniaturist process in her book-filled, Brooklyn home studio; the film’s exclusively close up style mirrors Rasheed’s own preoccupation with fragments, slowly building up a portrait over time.

From her studio, Rasheed sorts through stacks of childhood drawings and family photographs while recounting her father’s conversion to Islam in the early 1980s. His method of note taking, excerpting, and annotating inspired Rasheed’s own artistic practice. “I was thinking of this idea of talking back to a text,” says the artist, “Each time we read something, we’re annotating on the page or in our heads and creating a new text. It’s this act of collaboration between the reader and the writer.” At work on a new piece, Rasheed searches her books for specific shapes and styles of lettering, rather than particular words. She pieces together these fragments into longer phrases and sentences, intuitively creating combinations that code or complicate that which could be said plainly. Rather than jumping to understanding, viewers are invited to move more slowly and engage with works over and over again to create layers of meaning. For Rasheed, this approach also presents a powerful possibility for how we can publicly move through the world and create a kind of self-protection. “I think a lot about what it actually means to make myself legible,” says the artist. “How you present yourself to the world that’s legible and appealing to people, versus I’m not gonna make myself known until I’m ready.”

More information and credits


New York Close Up Series Producer: Nick Ravich. Director & Producer: Carrie Hawks. Editor: Brian Redondo. Cinematography: Rose Bush. Additional Camera: Diana Larrea. Sound: Monica Rodriguez. Additional Animation: Carrie Hawks. Sound Design & Mix: Gisela Fullà-Silvestre. Color Correction: Addison Post. Design & Graphics: Chips. Music: Blue Dot Sessions and Th&o. Artwork Courtesy: Kameelah Janan Rasheed. Thanks: Angie Gonzalez, Betty McGhee, Piero Atchugarry Gallery, and Octavia Yearwood.

New York Close Up is supported by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts; and, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; Dawn and Chris Fleischner; and by individual contributors.

Digital exhibition of New York Close Up films is made possible in part by the New York State Council on the Arts.

Closed captionsAvailable in English, German, Romanian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Italian

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Kameelah Janan Rasheed

Kameelah Janan Rasheed was born in 1985 in East Palo Alto, California, and lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. She received a BA in public policy from Pomona College and an MA in secondary social-studies education from Stanford University. A self-described learner, Rasheed examines the appearance and legibility of text in a range of creative forms, including wall collages, large-scale public installations, publications, and lecture-performances. Poetic and political, these works explore the complications, slippages, and possibilities of language in relation to Black subjectivity while they create new ecosystems of meaning.

“Text has this illusion of comprehensiveness. Even if you’ve read something once, it doesn’t mean that you understand it.”

Kameelah Janan Rasheed

Language and Text