Arts & Culture

Amira Behbehani, the Kuwaiti painter who marries art with fashion

Amira prefers to create art that makes the viewer think, and that is open to interpretation.

By Vittoria Volgare Detaille

In the bustling and commercial Kuwaiti area of Salmiya, there is an atelier where eclectic Kuwaiti artist Amira Behbehani marries art with fashion, pushing boundaries between modernity and tradition.

One of the most celebrated painters of Kuwait, Amira opened Nasj Boutique in September 2018. The name is not casual: the Arabic word nasj translates to ‘weave’. In this space she incorporates and entwines her designs and drawings into fashionable and customised garments entirely hand-made in Kuwait.

With the help of three tailors and two embroiders, bags and clothes are embellished with coloured beads, metal or plastic pieces, vintage fabrics and parts of old canvases. She sometimes paints or applies block-print techniques directly on the pieces as well.

“Many clients ask me to create a dress, a skirt or a bag that is also an art piece”, Amira says. Even the logo is a work of art, designed by Kuwaiti artist Fareed Abdal.

Bags and clothes are embellished with coloured beads, metal or plastic pieces, vintage fabrics and parts of old canvases. Image: Courtesy.

Innovating the Arab wardrobe

Known for her timeless style, Amira has always been fond of collecting clothes, tailoring and stitching. It only seemed natural for her to explore the fashion sphere as well. Through Nasj Boutique she designs and customises garments and accessories for both men and women.

Amira tries to lend a modern and creative touch to basic pieces found in the Arab wardrobe, without giving up on their comfort.

A padded bisht, a traditional men’s cloak popular in Gulf countries, in jeans, decorated with geometric designs, is only one of her innovative creations. Embroidered and artistic abayas made with organic linen, a rich hand-worked kaftan inspired by the Albanian heritage, an Ottoman style jacket, tote bags embellished with a portrait of Emperor Jahangir of India made of coloured beads are some of her other stunning pieces. Amira is deeply inspired by the history of design and fashion, and proposes modern replicas of garments shown in museums.

A padded bisht, a traditional men’s cloak popular in Gulf countries, in jeans, decorated with geometric designs. Image: Courtesy.

Many of her supporters appreciate the way she mixes different styles and introduces foreign elements in her creations without exaggeration. “Her designs are not too Arab but not too western either”, says Alexandra Zambon, an architect and artist living in Kuwait and a big fan of Amira’s clean lines. “Each artwear is unique and precious, studied in detail. Quality, authenticity and passion are the intrinsic qualities of Amira’s work. She is also a complete artist always willing to experiment with new disciplines and techniques. She is not afraid of going out of her comfort zone and pushing through her limits”.

The art journey

Although exposed to art since she was a child, autodidact artist Amira, born in 1964 to an Iranian father and Kuwaiti mother, started to paint only when she turned 39. Her uncle, Jawad Aboushahri, is a famous sculptor and is the founder of the Boushahri Gallery, the second art gallery to open in Kuwait in the 1960s.

Amira first tried her hand at painting when she was a teenager but stopped during her studies and then got married and had two children. But in the end she couldn’t stay away from art. After her divorce in 1992 she joined her uncle’s company as a member of the advertising and photography team. In 2001, she decided to resign because she wanted to venture into something of her own. As she had always been drawn to design and arts, she started curating art shows.

Amira started to paint when she was 39. Women by Amira. Image: Courtesy.

In 2003 the big change came. She realised, with being around artists all the time, that she wanted to be a painter. “I started from scratch and I liked it so much”, Amira explains.

Teacher and the Apprentice, her first solo exhibition, was held in 2004 at Kuwaiti gallery Dar Al Funoon. “Since then, my new career took off and I have not stopped painting, exhibiting or curating for other artists ever since”, she says. Amira participated in more than twenty solo and group exhibitions in Kuwait, the Middle East and Europe and in April 2016 she was awarded the Arab Woman Award for her contributions to the arts.

