Joobin Bekhrad in conversation with renowned – and controversial – Kuwaiti artist Shurooq Amin
On March 5, 2012, just three hours after opening, Shurooq Amin’s highly anticipated exhibition at Kuwait’s AI M. Gallery, It’s a Man’s World, was shut down. Commencing at 8 PM, the exhibition attracted a large number of people, and Amin managed to sell a few pieces, although by 10 PM, the local police stormed the scene, and began questioning both Amin and the gallery owner. Apparently, the authorities had been informed that Amin’s work was of a ‘pornographic’ nature, and as such, could not be shown in Kuwait. As the evening progressed, more and more officials arrived at the galleries, taking pictures of Amin’s paintings to send to the Ministry of Interior Affairs and the Ministry of Commerce. Needless to say, in the end all of Amin’s paintings were taken down, and the exhibition was cancelled.
Although various accounts of the incident exist in both Arab and Western media, I talked to the woman behind the paintings herself, to hear her side of the story. As Amin would say, this is the story heard straight from the horse’s mouth!
What was the basis for the paintings in It’s a Man’s World? The paintings in the series seem to mark quite a departure from your earlier works.
Not really a departure. It’s a Man’s World was preceded by Society Girls, which was a taboo exploration of the private lives of Arab women. It seemed only natural and organic to move to the other half of society – men. With everything that was going on in the world, it occurred to me that our parliament was focusing on trivial, irrelevant issues that had nothing to do with improving the economy, health or education of the country, and everything to do with stripping women of their basic rights. Frankly, I believe (or rather any sociologist will tell you) that the more freedom those in power take away from society, the more hedonistic and corrupt that society would become. I wanted to shed light on this problem.
In the paintings, for the most part, the male figures are faceless. What is this intended to signify?
In almost all of my artworks, the men are faceless. There is a practical logical reason for this, and another metaphorical reason. The former is that the men are real men from society – they’re not models. When I do the photo shoot, their faces are exposed, but I ask them to sign a confidentiality agreement to protect their identity and subsequent safety, and proceed to cover their faces. The latter reason is of course, to symbolize the hypocrisy that is inbred in our society. We are brought up and raised in this part of the world to be hypocritical. Men in power seldom practice what they preach. I’m all for living and letting live, but I can’t stand it when someone in power restricts a woman’s basic lifestyle on the basis of religious codes of conduct, when that person himself does not adhere to those codes. I’m simply putting it out there, exposing it, and forcing people to discuss taboo topics. Cultural progress cannot take place without an open sociopolitical dialogue between people.
Just three hours after the exhibition opened, it was shut down. Did you ever anticipate that such a thing would happen before the paintings were shown?
No, never. I expected some controversy, but what happened to me was outrageous; even the manner in which it happened was extremely vulgar, and totally illegal. They shut down my show, treated me like a criminal, banned my paintings from being shown in Kuwait, and came back the next day to confiscate them (luckily we had moved them to a safe location in the middle of the night). I’ve heard many rumours about the incident. For example, some people said I had planned the whole thing (which simply is a reflection of their own twisted minds), while others said that I must have anticipated the consequences because in an interview with Bazaar magazine, I had admitted that the artworks were controversial (well, so was Society Girls – so what?), and so on. It’s rather amusing reading about all the stories out there.
Was the story covered in the Kuwaiti media? If so, what was the general stance towards you and your work?
Yes. The story was covered in the Kuwaiti media every day for the next 2 to 3 weeks on television, and in newspapers and magazines. My phone hardly stopped ringing. It became very disconcerting for me – overwhelming in a bad way. Most of the time I refused to give interviews, and still stories would come out in the paper, with falsified details!
If you talk to my friends, they will tell you I’m fearless. I have a mission, and I will carry it out – nothing will stand in my way. It’s that simple
As a result, I became very wary of the Arabic media, especially after the MBC fiasco. MBC invited me to Beirut to appear on their show, Kalam Nawaem. They sent me a ticket and hotel voucher, a TV crew to my studio in Kuwait to film, and they spoke to a lawyer on my side and an opposition member against me. They were very thorough. Subsequently, I arrived in Beirut and was told that they received a phone call from Kuwait ordering them to stop me from talking on air. That was devastating. When I was approached by Rotana, I decided I wouldn’t put myself through that again. However, the Western media was far more professional. Reuters, Arabian Business, and the Financial Times wrote excellent articles about me and the incident. In Kuwait, the general stance was supportive, but those who were against me were very hurtful and personal. On the other hand, the support I received from the international community was overwhelmingly good.
