From Man to mad – A time to each … a time to reach

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Shurooq Amin standing beside her painting ‘A man of no importance’ from the 2013 series popcorno graphic.
Shurooq Amin standing beside her painting ‘A man of no importance’ from the 2013 series popcorno graphic.

Kuwait’s brave and bold painter and poet, Shurooq Amin, is all set for her first solo exhibition in town since the shutdown and censorship of her previous showcase, ‘It’s a Man’s World’, four years ago. Unfazed by the resistance, she has been formidable in her work internationally in the past four years, raking up several accomplishments to her name that have largely gone unnoticed in her hometown. In this interview, Amin shares the process behind and her expectations from the upcoming exhibition, ‘It’s a Mad World’; she discusses the role of art in Kuwaiti society and issues of freedom of speech and expression, as well as presenting her insight on other pertinent topics.

How does it feel to be exhibiting in Kuwait again after four years?

After being shutdown and censored, and having to go through a lot in the last few years, to be asked to show in Kuwait again is validating and comforting. I feel like I have accomplished something in the sense that I have proven myself over the past four years. I am very excited and a little nervous although I don’t tend to work with an audience in mind in terms of reactions. I do what I do, and let people perceive my work however they wish.

Has four years been too a long time?

I feel that everything happens in its right time. I don’t think this exhibition has been a long time coming. I believe that everything comes at the right time for you in your life.  I feel ready, I feel Kuwait is ready, and the work is ready, so it all comes together.

You have been very active in the last four years. Can you share with us some of your accomplishments?

The last four years have been an amazing journey. I was awarded ‘Artist of the Year’ by the Arab Woman Awards, and I became the first Kuwaiti woman to be auctioned at Christie’s auction house. I was represented by Ayyam Gallery in Dubai and had three solo exhibitions, two in Dubai and one in London. I was nominated for various prizes such as the Sovereign Asian Art Prize by Art Radar, and have had speaking engagements in several universities.

I exhibited at the 56th International Venice Biennale, with the pavilion ‘In the Eye of the Thunderstorm: Effervescent Practices from the Arab World and Asia’. The art installation composed of 3 projections with 3 sculptures forming one large- scale installation exploring the issues of corruption, social taboos, and pollution both on a regional level and a global one. I was also the first Kuwaiti to be featured on the BBC show HARDTalk.

I am doing an artist residency this summer and I have been invited to show at another Biennale in Tashkent. I am very proud and humbled about what I’ve been able to accomplish but I’ve earned it, I have put in the work and the hours.

When did you start working on the upcoming exhibition? How did that come about?

Last summer, when I was exhibiting at the Venice Biennale, Amer Al Huneidi, the owner of CAP, saw my work there, loved it and invited me to put on an exhibition in Kuwait. This last summer I have been preparing for the show and conceptualising. I started to do work in November and just finished everything this March. I am still working on an installation that is site specific so I have to wait to get to the location and start to work on it.

How many pieces have you worked on for this exhibition?

This exhibition has 18 paintings with one installation that includes 3 paintings and 3 projections.

Let’s talk about the title, ‘It’s a Mad World’.

I wanted it to be a semantic and phonetic full circle. We came from ‘It’s a Man’s World’ that was censored and shut down to ‘It’s a Mad World’. The previous show in Kuwait was an exploration of the hidden lives of men in the region; it was very specific. Now, as a result of my experiences internationally, it has turned to a more global message. ‘It’s a Mad World’ refers to the crazy and nonsensical things that are happening in the world we live in. I tried to make the title musical and match the other titles and the meaning flows very organically.

What are the predominant themes explored?

The paintings explore and juxtaposition what is going on in the world today – the Syrian war, the manmade disasters like Chernobyl, and the numerous nonsensical, political things we see around us, with the daily oblivious life of  people who may have the money and opportunity but do nothing to help. There is a large percentage of the population in every country in the world who, if they just provided a little bit of charitable and philanthropic help in any way, the world could be a better place. But instead they focus on their own selfish pleasure and instant gratification as opposed to being a part of a community or giving back to society. They don’t feel socially responsible. I am a firm believer that every human being has a social responsibility.

The installation, however, is very site specific and geographically specific because it focuses on Kuwait. I’m not going to say more about the installation because I’m keeping it a secret for opening night.

What has changed in terms of techniques used?

In terms of techniques, I’m sticking to what I’ve been doing since 2009. But what you will notice, if you look at my oeuvre since 2009 until today, that there has been a drastic improvement in craftsmanship. I am not just evolving as an activist and human being, but I am improving my craft, how I use my colours, lines etc. So, from a technical point of view it has gotten much better. I still do everything manually.

What is your process between idea and execution?

Getting an idea has become very easy for me considering the world we live in; there is always something that needs to be talked about. Once I have an idea and I want to vocalise it in an image, I write words and sentences, while other artists tend to sketch. I do sketch occasionally but mostly I write things down. I have a notebook for every series and exhibition. Sometimes a title for a painting will come to me before the image and sometimes the image will precede the title.

Interestingly, I sometime get ideas in my dreams. Those are the easiest to execute because I have seen it as a finished image. So in those cases, I work backwards from Z to A. In every exhibition, the paintings that I had dreams about and visualised subconsciously are usually the most successful and become iconic in that series. I am a firm believer that in creative people lies a creative spirit that comes out when you are unaware of it. If you are not consciously thinking, it just manifests. It is alive and needs to be born, and the only way it can be born out of you is when you just let yourself go.

The subjects in your previous painting are often depicted with masks and veils. Are features similarly concealed in ‘It’s a Mad World.’

