‘We Evolve Together’: Food Artist Laila Gohar and Graphic Designer Omar Sosa on How Married Life Fuels Their Creativity
For Artnet's Art and Modern Love series, the New York-based couple sat down to discuss the rewards and challenges of a relationship between two creative souls.
What’s it like for two artists to be in a romantic relationship?
History has provided us with enough examples to know that partnerships between creatives can be as mutually beneficial as they can be toxic. In fact, some of the more famous love stories over the years have been those of artists whose brightly burning unions emit as much smoke as they do light. Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera, for instance, ultimately couldn’t live without each other—or, as it turned out, under the same roof. The artist Françoise Gilot, Pablo Picasso’s longtime lover, noted in her recent memoir that “a relationship with Picasso was a catastrophe I didn’t want to avoid.” Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, meanwhile, shaped and influenced each other’s styles considerably, even though they maintained a strict invitation-only policy for visiting each other’s studios.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though.
Recently, Artnet News sat down with food artist Laila Gohar and graphic designer Omar Sosa at their favorite New York haunt, Cafe Altro Paradiso, to learn about their lives as two married young creatives building a future together. The Cairo-born Gohar, who designs “eating experiences” and edible still-life installations, uses food to bring people from different cultures around the same table, while also drawing attention to the way technology has disrupted even such simple human interactions as sharing a meal. Her thoughtful culinary approach has made her a frequent collaborator of New York’s Chamber Gallery, Creative Time, and Galerie Perrotin, as well as brands like Google and Tiffany & Co.
Sosa, her husband, grew up in Barcelona and is a graphic designer, publisher of artists’ books, and freelance creative director for a number of design- and lifestyle-companies under Apartamento Studios, a creative consultancy born from the interiors magazine Apartamento, which Sosa co-founded in 2008. Since its founding, the cult-favorite publication has garnered acclaim for its mission to showcase the charm of unstaged, real-life interior design. (Its tagline reads “a tidy house only exists in your mother’s imagination.”)
Below, Noor Brara spoke to Gohar and Sosa about how they met and fell in love, what it’s like to be wedded to another creative person, which artist’s work they hope to acquire (someday), and the pains of self-promotion.
How did you meet?
Laila Gohar: We have different versions of this story, but I’ll let Omar tell it. My version is much less romantic.
Omar Sosa: I’ll tell the short version. I used to come to New York often when I lived in Barcelona, where I grew up. One day we were introduced by mutual friends. After that, we saw each other at a few dinners. I don’t remember how we ended up going to Coney Island alone—it was supposed to be a big group of people, and for whatever reason no one else showed up—but we had a great day together. I thought it was romantic, and she thought it was whatever. Despite that, though, she started texting me nonstop. After a few years of texting and more visits to New York, the relationship slowly began to evolve. It’s going to take me so long to tell this story.
Gohar: Do you see how he’s itching to tell the long version? [laughs] Basically we met, but nothing happened for a couple of years. I didn’t really like him for a long time. He wasn’t really living here and I didn’t want to do long-distance. We would just see each other every once in a while when he would visit. Eventually, he moved here and then moved in with me.
How did you know the relationship was something more than a friendship?
Sosa: She became someone I always wanted to talk to. When we were apart, we would have dinner together over FaceTime. So we grew closer. It was half because of that, and half because she was an obsession of mine.
Gohar: You were obsessed with me?!
She was your muse!
Sosa: She was. And then, of course, moving to New York meant that we could begin to really envision a life together, but I didn’t want to get too stuck on that. I didn’t know how serious she was about me. But eventually, she came to Barcelona to visit me—my policy was, you know, “Come to me if you think this is serious”— and we spent a couple of weeks together and then we knew we wanted to be with each other. Then I moved here. The rest is history. A year and a half later, we were married.
You were married last year at a gorgeous wedding in Andalucia, to which you both arrived on horseback. What was that like?
Gohar: Our wedding was really fun. Not to talk myself up, but if I have one skill it’s that I can throw a really great party. So it was just that—a really, really fun party. I enjoyed every minute of it, from the planning to the actual ceremony. It was very relaxed, but it was also very celebratory and rowdy.
