Arts & Culture

How this Gulf artist explores childhood amnesia through mixed media art

Maryam Alhuraiz investigates her haunting experience of childhood amnesia in her virtual exhibition, Why won’t I remember.

By Nada Al Mosa

23-year-old artist Maryam Alhuraiz. Image: Courtesy of Maryam Alhuraiz.

Intrigue sparked by childhood amnesia, a phenomenon through which an individual has no recollection of their childhood memories, led Maryam Alhuraiz to create her virtual exhibition, Why won’t I remember.

Maryam is a 23-year- old multimedia artist and a fresh graduate of New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD). Having first began her undergraduate education in psychology, she found that her art practice was heavily influenced by themes she had explored in her studies on mental health and wellbeing. However, she switched majors two years into her university experience when she realized that visual arts studies was a far better fit for her creative aspirations. Since then, she has exhibited her artworks at Warehouse 421 in the recent Mina Zayed: Reflections on Past Futures exhibition, and at the We Are Wondering exhibition held at Maisan15 in Dubai. She is also currently working on an exhibition that will soon be opening in Dubai. For Why won’t I remember, Maryam hosted a virtual exhibition to make it as accessible as possible during a global pandemic, so that viewers can visit anywhere, anytime, while remaining safe.

For reasons unknown to her, Maryam has experienced childhood amnesia and has chosen to grapple with the loss of her memories through art. Her amnesia stands in contrast to the photographic evidence of her childhood experiences. She found that the physical process of art making allowed her to mentally process her own memory formation and identity. She was shocked to learn that in creating the collages, patches of memories came back to her while studying and manipulating childhood photos. These triggered memories exhilarated her art-making, leading to the rich collection of 13 artworks displayed in the exhibition.

Patching” memories through mixed media

Remember? by Maryam Alhuraiz. This image is part of the artist’s Why won’t I remember exhibition. 
Image: Courtesy of Maryam Alhuraiz.

Mixed media has been a source of enjoyment for Maryam, as it has allowed her to explore different mediums and how they interact with one another, and she intends to continue exploring the endless possibilities of multimedia art, particularly with the intent to overcome discomfort in unfamiliar artistic landscapes. This was the case in the Why won’t I remember exhibit, which drove her to explore incorporating thread in photo collage for the very first time.

Remember? by Maryam Alhuraiz. This image is part of the artist’s Why won’t I remember exhibition. 
Image: Courtesy of Maryam Alhuraiz.

The budding artist was drawn to photo collage and thread, because, as she says, “photographs are the best evidence of memory… they aren’t manipulated or disturbed in any way… they are the truth of what happened… in my past.” Their authenticity, compared to the fragmentation and disruption of memory recollection, was reassuring and attractive to Maryam. The stitched thread was inspired by old-fashioned photo albums, in which photos were stitched onto the page for preservation and to display. Maryam was captivated by the red thread because of her fascination with Japanese mythology regarding the “red string of fate,” which connects one person’s hand to another’s, tying their fates together. “I kind of took that and interpreted it by saying that my older self has a red string attached to my younger self and for some reason I can’t go to the future without resolving the past,” she tells me. In other words, Maryam was looking to essentially “patch up” the sequence of forgotten memories and to find her younger self again.

Highlighting the imperfections and discomforts of loss

Remember? by Maryam Alhuraiz. This image is part of the artist’s Why won’t I remember exhibition. 
Image: Courtesy of Maryam Alhuraiz.

The photographs she uses were gathered from a selection of CDs her father had archived in their home, documenting her childhood. They were filled to the brim with celebratory events, such as vacations, birthdays and visits to the beach and desert. In spite of the limitations to photographed celebrations, Maryam was interested in the more natural, candid and disruptive images over the more formal ones. This was partially due to her desire to better reflect the imperfections of memory within the photographs. She sought the blurred images, uneven framings and silly faces for her final collages, “I kind of wanted to question the proper photo, the most idealistic photo. I wanted to show the true childhood, the one that we actually remember from our memories, not the ones that are proper and polished; the vulnerable photos, the candid photos.” And so, to amplify the childlike essence of these works, Maryam stitched red thread through her photographed nose, or through her festive hat, in order to better illustrate the spirit of a child.

Comfortable by Maryam Alhuraiz. This image is part of the artist’s Why won’t I remember exhibition. Image: Courtesy of Maryam Alhuraiz.
Comfortable by Maryam Alhuraiz. This image is part of the artist’s Why won’t I remember exhibition. Image: Courtesy of Maryam Alhuraiz.

In the Comfortable Series within her Why won’t I remember exhibit, Maryam decorates a series of childhood playground toys to produce sculptures that appear inherently dangerous and uncomfortable. She explains that these “whimsical and innocent” toys were transformed to embody the discomfort of feeling like one is a stranger to their childhood self. Maryam also explains that the color red is a constant theme in her exhibit as it also signifies life, even if it is a life that cannot be remembered. The nails and red paint are intended to “disfigure” their assumed innocence, and to highlight the representation of lost youth and nostalgia. The differently sized nails “represent different levels of the unbearableness of memories,” truly capturing the depth of what it means to experience childhood amnesia.

Strangers and inner demons

A display that truly stirs discomfort and sets an eerie tone to the exhibit is the teddy bear installation. The bear is composed of two separate stuffed bears, which had been cut apart and brought together to create the one misshapen toy. In its belly is a slowed down video clip that Maryam describes as an accidental video taken when a photograph was intended. Its accidental nature was alluring to her in her process of examining childhood amnesia. The video shows her child self wearing an Ariel Disney costume from the well-known animation film, The Little Mermaid. The video is accompanied with the overlaying audio of her crying, which was significantly slowed down as well, creating the haunting soundscape of the artwork. The bear is symbolic of inner demons, portraying her experience of being “a stranger” to herself. “Seeing the video, I do not recognize myself… which makes me feel like a stranger to myself,” she describes. The bear’s inherent innocence of comfort is disrupted, much like the playground toy sculptures, to build on a sense of displacement and alienation that she wishes to translate to her viewers.

Inner Demons by Maryam Alhuraiz. This image is part of the artist’s Why won’t I remember exhibition. 
Image: Courtesy of Maryam Alhuraiz.

Maryam intends to further explore themes she explores in this exhibit in the future of her art practice, such as the theme of being a stranger to one’s self, and other memory-related concepts. She also sees herself continuing to explore the medium of sound and video installation, as well as other mixed media mediums.

To view “Why won’t I remember,” visit her virtual exhibition here, available until June 30th.

To find out more about Maryam Alhuraiz’s exhibits and artwork, visit her page on Instagram.

Nada Al Mosa is an Abu Dhabi based Palestinian artist, writer and a fresh graduate of Literature and Creative Writing from New York University Abu Dhabi. Nada dabbles in digital illustration, collage and mixed media, but is currently a practicing documentary poet and an intern at Sekka.

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