Arts & Culture The Change Issue

Altering reality one artwork at a time

"Good art, I believe, does not answer questions so much as it raises new ones."
Zahra Al-Mahdi. Courtesy.

All artists remember when they first heard their calling. For Zahra Al-Mahdi – or ‘Zouz the bird’, as she’s known on social media –that calling came right before she graduated with an English literature degree from Kuwait University in 2012. Since then, the 29-year-old Kuwaiti national has participated in 14 regional and international exhibitions, including one in London’s Edge of Arabia and another in NYU Abu Dhabi, and has completed three artist residencies. The self-proclaimed ‘tinkerer’ has also authored a graphic novel, We, The Borrowed, produced four short films, including her ongoing series ‘Bird Watch’- a mockumentary about Kuwait society- and experimented with graffiti art and clay sculpting.

Though the artwork she displays in galleries and exhibitions can be characterised as ‘anatomical’, the art she shares on social media takes on a different style, one in which she reimagines reality through a skillful blend of photography and sketching. It is these ‘doodles’ that her audience is most familiar with and has gained her popularity. When I catch up with the busy Zahra in August, she tells me more about these different styles, shares her thoughts on the changes she’d like to see in the regional art scene, and unveils the mystery behind her nickname. This interview has been edited.

Zahra calls the artwork she shares on social media ‘doodles’. This doodle is captioned, ‘Where we come from, flying too close to the sun isn’t an option.’ Courtesy.

Tell us a little bit more about Zahra.

I am an autodidact, and since I was a child I’ve spent all of my time reading, watching TV, skateboarding, collecting insect and plant specimens, and drawing my journals in the form of comic sheets. Everything I now know, I’ve taught myself.

Walk us through your art styles. What led you to express yourself this way?

In terms of technique, it depends entirely on the medium and context in which the work will be shown. For instance, my Instagram account, where my work gains the most exposure, is known for photographs with crosshatched ink drawings collaged onto them. What I aim to do with these pieces is to show patterns and similarities between images and ideas that are seemingly irrelevant to one another.

Other work that’s usually shown at art galleries is more like replicas of preserved anatomical specimens displayed as archeological/medical findings in museums and educational institutions. I use these mediums in order to criticise the way we collectively observe things, and how the most prominent methods of observation gain axiomatic qualities by institutions such as schools and museums.

Our theme for this month is ‘change’. How do you change reality with your artwork, particularly through the ‘doodles’ you share on social media?

I like to think of the kind of work that I do as a method of rephrasing questions. I like to change the way people look at things by criticising them, and analysing them from a different point of view. Good art, I believe, does not answer questions so much as it raises new ones.

Artwork by Zahra. Courtesy.

Also, what change would you like to see in the emerging Khaleeji art scene?

So many producers of culture tend to favor Western values over ours instead of dealing with the cultural in-between as a contrapuntal conversation. The question of identity, as a result, remains a question that tends to refuse gray areas. One thing that I think needs revision is our rejection of the traditional sense of community. When artists try to express themselves through their work from the sole perspective of the ‘individual’ it strips their work of its multiplicity.

What’s the story behind the nickname ‘Zouz the bird’?

There isn’t much of a story there. I’d just started my Instagram account and thought I’d make up a random handle temporarily before I come up with a better one, which I never got around to doing. Also, I really dislike birds.

This doodle by Zahra is captioned  ‘Going to a mall is like going on Safari. Except you’re an animal too.’ Courtesy.

You’re a filmmaker, writer, graphic novelist, street artist and you’ve recently tried your hand in sculpting. What art form or medium would you like to explore next and why?

Music. I’ve dabbled with a few instruments, and have found a passion in synthesizers and samplers. I’m working on a collection of tracks that I’ll be publishing as a part of my mockumentary series, Bird Watch’s, YouTube channel.

Episode 2 of Zahra’s ‘Bird Watch’ series is titled ‘Health’.

Tell us about your ongoing short film series project. What led you to start making these films, what do you hope to achieve by them, and how do they comment on society?

I’ve always been attracted to social criticism in the form of satire, and it shows in all of my work. After I’d started to animate my doodles (from sketches on photographs to animated drawings on live action video), the fascination people showed towards them gave me the idea for the mini mockumentary series. Adding animation on live action and humor is the best way I could get everyone to pay attention to the critical message behind the satire.

What’s your favorite doodle of yours?

My favorite is always the most recent one I post since it’s usually where my head’s still at.

Upcoming projects and exhibitions?

Other than Bird Watch episodes, animated poems and songs, it’s mostly residency programs in Kuwait and abroad.

One of Zahra’s recent doodles. Courtesy.

What advice would you share with emerging Khaleeji artists?

Networking is everything, not only because it’s pivotal for exposure and being relevant, it is also the most important thing for any culture producer to make sure they are as aware as possible of the way people around them function, move, and communicate. It gives them a great sense of perspective, and inevitably adds multiple dimensions to their work. Being an artist is hard work and I’m not exactly a social butterfly, so socialising is something else that I consider to be a part of the ‘work’.

To keep up with Zahra’s art, follow her accounts on Instagram and Twitter

Sharifah Alhinai is the Managing Storyteller at Sekka.

Disclaimer: The views of the interviewee(s) are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sekka, Move, its owners, employees, and affiliates.