Sosa: We want to do it again. We fantasize about that all the time, but it’s too soon to do it now. We wish it were five or 10 years from now—it would be fantastic. It’s definitely going to happen again.
As an artist couple, tell me a little about how you engage with art. What art do you enjoy together or disagree about? What do you like to live with?
Gohar: I would say that we’re drawn to similar things. Certainly, there are also some differences in what we gravitate towards. I think when you live with someone you get to know what they will be drawn to, to some degree, and I appreciate that we know what the other likes. I think there’s also a big difference between what you like and what you like to live with. I wouldn’t limit the latter to one category, but, for example, Omar doesn’t like to have figurative works in the bedroom, which I don’t really mind. He doesn’t like to look at faces in there, but now, for some reason, we have a lot of that kind of work. It’s funny how you think you don’t like something, but with time, you ease into it. I find that our preferences—our relationships with our things and the things we like—can be really fluid.
Sosa: I think the thing we have in common is that neither of us have clear boundaries about what we do and do not like. Even though we have different tastes, we kind of evolve together—sometimes in different directions, but I think that’s what makes life interesting for us. It’s never black or white. It’s never a static situation.
Gohar: Omar is a graphic designer and at one point he was drawn to more graphic, repetitive prints and works. We had a lot of stuff like that in our home, a lot of patterned things. But he’s moved away from that more recently.
Laila, why did you decide to become an artist?
Gohar: I never had a set career path, whereas Omar knew he wanted to be a graphic designer. He went to school to study the thing he still does today. There’s been some twists and turns along the way, but his path has always been more linear in that sense. In my case, it was more of an evolution and a series of decisions that lead me to where I am now. I didn’t study anything in relation to what I do. For me, food art is just the way I know how to express myself. I don’t know if there’s some greater mission behind it—it’s just more that I know how to communicate something using food when words fail me. It’s how I know how to realize my thoughts, and it’s basically as simple and as complex as that.
You’re also known for your great dinner parties here in New York. Did you grow up cooking with your family?
Gohar: I grew up around the kitchen with my family, yes. My mom is not an especially good cook, but my dad and other people in my family are. Food lives at the core of my family’s culture.
Omar, what lead you to become a graphic designer?
Sosa: It’s pretty typical—I grew up painting and drawing, like many graphic designers. I wanted to study something that had to do with the visual arts, but something that could be done quickly, too. I was very impatient. I thought I would like industrial design, but ultimately felt it would take too much time to make something like a chair or a car.
My grandmother always encouraged me to be an artist, while my dad wanted me to pick something clearer. He’s a real estate agent. So I ended up picking graphic design, which sits between tech and art. I liked the freedom of it, and I liked how quickly I could design things. When I was a kid, I designed my own money. It was a very natural fit for me. Later I realized I didn’t want to only be a graphic designer. That’s how Apartamento came about, and being a designer certainly helped in making that magazine.
Apartamento lead me to do other things as well—I learned about editing and running a business. I started making artists’ books. And that opened doors to meeting a lot of artists. I think the boundaries are sort of blurred today between all the creative fields. If you’re making a book, you’re a designer, but you’re also an editor. I love making books because you get really deep into someone’s work and life, and that’s pretty special.
What’s an example of an artist book that you produced recently?
Sosa: I designed a book for the photographer Peter Berlin, the gay icon from the ‘70s. The challenge there was to figure out how to show his work—most of which has never been seen—in a contemporary way, without trying too hard. For me, that looked like an art book. Peter wasn’t comfortable with the idea in the beginning, which is what made it interesting. I think that’s really important—forcing yourself to do something different. After he saw the results, I think he was happy with it.
That’s the most recent thing I did, and of course we’ve done a lot in collaboration with Apartamento. In the fall, for example, we launched a book with Michael Anastassiades, an artist and interior designer. The book accompanied an exhibition of his work that he presented at a museum in Cyprus. It was also his first monograph. I really enjoy those moments.
How much do you both weigh in on each other’s work?
Gohar: A little bit. Omar’s opinion is pretty important to me. I care about what he has to say. I know he’s going to be honest with me. If something is great, he’ll say it’s great, or if it needs work, he’ll say so. A lot of times people are supportive and will always say nice things, so I think it’s nice to be able to rely a little bit on his criticism, too.
