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By Shaun Randol
Shurooq Amin is a Kuwaiti/Syrian artist, poet, and professor at Kuwait University. In two recent art exhibitions, “It’s a Man’s World” and “Society Girls,” Amin has explored themes of gender, identity, duality, religion, and hypocrisy in Middle Eastern and Arab societies. Her colorful mixed-media tableaux depict Kuwaitis in trendy clothes lounging, smoking hookah, and playing cards, their faces all eerily erased.
On March 7, 2012, three hours after her exhibition “It’s a Man’s World” opened to the public in Kuwait City, it was shut down by authorities for being “pornographic” and “anti-Islamic.” The suppressive act has made Amin a cause célèbre for advocates of freedom of expression throughout the world. Her story was picked up by blogs and media outlets, and her name even became a trending topic on Twitter.
The controversy has only emboldened Amin, who is preparing a brand-new show, “Popcornographic,” that will address censorship and taboo subjects in the Kuwaiti region. The show is slated to appear at the Ayyam Gallery in Dubai in 2013.
In December 2012, Ms. Amin and I conducted our conversation over e-mail.
Shaun Randol: I’ve read differing accounts about why “It’s a Man’s World” was shut down. What is your understanding?
Shurooq Amin: The secret service, and two other entities that shall remain nameless, arrived at the gallery around 10pm when the exhibition was closing down for the night. It had been a very successful opening night and a very successful private VIP viewing the night before. So, logically, a complaint was lodged within the timeframe of those three hours (from 7pm to 10pm on the night of the public showing) by some anonymous person(s) who came to the show and deemed that my work was “pornographic” and “anti-Islamic.” It would make sense that if the complaint was lodged previous to that timeframe, they wouldn't have allowed the show to go on from the start, you see my point? That answers the “why” it was closed.
The “how” is a whole other story. Frankly, I feel like Inspector Gadget just analyzing it.
Randol: What has been the reaction to you and your art since officials closed your show? Are artists, citizens, journalists, and others taking sides?
Amin: It was an enlightening experience. For the first two weeks, I stayed home and became depressed, feeling sorry for myself and thinking ‘I had worked a whole year on those artworks and for some narrow-minded people to shut it down after just three hours was so unfair and heartbreaking.’ All that hard work down the drain…But then something wonderful and terrible happened (yes, an oxymoron, I know): I started getting support on social media, a trending hashtag on Twitter, messages of support on Facebook, thousands of e-mails from around the world from people I didn't know from countries on every continent, calls from everyone (writers to actors to politicians)—all supporting me!
On the other hand, the local community of artists—with the exception of some very talented, wise artists—didn't support me at all. Some local artists publicly attacked me (verbally and in writing); that was devastating. Their logic was that I opened Pandora's Box for them! They wanted to “let sleeping dogs lie,” as opposed to broadening minds and enlightening generations and making a difference in society. Some people called what I did courageous and some called it reckless. Some saw it as “heroic bravery” and some saw it as “shaking the boat” or “ruffling feathers” unnecessarily. I suppose it's all a matter of perspective. But the bottom line is that I got to know which journalists, politicians, artists, citizens, etc. are on my side —and which ones are against me. And that's fine with me. My mission is to make a difference, a positive change, and history illustrates that there are always people who will oppose that change.
Randol: Are you dissuaded to show art in the Middle East now, or are you more determined to do so?
Amin: I am more determined than ever to show in the Middle East! My work needs to be seen here so that I can reach the very people who oppose progress and who oppose freedom of expression. My next show will hopefully be in Dubai, and that's a good center of art in the Middle East. I can reach more people from Dubai. Of course, that doesn't mean that I won't show in Europe or the United States. I would love to show in New York, for example. Taking the message outside of the Middle East is vital, too. But one step at a time.
Randol: What has censorship done for your creativity?
Amin: I am not affected by censorship. I paint what I want, I tackle the issues that need to be raised and discussed, and if they want to censor, let them censor away. After every exhibition, I post images of my paintings on my website anyway. If anything, censorship has made me stronger and more determined than ever to continue my mission to fight for freedom of expression and to tackle taboo topics.