Yes, my faces will be masked because that is the society we live in. In a masked society, people cannot be themselves; they have to hide their true identity to interact with you. Behind closed doors they are something else completely, so the masking continues for men and veils for women.

However, in certain paintings, I have a few faces uncovered to send out a very specific message. If there is a face that is uncovered in a painting, it is meant to convey that this person is someone who is speaking out and brave enough to vocalise what’s wrong.

How would you assess the art scene in Kuwait? Has a lot changed in the past four years?

Yes, it has definitely changed. The way I see it and based on what critics have indicated, since the shutdown of my show and since I was the first artist in Kuwait to talk about taboo topics, artists have become more brave in targeting taboo topics. Before my show, these topics were never portrayed. That is the positive thing that came out of it. History teaches us that censorship doesn’t restrain people as much as it opens the door for others to be more brave and challenge it.

Did the experience compel you to restrain yourself or tone down the message?

I am a person who takes challenges on and I am very stubborn. All you have to do is tell me I can’t do something and I will do it bigger and better.

From the shutdown of my show, the only negative period was the first three weeks where my kids and I were affected psychologically; it was quite a devastating experience. But after three weeks of being attacked and absorbing all that negativity and feeling sorry for myself, I started reading all the messages of support and love. It gave me so much energy; I got up and started painting right away. Within months, I did another show, and got represented by Ayyam Gallery.

The tiny two-three week negative period was a learning curve for me and the fuel that I needed to spur me on to challenge the status quo even more. I became even more brave, courageous and keen to take on challenges head-on. The rest has all been very positive.

In your opinion, what is the role of art in Kuwaiti society? Are local artists stepping up to this challenge?

Art for me is a socio-political field; it is not just art for art’s sake. Speaking about artists in general, I feel that artists need to support one another. One of the problems we have in Kuwait, in every field sadly and not just in the art field, is the prevailing sense of rivalry where there should be healthy competition. We are not rivals, we are all in the same path, and trying to do the same things, so we should all support each other even if we don’t agree with each other’s point of views or like the work. People tend to react to me in extremes:  extreme support or extreme opposition. But really, support should come from recognising that we are all working towards instigating change and create social reform.

This is my belief. I am an advocate of healthy competition, and competitors becoming collaborators.  But in Kuwait there are not many people who are on board with this concept nor many artists who want to collaborate in that sense. Everybody wants to be on their own and looking out for themselves. People are very selfish when it comes to success. But I hope that changes soon.

If you look at other countries, artists are more respected and garner more support from collectors, the industry and critics when they support each other. Saudi Arabia is a great example for this, even though the artists there have different messages, they unite, do shows together and support each other on principle,  the world looks up and takes notice of them and they are taken more seriously. I think artists in Kuwait would benefit and be respected a lot more if they supported each other and came together as a unit to prove that they are here to stay.

Were you supported by the art community during the shutdown?

The local art community was split in half. One part supported me and were very vocal about it, while half of them were against me and were very vocal about it too. Internationally though, the support was overwhelming and positive.

Have those opinions changed now?

Some of those artists, locally, who did not support me then, their opinion has changed over the past four years on seeing how I’ve proven myself and they have become friends of mine. Others, I don’t speak about them or to them; it’s important to live and let live.

Being part Syrian, how has the humanitarian crisis in Syria affected your artwork?

A lot of the paintings have Syria juxtaposed and I use Syria as a backdrop. I have family members in Syria who were forced to flee and others who still remain there. On the rare occasions that we are able to speak with them, they tell us horrific tales of what is going on outside their window. So, it has definitely affected my work. Even though I don’t live there, these are people I care about and what happens to them, affects me.

In your opinion, do we have more freedom or less freedom in Kuwait compared to five – ten years ago?

This is difficult to answer. It seems that we have more freedom of speech, because of the rise and widespread use of social media. But, these days if you say anything wrong on twitter or if you post something deemed objectionable on facebook, you can be held legally accountable for it. So, I think it is very tricky. It appears on the surface that we have more freedom of speech, but I don’t believe that in reality we do.

The moving Dollhouse
The moving Dollhouse

What are your expectations from the upcoming exhibition?

Putting on an exhibition is like getting into a relationship: having expectations and getting disappointed. So, I am going into this with zero expectations. How it is received is not important, whether it is successful in terms of critics or not, is not important. I did the best that I could do at the time. I know for the next show, I’ll do even better because I have been getting better with every show. I am already brimming with ideas and writing about what I’m conceptualising for my next show.

People define success in different ways, by the number of paintings sold, by what the art critics and newspapers says, the number of social media posts, etc. For me I define it by being better than I’ve been before and accomplishing things that I couldn’t before.

For me the show is a success because it exists, it’s happening. It is taking place in Kuwait four years after shutdown because I have grown and evolved as an artist, a mother, and a human being. I count it as a success when I get massages from people who call me their role model and share that they feel brave because of me. For me, affecting people one on one, is a success. If people come to my show and just one person gains something from it, then it is a success.

What advice would you give to young and emerging artists?

Don’t be afraid of how your work is going to be perceived, work from your heart and your gut. Don’t be afraid of criticism, censorship or that you’ll be made fun of. Do what you believe in and don’t worry about social criticism. As long as you are not harming anyone and are just expressing yourself, there is no reason why you shouldn’t do what you love.

Where do you see yourself in the next decade?

In the next decade, I want to be able to have changed laws and delivered speeches at the United Nations. I want the work to be relevant to our history, and I want it to change bylaws and legislation for the better.

My biggest dream is to build a school where the arts is the focus in Kuwait, a place where failures are not magnified but strengths are nurtured and encouraged. I would also like to make money off my art while I’m still alive so I am able to build my school.

By Cinatra Fernandes

Arab Times Staff

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