Sosa: Laila usually brings the disruptive, critical side. That can be a nice wakeup call from the pleasantries of most people. Sometimes I’ll take it personally if she’s very harsh—and she tends to be—but I think overall it’s healthy and it helps me a lot. The relationship we have with each other’s work is very casual, but it’s deep at the same time because obviously we care about what the other is doing. I think we also inspire each other, and I think what we do together inspires our work.
What do your day-to-day schedules look like?
Gohar: Generally, we wake up and we each go to our studios and then we come home for dinner, which we try to have together. Omar’s schedule is more consistent, while mine is more project-based. We’ll meet at home around 8 or 9 in the evening. I travel a lot, too. I opened an installation in Shanghai last week at the West Bund Art & Design fair, and before that I was in Tokyo for research. I work a lot in Paris and London. I move around quite a bit.
What are the most challenging aspects of being in a relationship with another artist?
Sosa: We’re both opinionated, which can be difficult sometimes. It’s not like one person decides something and the other goes with the flow. In regards to what we eat, we always go with Laila’s opinion. I love food, but that’s her thing. For everything else, we have strong opinions so, of course, we fight sometimes. We disagree. But it makes things interesting.
Gohar: Yeah, disagreements are fine. I would say it’s frustrating if I want to buy a work and Omar doesn’t want to, so then I have to buy it by myself [laughs]. That’s annoying. But it doesn’t happen that often.
Can you give me an example of a disagreement you’ve had over an art- or design-choice?
Sosa: Laila repainted the whole house while I was away. It was terracotta originally, and she painted it a light yellow. Then she made me see it alone when I came home. She wasn’t even there.
Gohar: I was kind of tired of the color. Omar thinks more long-term—he gets attached to things, and he likes consistency. We spent an obscene amount of time picking the terracotta color, and after about a year and a half, I got sick of it. People tend to get overly attached to the color of their home I think. Anyway, I went to visit this artist who was quite old—she’s passed away now—and I really loved the color on her walls. I asked her grandson if he knew what it was, and he said, “Oh, it used to be white, but my grandmother smoked for 80 years and the nicotine stained all the walls.” He moved aside a frame to show me, and sure enough it was white behind it! I was like, “Wow what a beautiful color.” So I got this yellowish-white paint that I really love. Omar wasn’t into the idea, and I kept trying to convince him for three months. Then he went away—so I painted it.
Sosa: Welcome to my life. But now I like it.
How does that difference—your need for constant change and Omar’s preference for more permanent, fixed ideas and objects—manifest in your artwork?
Gohar: I’m much more attracted to ephemeral things. My work is all ephemeral—you know, you consume food. I spend months thinking about the work and planning it and working on it and then it sort of evaporates. I’m fine with that. Omar makes books, so it’s the opposite—books are objects that are here to stay. I’ve found that I’m not so concerned with leaving a mark on this world or a legacy or anything like that. I’m more concerned with providing an experience in the context of a moment, which eventually goes away and becomes a memory. The memory is then the closest thing you get to leaving a mark.
Sosa: We’re very yin/yang in that sense. Laila thinks about what’s happening two seconds from now. In a way, her version of long-term is tomorrow. And I’ll think about two years from now. I prevent her from crashing sometimes, and she prevents me from staying the same and becoming absolutely boring.
What do your studios look like? How are they the same or different?
Gohar: I recently moved studios. It’s still fairly new and we’re building it out. It’s kind of funny to have a space that’s just my own—I don’t have to consult with Omar about any aesthetic decisions. I can just do whatever I want. I used to share a studio with another artist in Brooklyn. I found this space one day as I was walking to the bridge to go to Brooklyn, on the border of Chinatown. It feels great for the kind of work that I do, and it’s only a five-minute bike ride from my house. I feel like our studios both reflect our home in many ways. My space is two floors, and the ground floor is more of an industrial, raw space for the work, but then I have a little room upstairs for my office. People joke that it looks like a bedroom.
Sosa: I’ve always had a studio. It’s the first thing that I looked for when I moved here. A couple of years ago, I got a space in Chelsea. I go there every day. It’s very beautiful. For me, it’s an extension of the house, too—I have wall-to-wall carpet and a big sofa. It’s cozy. You can spend a weekend there easily. For me it’s important to structure your ideas in a space that allows for that because at home you can get easily distracted.