In art nothing is impossible

For almost 20 years practising art, she says, through painting, drawing, stitching or designing is something important for her: “A relief”.

Through her work, she explores theories related to the human mind, its thoughts and behaviors. “The universe is something that I like to think of, the philosophy of: Why are we here? What are we doing? How do we behave? Why do we act in such a way?”.

Using different materials, techniques and media, Amira prefers to create art that makes the viewer think, and that is open to interpretation.

Lines and Abayas

One of the recurrent subjects of her work are women in abayas, the long floating robes worn in a number of Middle Eastern countries. Her women are drawn with very simple and sinuous lines and are inspired by Amira’s late grandmother, to whom she was profoundly attached. “She used to be a veiled woman, she wore the abaya all the time… I used to hold onto her abaya when I was a kid. The first scent I came to smell is also the one of her abaya”.

A series called Lines is inspired by Amira’s memory of when as a child she used to accompany her grandma to ladies and family gatherings. “They all had the same abayas but in different shapes”. In these paintings, black and white lines meet to create featureless women in loose robes who are sitting, standing, sleeping, stretching or relaxing.

From the Lines series, inspired by Amira’s memories. Image: Courtesy.

Amira does not use the lines only to draw veiled ladies. In general she loves to use lines. “The line is a form of art, a form of drawing. And when you put lines together, you create shapes. And to me the figures are shapes”.

When East meets West

Many European artists inspired Amira’s work: Francis Bacon, Henri Matisse, Henri Moore, Jean Dubuffet, Bernard Buffet, Lucian Freud, Louis Bourgeois, Barbara Hepworth, Egon Schiele, Paul Klee and Jean Tinguey. Some of them even appear in her paintings.

The Exhibit, a massive work painted only with a few colours on a 380cm per 150cm raw canvas, portrays six women in white abayas sitting and walking in what she imagines was Matisse’s courtyard in Morocco. The fauvist painter, known for the use of strong colours and fierce brushwork, spent a few months in the North African country, in 1912 and 1913, and his visit resulted in 23 radiant paintings and 47 drawings. He stayed at his friend’s house whose courtyard, flooring and fence re-emerge in Amira’s painting.

The Exhibit by Amira Behbehani. Image: Courtesy.

In the background of The Exhibit, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon and Vincent Van Gogh are represented by details of some of their most famous paintings. From left to right, French Window by Matisse, Two Girls Reading by Picasso, The Pope by Bacon and The Sunflowers by Van Gogh, are symbolically observing the women and for once “the European Masters become the viewers. I brought the past into the future and the East into the West”, explains Amira.

As in her other paintings, black and white are predominant but dashes of blue and light green, as an homage to Matisse’s Moroccan period, also appear in The Exhibit.

“I started my career when I stopped being afraid”

Very determined and never afraid to take on new challenges, in the past months Amira has been experimenting with digital art. “I started my career when I stopped being afraid of what tomorrow holds. There is one piece of advice I always give: Stop being afraid…The fear factor is a block in anybody’s way, especially for women. If women stop being afraid, they can achieve whatever they want”.

Following her own advice, Amira is currently at the initial stage of a concept about shoes in which design, drawings and photography are combined together.

Amira is currently exploring combining drawings, and photography together, with shoes as her new subject. (Click on the images to enlarge them). Images: Courtesy.

The shoes, as her new subject, “are a symbol of steps, they differ from one another according to the path taken, and not because of beauty or elegance. We choose our steps and become responsible for our choice. It could be white or black, right or wrong, no one knows until we take that first step”.

Vittoria Volgare Detaille is a freelance journalist and translator. After having studied Arabic Literature at the University of Napoli “L’Orientale”, she collaborated with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and with the Italian Press Agency ANSA. She has lived for more than 10 years in the Middle East (Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya and Kuwait) and is currently based in Singapore.

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