Controversial Kuwaiti artist undeterred by censorship
Beirut - Engulfed in sombre shades of violet and blue, the view of an abandoned amusement park full of bumper cars elicits distinct feelings of discomfort. At the centre of the scene, an older man dressed in a suit forcefully pulls a young girl dressed as a bride, while strange masked figures seem blissfully resigned in the moment, staring off with vacant smiles on their cartoonish faces.
This dystopian world is one of many in a series of mixed media works from the It’s a Mad World exhibition at Beirut’s Ayyam Gallery by controversial Kuwaiti artist Shurooq Amin.
Bold in her creative convictions, Amin is no stranger to the controversy that can ensue from addressing sensitive topics such as child brides and homosexuality.
In 2012, her similarly titled series It’s a Man’s World, which explored the hidden transgressive lives of Arab Gulf men, was banned from public view. The setback propelled the artist forward with a new body of work. This time, Amin observed, there has been a shift in attitudes.
“People were more willing to listen and look, to think and discuss,” she said. “Emerging and younger artists were also beginning to touch upon topics that I had tackled but were considered taboo previous to It’s a Man’s World. I had been accused of opening Pandora’s box but time proved that my actions were of benefit for the art movement in Kuwait.”
While conservatism may be woven into the fabric of much of the region, the arts have provided an avenue to challenge and project alternative points of view around ideas that are considered taboo. As the region continues to become increasingly globalised, a sort of cultural awakening seems to be afoot and Amin said she sees censorship as an irrelevant barrier.
“If there is one thing history has taught us, it is that change is inevitable and that people resist change. So, while us artists are pushing boundaries and breaking moulds, society will resist — yes — but time and history are on our side,” Amin said.
“People eventually come around because, if they don’t, we will not evolve and if we don’t evolve, we will become extinct… Censorship is becoming more and more ridiculous in an age in which children can hack into anything online. So, while censorship may be a nuisance now, it will eventually become a moot point.”
Surveying other works in the show, a straightforward assumption about the provocative nature of their aesthetic comes to mind. There also seems to be more beyond mere shock value. At their core, the works stress the importance of freedom of expression and the need to take risks, experiment and embrace diversity of opinion.
“My work intentionally exposes taboos and openly discusses those topics that no one wants to discuss — homosexuality, child brides, corruption and bribery, adultery and gender double standards, religious hypocrisy, political hypocrisy, alcoholism, etc.,” Amin said. “The fact that this provokes people is just a side effect. My work is never sensationalist or provocative on purpose but it may very well come across as sensual while sending out its socio-political message, that is true.”
Contrasts seem to dominate Amin’s canvases. The stark worlds and scenarios are often offset with a hint of humour.
“Because the message is so dark and sometimes shocking, I tend to balance this out aesthetically with bright colours and with a hint of sarcasm,” she said. “It’s all done in a very tongue-in-cheek manner, as humour is essential when tackling sensitive subjects like religion, sex and politics.”
And this duality is best observed in her female protagonists. These are complex characters that maintain a strong presence alongside their male counterparts. Even when they seem utterly trapped in their problematic circumstances, Amin manages to inject a rebellious and empowered facet into them.
“The strong female presence is a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, the strong female represents my own voice expressing itself freely; on the other hand, the protagonist is almost always a woman in my story because I believe it is in her hands to change society. “
“If women banded together,” she added, “they could alter legislation. If they banded together, they could raise an open-minded generation of future men. Women have the power but they don’t use it.”
Criticisms of her art do not faze Amin, who said the substance of the work will remain long after the controversy has fizzled.
“Everyone has the right to say what they please but, at the end of the day, I wholeheartedly believe that time will prove that my work reflects an important time-slot of Arab cultural history. Art is part of cultural progress; it can liberate spirits, broaden minds, pushes envelopes, ruffles some feathers along the way and tackles taboos,” she said.
It’s a Mad World continues at the Ayyam Gallery in Beirut through November 5th.