“I’m actually trying to open a dialogue…” Shurooq Amin
Over the years, women have been fighting for equality of respect, honour, and compensation in various ways. In Kuwait for instance, on March 5, 2012, the exhibition at Al M. Gallery entitled “It’s a Man’s World” by Kuwaiti artist Shurooq Amin was deemed to be pornographic and anti-Islamic, and was shut down three hours after the opening.
In this interview with artBahrain, Shurooq Amin had a lot of interesting things to say. But is “It’s a Man’s World” an advocate to improve women’s issues or is it just a hostile rhetoric towards men and society? Do you share the same ideology? or would you like to challenge the status quo that embodies her cause? Feel free to comment or to add your own thoughts on the subject in the comments section at the bottom of the page – let’s have a dialogue with Shurooq.
artBahrain: Can you briefly give us a little insight into your background as an artist, and what inspires the artist within you?
Shurooq Amin: I would have preferred to be a dancer actually, as dancing is such an immediate form of expression. But I was born with a gift for drawing that did not go unnoticed by my family, friends, and teachers at school. It was a natural thing for me to draw, sketch, and eventually paint. I started as soon as I was able to hold a crayon and I’m still crayoning. It’s a lifetime, a lifestyle. It was never ever a decision. It was just existing, being, doing, and finding myself at 24 with my first solo show. The gallery owner had seen my paintings somewhere, contacted me, and she insisted to give me my first show. Surprisingly for me, that first show sold out completely. It never occurred to me that my work could affect others; I was always doing it for me, out of a need and a passion. But it always came from a place of inspiration that was internal (I was an introvert, read books, danced ballet, played piano, listened to music on my own), from my own little world of escapism. It was only as I matured in person that my art matured as well and I found my works – naturally – being inspired by society, people, incidents, things that angered me or offended me, saying things that other people thought but couldn’t say.
AB: How long have you been working professionally as an artist?
SA: Well, that first solo show that sold out was probably the beginning of my art career, because it got my name out in the country and amongst the local galleries in Kuwait. That was 20 years ago! Over the years, I’ve had more than 40 group shows, auctions, art fairs, and 10 more solo shows. It was only with my series Society Girls, though, that I broke into the Regional market, and only after the shutdown of my show that I broke into the international market.
AB: How did you initially start? Was it a slow process of transformation into an artist?
SA: The start came with my first solo show 20 years ago, so yes, it was a very very slow process for me. But that just proves to people that I’m in it for the long haul. I’m here to stay. I want to be a legend by the time I die, hopefully old and happy. I’m not a one-hit wonder. I’m the marathon runner, not the sprinter. You can rely on me to be painting and exploring my society 40 years from now.
AB: How long did it take you to develop your own style? Have you struggled with that?
SA: I think every artist struggles with that, especially at the beginning, when you’re learning about yourself. I went through surrealism, figurative, abstract expressionism, realism, until I finally “found” myself in 2007. What is it? What school does it belong to? I have no clue. It’s just what I do. When I meet people who ask me this question, I just whip out my mobile phone and show them a couple of images. It’s a lot easier that way.
AB: Would you say your work is more about your personal experience, reflections and thoughts, rather than on wider political appeal that refers to your home country?
SA: My work started out personal and then became about my society. I am part of this society, part of the Arabian Gulf, part of the Middle East, part of the Arab world, so how can that not seep into my work? People who are offended from my images don’t understand them. Of course there is a political appeal, but there is also a social appeal, and a humanitarian appeal. Isn’t it my duty to reflect my society? When people – in the future – read our history, they will understand its nuances and “truth” from the art it had spurred. What has been hidden in documents and behind closed doors is there for the world to see in art. I want to be part of that. I guess I am already a part of that for Kuwait, at least. That humbles me, and makes me more determined than ever to keep working.
AB: As a poet and painter, most of your work both real and metaphoric often breaks narrative constructions open, frequently referring to social impediments. What message do you want convey to your audience?
SA: That you have to face your fear in order to conquer it. That progress will never take place in our society if the arts are censored, if we’re not allowed to question everything, if we put on blinders or hide the dirt under the carpet. That hypocrisy is not okay. That by exploring so-called taboo topics, I’m not being a rebel for the sake of rebellion, and I’m actually trying to open a dialogue, a discussion on a massive scale, to create some form of enlightenment, to broaden some minds.
AB: The graphic disembodiment of your controversial show “It’s a Man’s World” digs in a curious way to ascertain identity, it was censored in your country but it is in the internet. How has the internet empowered women? You? How has the online community transformed the landscape for women?
