‘ABSENCE’ BY AZIZ MUTAWA – Kingdome Magazine
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Written by: Ashley Alleluya

In my mind, Shahad Bishara is slowly emerging as the person in Kuwait whose artistic eye must not be questioned. After having attended a handful of events that she’s helped curate, I found myself at Visual Therapy once more on a pleasant Thursday evening, drawn in by the artist she chose to give her support to. This was an exhibition titled ‘Absence’ by photographer, Aziz Mutawa.


“I’m a huge fan of Shahad’s initiatives and I’m honored to have had her curate the exhibition at her space. The process of setting up was so seamless and I really felt that Shahad gave me the boost of confidence to finally exhibit after so much hesitation,” Aziz gushed about Shahad, confirming my suspicions that she really is the unofficial godmother of the artistic community.

With this faith I walked into the familiar gallery, ready to take in Aziz’s work and immerse myself in it the best I could. The layout of Aziz’s work was linear in display, but very non-linear once you begin taking them in. A row of photographs, all displayed alongside the walls of Visual Therapy’s space, without any overt guidance about where you start from or how you should progress. This became extremely interesting to me. I started from one end, progressing through each photograph, took in each one until I reached the wall on the other side of the room. I then found myself wandering towards the center, restarting the storytelling process from the middle, moving outward. Such is the mastery of the visual storytelling of Aziz Mutawa’s work. It gives you multiple perspectives, countless pairings and a deceptively deep storyboard with a pick-your-own-adventure aesthetic.


It is primarily the locations – the settings of these adventures – that pique my interest. “My father and I used to go on nature walks in Doha and explore the different textures of the coastal areas,” Aziz Mutawa tells me of his choice of venue. “Documenting the area, I began to feel such an intense attachment to the coast that I almost felt the edges of my skin slip off my body and weave themselves into the landscape itself. Ever since then, I’ve seen earth textures as skin and started to introduce skin-like colors to my work.”


The visual language that Aziz used also deserves mention. Crisp, sharp focus, with lines and angles that are almost obsessively geometric. The pavements on the road align perfectly with the model walking along them, allowing you to clearly see the boundaries separating the azure waters from the sepia sand. Of his style of photography, Aziz tells me, “sharp lines are my way of separating and dividing colors in the image. It is so important to give each color tone its place to comfortably exist and breathe before seeping into the next element.” Walking through the pictures, the most nagging thought I have is to wonder what brought on the inspiration to incorporate these buildings, roads and areas into his theme. For this, Aziz credits the “seemingly endless construction sites that started seeping out of the city and into the northern coast of Kuwait. The massive new housing projects ended up consuming much of the coastal reserves,” he informs me. “With the increased pressure on housing, these pastel pink colored structures began to rise in the middle of nature reserves, mirroring the pale sand landscapes of the Sulaibikhat coast and thus came my inspiration to create a narrative around these absent structures and the environment around them.”


As is with a lot of art that is evocative, this series of photographs also clearly puts into focus the understanding that Aziz has with his model. Together, they combine to form a series of images that requires a deep understanding of Aziz’s intentions with the photographs, and Afraa, the model, seems to capture his thoughts perfectly. “Afraa and her family are actually close friends of mine which made our communication during the shoot almost nonverbal. We both understood how the concept was relevant to both our lives but didn’t really have to discuss it,” he tells me. Thinking back to the exhibition, I can’t picture another face displaying the aesthetic of absence as Aziz perceives it, as effectively as she did.


I took an auditory survey of the crowd at the exhibition, trying to gage their views with my highly evolved eavesdropping skills. Phrases such as “interesting angles,” “strange by fascinating” and “makes spaces look so empty” wafted towards me. Wondering if this was the kind of response Aziz anticipated, I asked him about the feedback he’s received. “The response was great,” he tells me. “I was ecstatic to hear that people payed so much attention to the names of the pieces and could reference them as soon they saw me. The biggest highlight for me was seeing the work come to life in print. I highly suggest that photographers start printing their work and running small exhibitions more often.


At some instances, I keep flitting from one piece – ‘seaskin’ – on the left of the room, directly to ‘strandskin’ – a piece on the far right, without pausing to view other pieces. “‘Seaskin’ was one of the pieces that got a lot of attention, which also surprised me,” Aziz says. “It was also interesting to see how a small majority had the urban industrial images speak to them more than the nature and ocean ones,” he continues, probably referring to the stark beauty that ‘strandskin’ possesses.


Speaking of ‘strandskin,’ I have to take a minute to verbalize the gamut of emotions I went through while looking at this picture. This is a photograph that captures the model, Afraa, enclosed in the black and yellow bars you see along Kuwait’s roads. Aziz’s use of color and lines had me feeling strangely claustrophic on behalf of the model. She wasn’t trapped, per se – most of the image features an open sky. Yet, I felt the absence of freedom as I looked at her, wanting her – or maybe myself – to break out of this cage-like structure that’s waiting to engulf you wherever you look. “‘Strandskin’ to me was a gateway to exploring the black and yellow metal structures that seem to pop out of nowhere all around the region,” Aziz offers. ‘Strandskin’ seems to have stirred something within him as well, sparking an idea for his next project. “This (the black and yellow metal structures) is what my next series will be exploring and I am already shaking out of excitement to start.”

All positive responses and accolades aside, before I make my peace with the beauty of this exhibit, I need to know what these pictures have meant to Aziz personally. “I see a lot of myself in this series when I consider all the times I found myself absent,” he replies. “Another side of this narrative talks about the accumulation of overlooked details that often leave us stranded,” he elaborates. “I have to say that it is almost ridiculous just how many times I’ve forgotten where I’ve parked or have gotten lost trying to follow simple directions. The new urbanized area of Sulaibikhat is a collection of almost identical structures in the middle of a natural reserve. This was why it was important for me to set this narrative in such an area where one is almost asked to get lost. There are also times when I remember being dehydrated and disoriented when physically lost in that area specifically.” In the process of finding his way into the natural reserve, Aziz surrendered himself to the language of the location, bringing to us, his audience, a story that echoes the absence we feel on a daily basis on a multitude of levels. For introducing me to this part within me with his photography, I am grateful.
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