Arts & Culture The Diversity Issue

The artworks advocating societal change in Kuwait

Kuwaiti artist, poet, and professor at Kuwait University Shurooq Amin has been pushing social and artistic boundaries since her first solo exhibition in 1992.

Artwork by artwork. Kuwaiti artist, poet, and professor at Kuwait University Shurooq Amin has been pushing social and artistic boundaries since her first solo exhibition in 1992.

The artist whose work is housed in public and private collections across the region and worldwide has been passionately exploring themes of identity, duality, and heritage for decades, adopting a mixed media interdisciplinary approach that combines photography and painting.

Shurooq has held 14 solo exhibitions to date, and her poetry has been published in two books and 40 literary journals.

I catch up with the busy artist who’s preparing for her biggest show yet, debuting in Dubai’s Al Serkal Avenue in November, to discuss her upcoming exhibition, how her dual heritage inspired her work, and the emerging GCC art movement.

One of the themes you like to discuss in your work is duality; does your dual heritage influence your work?

Being half Kuwaiti and half Syrian was confusing growing up, so duality definitely played a big role in my upbringing and plays a big role in my work. I also have a Turkish grandmother (from my mother’s side) and an Iraqi grandmother (from my father’s side), and was raised and educated in a British system. So there was a huge identity crisis for me, and I always felt like an outcast as a Kuwaiti. My speech was heavily accented, my features were more European than Arab, my habits were Western, and my personality was rebellious (not what a polite Khaleeji girl should be). With time and experience, I learned to embrace these idiosyncrasies that make me unique and learned to love them, and organically they leaked into my work. So you can find Khaleeji women and men in my paintings, and they are portraying the hidden Arab culture, yet the painting is done in a manner that appeals to the Western viewer, for instance.

Blind New World.Courtesy.

What themes will you be exploring in your next collection of work?

On my last day of my art residency in Italy in the summer of 2016, I woke up from a dream that gave me the inspiration for my next show. My themes are usually the same, but they are explored differently, with various art mediums, or via different methods. For example, one of the themes I am currently tackling is social hypocrisy, but instead of portraying the issue with a large painting, I am using small pen and ink drawings and other mediums, like installations and sculpture.

Tell us more about your upcoming exhibition.

My upcoming exhibition will be with Ayyam Gallery in Dubai this November 2018. It will be in their largest gallery at Al-Serkal Avenue as this will be my biggest show to date and will use up both floors of the gallery. The show is called ‘The Russian Doll Chronicles’, and I am very excited to be sharing it with the world, as it is a show that has been two years in the making and will be my most important show to date.

You are a writer, poet, and an artist, so there is duality in your work as well. How do you decide which topics to express and through which channel?

I am also a licensed and certified Pilates instructor now! As an artist, I live so much inside my head that I found I needed a physical outlet for all that energy, which cannot always be regurgitated in the studio. But as to how I decide which vessel or channel to choose for my ideas, the work itself tells you. The concept—or story—itself decides whether it wants to be a painting, an installation, a poem, a short story, or even a movement.

This Way Up. By Shurooq Amin. Courtesy.

Does your target audience change with every collection? Do you have a message for different people depending on your theme?

My target audience is diverse, and of course it changes with time. But essentially I want to reach everyone. The messages are universal, despite how specific they may be at times. I have seen the evolution of my audience and it is heart-warming. For example, there was a strictly religious man who refused to attend my shows years ago, but in 2016, he came to my ‘It’s a Mad World’ show in Kuwait, and he said he was curious because he had heard so much about it, and he actually went into the private room that had the alcohol installation (‘The Last Sip’), and he came out in tears. This kind of thing is…everything.

There is a huge art movement in the GCC region. Do you believe that art, be it in the form of the written word or paintings and digital work, has the ability to influence society in our modern day Khaleeji life?

Absolutely! I experienced this first hand. In 2012, after the shutdown of my show ‘It’s a Man’s World’ and the banning of my paintings in Kuwait, the question of art and censorship began to be discussed openly: panel discussions popped up at galleries and in various arenas, inviting people to share their thoughts on what happened to my work and the impact of it. That was the first time censorship was openly discussed. Eventually, artists began exploring taboo topics just like me. They got brave. And society accepted it. In 2016, I was invited to show my work in Kuwait again, after 4 years of exhibiting abroad, especially Dubai. And not only was it a huge success, but one of the works on show was an installation that included 500 bottles of alcohol (empty of course, but consumed and bought in Kuwait), and it was accepted without repercussion, which proves a massive evolution in terms of art impacting society.

Family Portrait. Courtesy.

What has been the most significant change in the Kuwaiti art scene specifically, and the GCC generally, since you embarked on your artistic journey in the 1990s?

The building of world-class museums is the most significant change. It not only means we have excellent art on our doorstep, but also that the average person can now be more learned in the field of art. Children can visit the museum and explore centuries of art, and adults can infuse their lives with history and culture, as well as creating jobs and opportunities for local artists to work in this field. When I was growing up, society did not accept art as a career (it was seen as just a ‘hobby’… how I detest that word!), but now thanks to these changes in the GCC and the appearance of world-class museums and galleries, people are more accepting of art as a life career.

What do you think makes a good piece of art?

Passion. Truth. Authenticity.

A good piece of art reaches the audience because the artist has poured his or her soul into it. You put the truth out there and you can be sure people will relate to it.

A piece of art you’ve created that you’d like to be remembered by…

I would say (for now…but if you ask me in November it will be something from the new series!) ‘The Last Sip’. The fact that I managed to pull it off is an achievement for me, especially as it is an installation that addresses alcoholism in a country where alcohol is illegal and forbidden.

The Last Sip. Courtesy.

What inspires you to keep creating art?

‘Write, write, or die’, says Hilda Doolittle, another great poetess. And for me it’s ‘create, create, or die’. I have been creating since I was 7 years old. I remember writing my own stories, then drawings illustrations for them, then punching holes in the sides of the paper and tying it all with ribbons (that were supposed to be for my hair). I was essentially self-publishing at the age of 7. By the age of 9, I was involved in my first proper group art exhibition with adults. And by 24 I had my first solo art exhibition. I can’t imagine not creating.

Every day I’m inspired by some form of data around me: a flash of news, some gossip, information from books and the internet, situations I see that take place before me. All of it makes me think and makes me want to make it better. It gets frustrating for me that I can’t save people, or can’t make someone feel better, or that I don’t have enough money to open a school for the talented misfits of society, that I can’t stop wars. Sometimes we can’t even help the people closest to us, and that infuriates me, and so I create. Maybe, just maybe, in that painting or in that show, the message hits home and inspires someone with more power than me to do something about these issues.

Manar Alhinai is the Storyteller-in-Chief at Sekka.