Randol: “It’s a Man’s World,” refers to which world? Kuwait? The art world?
Amin: Of course it refers to the whole world. This is a global conundrum. But I was definitely focusing on the Arab world within my images and on specific sociopolitical issues we face in Arab society.
Randol: Why are the subjects in “It’s a Man’s World” and “Society Girls” faceless? What is your intention with the masking?
Amin: There are two objectives from masking the faces: 1) to hide the identity of the people in the images, because they are all real people, not made up characters; and 2) to symbolize the double lives we lead here and the encouragement that society in the Middle East gives to double standards: do what I say not what I do, for example. In the Middle East, there are unspoken rules that order us to lie and hide our true identity, because our society doesn't condone individuality—it condones conformity. So, if you want to be accepted, you have to conform to the social norms, even if you don't believe in them.
Randol: What do you want to achieve with your art? Do you have a mission?
Amin: I want to make a positive difference. Simple. I want to be a voice for people who cannot raise their voice. I want my art to matter 100 years from now. I want my art—no matter how long it takes—to be a little part of the war to fight for freedom of expression. I want to ban subjective censorship. I want my art to be part of the cultural progress in the Middle East. I want to raise awareness and open up dialogue and liberate minds.
I'm patient. This will take time. And maybe I won't live to see the results. But I have no doubt it will happen one day. It's already started anyway, in very specific ways. For example, the majority of the random e-mails I get are from people who write to me thanking me saying that they have been influenced by my work and inspired by my strength, and then they go on to tell me to continue my mission and never give up. You would be surprised at the amount of e-mails I get from men as well, not only women, all supporting me.
Randol: Do you think your art has the potential to change policy? How about social mores?
Amin: Absolutely. The shutdown of my exhibition was a wakeup call for everyone in Kuwait. Parliamentary policies had been getting quite threatening for a while, but no one was doing anything about them. For example, members of the parliament (at the time of the show) were suggesting that there should be a dress code for women! And that women should not be allowed to travel without their husband's or father's permission! There were a few other ridiculous policies suggested. Can you imagine the disastrous ramifications if such nonsensical policies were actually implemented? Instead of progressing, we were going backwards into the Dark Ages.
After my show was shut down, entities like the Women's Society and other local liberal societies contacted me: some had me speak at their locales, some had me come out on well-organized peaceful protests, etc. People woke up because that was the straw that broke the camel's back.
Randol: Do you make art for a global audience? Or is your art focused locally? Does your audience change with each piece or series?
Amin: I make art for a global audience, no doubt, because I am a global citizen. That's how I view myself. Political borders are man-made! We are all human beings and at the core of it need the same basics in life: food, shelter, water, security, family, income, love, and peace. Art reflects our environment and our culture, and at that time, I felt moved by what was going on in my society at the sociopolitical level. If I was in a war zone, I would've painted something different. Right now, for example, I am moved by the impact of censorship on our society and by certain cultural and political issues going on around the Middle East that are making me furious! So I'm working on my current series “Popcornographic” for Ayyam Gallery.
Randol: Where or with whom do you think your art has the most impact?
Amin: Judging by the e-mails I get … anywhere and with anyone.
Randol: You are Kuwaiti and Syrian—what is your role as an artist (or a citizen) in the current Syrian civil war?
Amin: My mother's family is still in Damascus, though some of my cousins made it out and got jobs in other countries. It's devastating. As a citizen, there is very little I can do besides support my family and find possibilities for them to emigrate. When I talk with other Syrians, they tell me the same thing: there is nothing anyone can do at this point except talk about it, send money or other essentials, provide an escape, maybe a shelter, but in general we all feel terribly helpless.
As an artist, I honestly haven't gone there visually because I am already undergoing a personal trauma in my own home with one of my children, who is consuming all my attention. But that's another story for another time. A special friend sent me this today: “You know you've healed when you're able to talk about your story.” One day, I'll talk about my story.
Artworks reproduced here courtesy of Shurooq Amin.