Maha Al Asaker is the type of woman you feel you have known all your life. We spoke for more than 90 minutes on the phone the first time, discussing everything from social norms, quitting our government jobs to follow our dreams, identity crisis and more.
Maha is a Kuwaiti visual artist based in New York City, whose work revolves around culture, identity, self-exploration and women issues. Her brave, conceptual work has been featured in numerous exhibitions in New York, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
Her latest work is ‘Women of Kuwait’, and it will be showcased in her first solo exhibition in New York this fall. It portrays Kuwaiti women of different walks in life, in their bedrooms, where they discuss their thoughts on how they feel as Kuwaiti nationals.
It was not an easy project to undertake, for the bedroom is a very private place for women of this conservative society, and it took a while for her to gather subjects for her project.
‘I’m scared, excited, happy, and it’s very overwhelming’, exclaims Maha.
She was inspired to start the project when she moved to New York to study photography, and people started asking her about women in Kuwait. ‘Are they all veiled?’ ‘Do they have rights?’ The best way in which to answer the questions that over time frustrated her was through this project.
‘Our side of the world is very misunderstood with all the negative media, and I wanted to work on a project that would empower my women’, she says.
The photographs were taken using film. ‘I like the grain effect and how the subjects are unable to see the photos. My brain is very fast, and I talk really fast, and taking photographs that way, waiting for them to develop to see the result, calms me down’, she adds.
Maha’s photography journey started the day she held a camera in 2006. She had just lost her father in car accident, without the chance of saying goodbye.
‘I felt like I was a tree that has been axed, and I didn’t have roots anymore,” she says. ‘Grieving is a strong feeling that no one taught me how to deal with’. It was then that her sister’s friend suggested that she take photos. Photographs allowed Maha to understand herself
The industrial engineer, and a master’s in business degree holder, worked in Kuwait Investment Authority for a few years before she turned her home’s basement into a studio, and worked on her photography side business which mainly focused on portraits and fashion shoots.
But that was not enough for Maha, who was hungry to learn more. After enrolling in photography workshops in Dubai and in London and visiting New York, Maha knew she would move there.
‘I applied to study at the International Center of Photography in New York, sold my car, saved money, quit my job, and bought a one-way ticket’, she chuckled.
When asked about how she chooses her projects, Maha stated that every project was undertaken to answer a question in her head, to understand why she thought a certain way.
‘For my Women of Kuwait project, my motive was to have visual answers for people who ask me about the women of Kuwait. But while I did that, I wanted to know more about my women. How did they feel? Did they feel equal in their society?’ she says.
‘There were women who felt like queens as Kuwaiti women, and there were women who were questioning certain areas. And I discovered through my project that women of Kuwait have more equal rights than women in the USA do. For instance, they are paid more equally than women in the USA are’, she adds.
Following up on her Women of Kuwait, she would like to explore issues faced by all GCC women, when she moves back. She will also be exploring more video projects. She has worked on two so far, one of which (‘Confessions’), portrays different thoughts that go on in our minds.
When we asked her whether photography is a skill someone is born with or a skill that could be mastered, Maha answered that taking a good picture is a skill that one can acquire after understanding how light and composition work.
‘Delivering a message through a photo, that is a skill that you are born with’, she states.
Though she has zero favorite things in life, she is a fan of American photographer May Ray’s work. ‘He was ahead of his time, pushing the limit and being experimental’, she says. ‘I also like Francheska Woodman’s work, as she explored the human body and identity issues’.
We then asked her if she has a muse who inspires her: ‘No I don’t. I’d visit galleries, exhibitions or read a book and watch a movie. If that fails, then I would just walk outside and listen to everything around me, the cars, the streets, and just be present,” she answers.
New York is where her heart is right now, and Tangiers, Morocco, is a place she would like to move to.
Moving back in time is something she does not mind as well, and she would have pursued a degree in visual arts, although a background in engineering and business has helped her with her career.
What’s next for Maha? Aging is an aspect has scared her for a while, especially how the human’s skin changes, and through that project she will be facing her fears.
‘Challenge your fear’ is a motto Maha lives by. ‘You should do anything you are afraid of doing because if you don’t feel that way, you are not alive’, she laughs.
Sharifah Alhinai is the Managing Storyteller at Sekka.