Game Changers The Folklore Issue

How Marwa Al Hinai uses Indian art to tell Oman’s stories

Maryam Al Shehhi speaks to the Omani artist about her unconventional art that bridges the Omani and the Indian civilizations.


By Maryam Al Shehhi

The Sword and the Omani Woman by Marwa Al Hinai. Image: Courtesy of Marwa Al Hinai.

If we take a minute to think of the word “art,” different images and geometric shapes will be drawn in our minds, with colors unlike the one imagined by the person sitting right next to us. But most of what we would imagine would most likely be a painting in a museum or a mundane frame hung on the wall because unconventional art requires a bridge to lead us to it, especially when it combines the richness of Omani history with its vibrant present through an Indian medium. This is where the art of Marwa Al Hinai comes in. It forms a bridge through which she takes us to the uncoventional.

Marwa Al Hinai is an Omani artist with a background in multimedia design who has been a member of the Oman House of Fine Art since 2020. What distinguishes Marwa from other artists is her unparalleled passion for telling the stories of Oman and portraying its traditions and folklore through Indian arts, such as madhubani art, which she is becoming known for in the Omani art community.

Traditional beginnings

Marwa was first introduced to the world of arts through handicrafts. As she looks back at her art journey, she recalls her multiple visits to the Association of Rural Women with her mother and twin sister during her childhood, where she was trained in traditional arts such as “sewing, weaving wool and macrame, making flowers and ceramics,” so that she would not to be ignorant about the traditional arts girls her age practiced. It was through handicrafts that Marwa learned of the capabilities of her two small talented hands, after which she says, “a passion for the arts was ignited in me through handicrafts.” And the bigger Marwa’s hands grew, the more her passion for the arts increased, which eventually led her to specialize in multimedia design in university in order to continue her journey of learning about arts that were different from the traditional ones she had received training in, such as the visual arts.

The Arabian Maha by Marwa Al Hinai. Image: Courtesy of Marwa Al Hinai.

Marwa meets madhubani art

Her story with madhubani art began as an unforgettable coincidence. After she graduated from university, Marwa continued to immerse herself in the world of visual arts as she searched for a job that would fulfill her passion by sharing her artworks on her social media channels. During that time, Marwa came across a leaflet containing a stunning geometric design, and her curious fingertips pulled her towards simulating it and searching for hours about the geometric design, where she met the art of mandala. Native to Tibet, and characterized by drawing circular geometric shapes that describe the metaphysical universe, mandala art took her on another journey of discovering the world of painted Indian folklore, through which she learned about the madhubani art (as well as warli art) that women in India drew on the walls of their homes to depict life in India.

The Nizwa Dallah by Marwa Al Hinai. Image: Courtesy of Marwa Al Hinai.

Marwa passionately describes madhubani art as “art that tells a story that within an ornate frame. Every element of the story drawn is heavily decorated, and any unadorned space is not acceptable in the work. Characters should have large or puffy eyes and a sharp nose, and the artist must be generous with their colors. This art does not pay attention to the tiny details of drawing the character, however, and is satisfied with what just indicates its features.”

Creating bridges through art

Through her art, Marwa paints a bridge between the Indian and the Omani civilizations, which are interconnected by “a historical relationship that is witnessed by the coasts between the two lands … and the impact of this is clear, especially when you look at women’s clothing, since many women from ancient times until today have incorporated Indian fabrics and embroidery into their traditional outfits,” she says.

Her art ignites me to ask how she integrates the Indian and Omani civilization through it, to which Marwa responds: “I actually depict the Arab and Islamic civilizations before the Omani – which it is, of course, a part of – in my attempt to express that we are a single cultural force that I present to the world in an Indian style.” She draws “women dressed in hijab and men in light-colored clothes,” and she moves away from whatever “contradicts the path of the land she belongs to, whether in beliefs or customs.”

A selection of artworks by Marwa Al Hinai that depict Omani and Arab traditional life. Images: Courtesy of Marwa Al Hinai.

“When my artwork is seen,” she says, “it will be said that it portrays the civilization in Arab and Muslim countries.” Marwa realizes that she has adopted “an artistic style and language that not many are accustomed to,” she says, but it is what she has chosen to share stories about Oman.

Marwa’s madhubani art depicts Arabic, islamic and Omani elements. For example, Marwa highlights the natural Omani environment, and objects heavily present in traditional Omani life such as al-mabkhara, al-mandoos and al-dallah. Depictions of Omani women in their traditional clothing engaged in different activities are also strongly present throughout Marwa’s art . When I ask her about the reason behind this she says, ” Being an Omani woman is my identity. I describe myself as an Omani woman first and foremost, and when I open my eyes I see my [late] grandmother in the eyes of all the beautiful Omani women- the mothers, the scientists and the courageous leaders over the centuries. Thus, I feel obligated to depict her in the best way possible.”

Producing hope in the midst of global challenges

Although the Covid-19 pandemic has paused lives all around the world, yet Marwa has not stopped working since the onset of the crisis. She has used the time to invest her energies into submitting her artworks to be showcased at various exhibitions and art fairs around the Arab world that. Due to the pandemic causing many to go digital, she was able to participate in her first event abroad: the Fez Electronic Festival for Arabic Calligraphy, Decoration and Miniatures. She has also participated in virtual exhibitions, such as November’s Pen and Feather . Although the pandemic has stood in the way of several sectors, it has also benefited the creative people like Marwa, who won’t stop discovering and dreaming.

Imagining Oman in the Future by Marwa Al Hinai. Image: Courtesy of Marwa Al Hinai.

As our interview comes to a close, Marwa reflects on the influence that the Indian arts, especially madhubani art, has had on her and her journey of self-discovery as an artist, and shares a few words of wisdom with other artists. “Artists need to be familiar with the visual arts. They have to nourish themselves with knowledge, as well as nourish their lives socially and emotionally, fill in the gaps that exist in our art world and go against what everyone around them does. If they do not they will not add anything unique to art museums, nor will they have a resonant voice in their work, and their culture will not be richer for it,” she tells me. “Speaking from my experience, the effect that madhubani art had on my followers was higher than the effect of mandala art because mandala art is not a new form of art to my society. There are many who have mastered art that is relatively common, and people get bored of repetition, myself included. As for madhubani art, its strangeness is what has made it receive a lot of attention and compelled people to research more about its origins, which in itself drives me towards development and continuation.”

Today, Marwa is working on her five-year plan, which will be a translation of our Arab and Islamic civilizations to a number of artistic mediums, including through warli art.

Maryam Al Shehhi is an Emirati writer studying Political Science and Literature Creative Writing at NYUAD. The daughter of Ras Al Khaimah’s mountains, yet, having been born and raised in Abu Dhabi, she finds herself existing in the land in between seas and mountains. Maryam is passionate about the arts and culture, as she has been invested in various forms of self-expression; she has performed in plays and a musical reality show, and she is an editor of an Arabic magazine. Maryam is currently interning at Sekka. 

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.

This interview was translated from Arabic.