Is there an artist or work you one day hope to add to your collection?
Sosa: Yes. And we actually both agree on who it is.
Gohar: We would really love to own a painting by Etel Adnan. There’s a really personal story behind that.
Sosa: It’s personal because when we were living in two different cities and there was this romantic thing going on between us, we used to send each other letters. Laila once sent me a photo of this painting of Adnan’s that I already knew and liked so it was like, “Oh, we like the same artist.” It wasn’t really about the art, though. It was more about the meaning behind it. There were two big mountains and an ocean behind them, and Laila wanted to imagine what living together would be like. She sort of thought that idea—of living together, of a life together—stood beyond the mountains, which in a sense represented our two cities at the time. It made the painting important for us. We still can’t afford it, though. Laila gave me a really nice etching of Adnan’s, but we’d like to have a painting.
How do you feel about the year coming to an end and the work that you’ve done in 2019? Is there anything in particular that you’re proud of?
Gohar: No. [laughs]
Sosa: I’m a little bit like Laila in that sense. We’re pretty terrible at promoting our own work.
Gohar: I think it’s because we’re both not American. I’ve found that self-promotion is a skill we really lack. We’ve gotten slightly better at it, but I feel like people here are taught to speak about their work in a way that’s really positive and they really know how to present their work. I recently learned that people can join Speech and Debate clubs at school. And even when you first meet someone, the way that they explain what they do or what their ‘thing’ is feels very advanced to me. I don’t talk about my work like that—I have very clear ideas about what I’m doing and how—but to be able to verbalize all of it is a struggle and it’s one of the reasons why I make my work.
Sosa: It’s a really common thing with artists. I still like that approach. When you explain things too much, it complicates them. I don’t like how it sounds. I know talking about your work is the norm today, but if you look at artists from the past or artists that you really admire, they don’t really narrate their work or talk about themselves too much. They make the work and that’s it.
Of course, some of the work we do is not purely artistic, so it’s helpful when you can explain the idea properly to a client—who has to pay for it—because they need that narration. I feel that that’s very necessary if you’re living in America. Instead of saying, “I made this for you,” you have to explain why you made it and why it works. I don’t like that side of it, though. It’s hard for me.
It’s interesting that you mention that. We recently did an interview with Anish Kapoor, who said, very expressly, that he has nothing to say as an artist.
Gohar: What’s the point of making the work if you’re going to spoon-feed it? It doesn’t need to exist then.
Sosa: It’s worse than spoiling a movie before you watch it. You’re depriving someone of reaching their own conclusions, which is the best thing art can do or help with. I think now especially, with social media, everything is so explained and labeled. But like Laila, I wish I were a little bit better at packaging myself, because admittedly everyone around us is better at it.
Gohar: I really admire when people are good at their elevator pitch. It’s not like I’m talking it down. It’s just not something I’ve ever really learned. It makes me uncomfortable.
Do you ever think about leaving New York?
Gohar: Definitely. I grew up in Cairo. It’s a very different city than New York. It’s in a developing country, and it’s much more raw. That sort of chaos is pretty innate to me, and that way of life feels the most natural. I fantasize about a move like that. I try to go back once a year. Omar came with me recently for the first time.
Sosa: We just want to be free. We feel we can go anywhere and make it work. It’s also nice to have a place here and there and move between them.
Gohar: I don’t care about any of that. I’m ready to just pick up and leave. I’ve moved many times in my life when I was younger, whereas Omar moved to New York in his twenties. The older you get, the heavier the move I think.
Sosa: For me, it’s actually the opposite. I think once you do it, it becomes easier.
Gohar: Okay, yeah. For me, my family is scattered all over the world. We all live in different countries and we’re very mobile. That’s why I’d say the idea of creating a home in an apartment or a studio is really important to me because that’s my only real attachment to the notion of a home or conceptually what it means to be from a place. I was born in Egypt, but I don’t feel any nationalistic sort of pride or anything. So that’s why creating a nestlike environment in my immediate realm is really important. It’s less about being geographically attached to a country and more about creating a little ecosystem of my own.
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