Although the exhibition was prematurely closed, the controversy you stirred gained you quite a bit of attention. What impact would you say all this publicity has had on your career as an artist?
The publicity I received was excellent for my career as an artist, because everyone wanted to see what all the fuss was about; and what they saw, they inevitably liked. My website used to get hundreds of hits a day, and now it gets thousands. The artworks are – at the end of the day – aesthetically pleasing to the eye. The subject matter – which is quite ‘heavy’ and serious – is dealt with in a very tongue-in- cheek, light-hearted manner … and I think that’s the secret to its success. I think people are fed up of seeing life reflected in art in a gruesome, gory, or depressing manner. My way is imposing a grueling vision comically and beautifully. It’s something you can hang in your home, ultimately. The energy of the work itself is positive. The universe is on my side. I’m sure whoever wanted to shut me up had no idea about how this would backfire on them. I’ve had offers from museums and galleries across the world. The International Art Critics Association have even sent letters to the Amir of Kuwait, to the National Council, and to the Kuwait Arts Association complaining about the incident and its impact on freedom of expression in the arts. I can’t thank them enough.
I can’t stand it when someone in power restricts a woman’s basic lifestyle on the basis of religious codes of conduct, when that person himself does not adhere to those codes
How has the incident affected your personal and professional life? In a relatively conservative country such as Kuwait, have you ever feared for your personal safety? What has been the impact on your role as a University professor?
I had even received a couple of death threats when I did Society Girls! In fact, a couple of men stormed into the exhibition demanding to ‘see the witch’ – I mean, really? Are we living in the dark ages? Would they like to burn me at the stake just because I’m strong-willed and won’t give up on what’s right? Or is it my power they’re afraid of? One film director asked to meet with me just to meet ‘the woman whose 17 paintings shook a nation’.
Look, I’ve never worried about my safety (how can you even drive your car if you worry?), despite being a single mother of four. I don’t want my children growing up in fear. My children are learning – just by observing my life – that no matter what life throws at you, you must never give up on your dreams, values, beliefs, or passions. If you talk to my friends, they will tell you I’m fearless. I have a mission, and I will carry it out – nothing will stand in my way. It’s that simple. At University, my students all asked me about the incident, as they had also heard mixed reports about it. They’re lucky in that they got a firsthand report straight from the horse’s mouth. It made for an excellent discussion on art, politics and sociology. I believe they learned more from that one incident than they did the whole semester.
Your works from the same series have also been exhibited at the Lahd Gallery (presumably their London branch). What was the reception like over there?
When Lahd Gallery approached me to do a solo show at their London gallery, I was thrilled. I’ve always wanted to exhibit in London. That had been a dream of mine. The series that I showed there was called The Bullet Series, which was under the umbrella of Society Girls. What made The Bullet Series unique was that the paintings were shot with an M16 rifle using a Hornet bullet, which left a clean hole through the canvas. The reception was incredible. I was still a relatively unknown artist there and yet the feedback was astounding. Lahd Gallery still have two or three of my paintings there, I believe.
Are there any plans in the near future to hold more exhibitions in the Arab world? If so, would you ever consider showing the paintings from the It’s a Man’s World series again?
Yes, I would definitely hold more exhibitions in the Arab world, and my focus would be on Dubai. In fact, I’m preparing the next series as we speak. As for showing the It’s a Man’s World series, that would be impossible for one reason: most of the paintings have been sold. I have four left with me in my studio. That’s it. However, I am collaborating with Ayyam Gallery, the foremost gallery in the Middle East, to produce limited edition prints of some works from It’s a Man’s World and Society Girls. These can be purchased directly from Ayyam Gallery in Dubai. I had never been warm to the idea of prints, because my paintings have a lot of texture and detail, which I thought might not show up on print. Also, as each painting takes so much time, effort, and money to produce, and is totally unique, I – very naively – refused the idea of prints. However, I soon learned that for one, prints are only offered to artists whose work is in demand, and secondly, prints raise the value of the original artwork for its owner. Knowing that, I thought, ‘let there be prints!’
In the Middle East, many subjects – such as the ones you explored recently in your paintings – are still taboo. What do you think the future holds in store for the region’s artists in terms of how freely they can express themselves?
If they rally up behind me, I can assure you they will be able to express themselves freely. The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades!