ABOLISH ARTICLE 153 ART EXHIBITION
“The woman in Kuwait today is no longer willing to be merely objectified,” I was told by an artist’s manager who was presenting at the HUB Gallery, as the sun set on a Tuesday evening. She may as well summarize the entire evening and every single piece of expression that adorned the gallery. If someone had to unleash all the thoughts, opinions, dreams, hopes, frustrations and bitterness that lay simmering under the collective feminine surface in Kuwait, this is how it would manifest itself. An outpouring of color, canvas, print, paint, fabric, metal, glass, coffee, resin and what have you worked in a myriad of ways, each conveying a message that was unique in its conception but singular in its message – the woman is not merely an object.
The sights I took in were all part of the ‘Abolish Article 153‘ showcase, currently in its third edition. An initiative that celebrates the milestone through which women first received their rights in Kuwait 12 years ago, this evening brought together some of Kuwait’s finest artistic minds along with eager participants from the Graphic Design department of American University of Kuwait. What immediately stood out to me was the significant number of male contributors at an event that celebrated the echo and reach of a woman’s voice. Far from being patronizing, condescending or even subtly indifferent, this male insight in the artworks displayed on this night shone the heat lamp strong and bright on what it means to be a woman in the Kuwait of today.
The exhibition boasted of such names as Amira Behbehani, Abdullah Al Awadhi, Farah Salem, Mohammed Al Kouh, Jad Al Khoury, Sara Abu Mrad, Ghada Khunji, Afsoon and Tagreed Al Bagshi, to name a few. Walking around the gallery, I found my eyes becoming entrapped in a dance with the hangings on the walls – flitting madly from piece-to-piece, widening at the beauty of it all, becoming distracted by its equally majestic neighbor, all the while trying to process that I was surrounded by work that simultaneously caused me to feel both overwhelmed and light, enraged and hopeful. Abdulla Al Saab’s short series of photographs simply titled ‘Bullying’ had me sharply sucking in my breath at the impact of women blinded, bound and judged by the same society expected to cocoon and enlighten them. A bronze sculpture by Fadel Al Abbar from 2004 appealed to the optimist in me, smiling at the sight of the woman soaring mid-flight with a man hoisting her up. It is the upward tilt of the man’s body, perhaps, with his gaze directed towards the woman as she reached for more that soothed me in the wake of Al Saab’s sharp work.
‘Freedom’ by Waleed Shalaan caught my gaze for its strongly local feel – a woman reaching out to the limitless movement of butterflies far above the Kuwait City landscape. As a woman who travels to Sharq for work each day and often gazes at this very view from the confines of her glass-enclosed office, the billowing freedom of the woman in this stark oil-on-canvas spoke to my ennui. Sara Abu Mrad’s medal on wood series of ‘Women in Motion’ was an interesting study of figures captured in tasks that while menial, have not always been considered womanly. ‘The Broken Heart’ by Zainab Qabazard was a vibrant yet melancholic look at the kaleidoscopic insides of a woman scorned, whether by a lover, family, society or own ambition – the colors of agony, after all, remain constant no matter what the anguish. ‘Sad Circus’ by Mohammed Al Kouh, ‘Sleep Tight Little Angel’ by Hamad Al Saab, the ‘Through Little Vision’ series by Tagreed Al Bagshi and ‘The Dove’ by Farah Salem were other works that stirred in me alternating currents of comfort, then anger, bitter anxiety and then serenity – it was a while before I realized I was finally breathing years of buried emotions via an artistic release.
A photograph that was deceptively simple in its framing, yet had me standing slack-jawed for about five minutes was the ‘Caged Woman Shoes’ picture by Tehran-born artist Maryam Hosseini. Nothing but a photograph of a small wire cage in the street holding women’s shoes that she discovered while walking the streets of Iran, I felt the oppression wafting towards me from the wiry metal of the cage, felt the desperation of feet bound against their will from the shoes that hide no wear-and-tear, felt the entrapment of hearts that are meant for so much more than a caged societal enclosure that lulls the woman into a false sense of security.
‘Flight’ by Nada Dana-Haeri, on the other hand, left me with a sense of abstract calm and motivation. It may have been her choice of hues. Purples, blues, pinks and blacks soothed my frazzled nerves, or maybe it was the intentionally vague juxtaposition of the calligraphy against a hazy backdrop that mellowed my rising agitation, but by the time I walked away from this piece, some semblance of hope had been restored to my currently turbulent psyche.
As an expatriate who has needed over two decades to make peace with two diverse lands she calls home (one of which does not completely accept her, event today), I found solace in ‘I Know Why the Stateless Bird Sings: The Case of Nora Cassandra’ by Shurooq Amin. A photograph of the back of a half-Kuwaiti half-Finnish young woman who struggled with her identity before eventually embracing the wholeness of her heritage (despite being denied them from both ends), this mixed-media experiment was a powerful message of empowerment literally carved via tattoo onto the subject’s back in a symbolism that is proclaimed, not merely implied.
Amidst all this work, stellar in its intention, stunning in its execution, the image that planted itself firmly into my brain and heart is ‘You Are A Beautiful Green Fig Tree’ by Berlin-based Syrian artist, Alina Amer. A photograph taken in shades of grey capturing the stillness and death of the inner self at being reduced to a person with nothing more than ornamental value, this image of the artist herself lying alongside a blank, empty dummy amidst foliage that bears and sustains life (much as a woman is ought to) raises my hackles and gives me chills. “This is artwork that depicts how a partner or supposedly well-intentioned person in your life dehumanizes you when you are told that you are merely beautiful; something to be objectified, while nothing else you contribute is of any value,” Mashael Basheer, the artist’s manager explains to me. “What Alina wanted to capture was the result of subjected to this negative feeling by washing this dummy the way you would wash a dead body, and then lying next to it in solidarity of the death she feels at being reduced to an object state,” she elaborates.
Though all this is true, I still find resilient power in this picture, in the firm set of the artist’s jawline, in the angles and sharp tone of the framing, and Mashael affirms this powerful message. “This is an incredibly empowering artwork, because the most powerful thing any person, especially a woman, can do is confront the negativity thrown their way and make the decision to rise above it. It is easier to deny the toxicity than to face it head-on and stand up to the adversity, stronger than ever before.”
It is fitting then, that this piece stands right inside the entrance – or the exit, depending on your perspective – of the HUB Gallery for this one night. To be confronted with this shockingly bold display of non-conformity, to be reminded that women are transformative contributors to the societal pool, to be motivated towards rising from the ashes of the patriarchy towards a sky with heights waiting to be scaled – isn’t this why the constitutional movement of Article 153 deservedly received a dedicated night of recognition? We think so.