SA: It is incredible what the internet has done in terms of openness and freedom, which is all the more reason why I believe it’s ridiculous that during the internet age, we have such rigid censorship laws. And do you know what’s ironic? They’re trying to censor things from children and young adults, but those are precisely the people who can hack and use proxies and have total access to the internet. I’m not saying children and young adults should see everything (I have children myself), but what I’m saying is we need to come up with a logical, reasonable plan that doesn’t treat the entire society like children. For example: in Kuwait, children of all ages (even toddlers) can be taken inside the movie theatre to watch an uncensored horror film! But if there is a beautiful kiss by two people who love each other, it’s cut! How is that logical? What are we teaching our children? I’ll tell you what we are teaching them: we are teaching them that violence is okay and that love is bad. As a woman that was censored, I was able to download my images onto my website just days after the shutdown of my show and allowed the whole world to see them. The result? I got thousands of emails from gallery owners, fans, museums, total strangers from all around the planet (some cities I cannot even pronounce, I swear to you)…all supporting me, encouraging me, telling me to keep going, that I was a voice for freedom of expression, that I was a symbol for strong Muslim Arab women everywhere, especially being a single mother. Needless to say, I broke down and cried every time I read an email, a tweet, a facebook post after the incident, just in gratitude. That’s the power of the internet.
AB: What would you say is the most important thing about art and art-making you’ve learnt from this exhibition?
SA: Regarding Art-making: experiment and do your own thing regardless if it falls under a specific school/category or not. Make it your own school. That’s what true art-making is all about.
Regarding Art: That art can change the world.
AB: What have been the most surprising responses you’ve received in relation to your works?
SA: Lol, okay are you ready for this?
*”Where is the witch? We want to see her!” This was said to a gallery owner by two fundamentalists looking for me.
*”Why can’t you just let sleeping dogs lie? Why stir trouble?” asked by a very liberal person.
*”Couldn’t you just do your exhibition underground, like they do in Iran?” according to a very liberal artist.
*”She must have called the secret service herself and planned the whole thing.” Said by a local Kuwaiti artist who has a blog.
*”We’re going to find you and stone your house,” said by a fundamentalist man.
What is interesting is firstly, that most reactions were NOT about the artwork as art, but about the social, religious and political implications behind it; and secondly, that the local artist community did not band together to stand by me, but rather the international community of artists did. I even got emails from the International Art Critics Association stating that they had already sent letters of support to the Amir of Kuwait, the National Council of Arts and Letters, and the Kuwait Arts Association on my behalf.
AB: What can artists and ordinary people do to challenge the trend against discrimination in the creative arts?
SA: Be brave. Be true. Work authentically, not for the sake of making money or for the sake of getting ahead, but for the sake of making a difference in society. If every single person who believed in freedom of expression and in protecting the arts stood up to this discrimination, we can wipe it out. If you’re a writer, write about it. If you tweet, then tweet about it. If you’re an artist, offer up work that challenges the status quo. But society as a whole must support those of us who do that. People are scared; they don’t want to be the scapegoat. I don’t have that fear. I guess we just need gutsier and fearless people. Be brave.
AB: In your opinion, can creativity take an artist (men and women) to a place that is a little bit dangerous?
SA: Dangerous? Hmm…Perhaps in our society it’s possible to get hunted down for saying the truth and speaking your mind, and getting punished for it. So yes, maybe it can get dangerous – literally. It can also get dangerous metaphorically speaking, because by allowing yourself to be free completely you may find your own demons and struggle with them. There was a time this year when I found out my son was seriously ill that I put all the pain into my work and ended up feeling like I needed to be hospitalized myself, I was going insane. Danger comes on all levels. It’s part of the job. But if you’re not up to facing it, find another career.
AB: Finally, what ideas or issues do you feel are currently influencing your work? Any exhibition plans?
SA: As soon as I recovered from the shutdown of my show, the pain of that, I immediately started working on the next series. It started with the title. My 12 year old daughter heard people talking about my show, so she came up to me and asked: “Mama, what does popcornographic mean?” I asked her why, and she said she heard people say my show was shut down because it was “popcornographic.” Of course I immediately knew what she meant. So it stuck. I thought: “This is perfect!” I decided to use the term against them by using the version my daughter used. This way nobody can censor it. And the series will explore the actual impact of censorship, lack of freedom of expression and all things taboo. Since then, I’ve been working in the studio on the new series, which will eventually be shown with Ayyam Gallery, hopefully. The first artwork from the series is called A Tale of Two Muslims. It explores the divisions in Islam, especially between Sunni and Shiite. It will be auctioned off with JAMM in Kuwait at CAP, 28th and 29th of November 2012, courtesy of Ayyam Gallery. ab
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