How would you describe the work that you do?
I would describe it as installation art. . . . Installation is a lot of things . . . to me it means screen-printing on large sheets of fabric and then using those pieces of fabric to make structures that you go through, . . . corridors, rooms and shrines. All have . . . a theme of women’s power and sacred women, Arab women.
Do you feel you can be as effective with smaller work as you are with installation? What makes your installations beneficial to your goal?
It’s just part of what I am as an artist. I want the viewer to have their own whole body experience. It started with when I made a prayer rug that have a mirror image of myself in prayer position. I made an image on this prayer rug of the way I pray. . . . I scanned my face with the prayer shawl around me and put that on the head part. . . . I scanned my hands, . . . I drew my knees . . . and I scanned my feet. . . . And when I presented it in the class. . . a fellow student just imitated my posture. She put her head, hands, knees and feet on the corresponding parts in the image on the rug, therefore she reproduced the Muslim prayer position. . . . I really love people . . . to experience my work that way. To enter my world.
Are there ways in which you intend your work to challenge the viewer?
I have two ways by which I try to challenge the viewer. The first is the theme, which is justice, gender justice, . . . not only in the West, but also in the East, which is where it is needed more. This opens discussions at different levels but it carries with it something not intentional. . . . Because I’m from the Middle East, Western people want to know more about me . . . so my work acts as an ambassador. . . . I present my kind of people here, . . . which I have to explain. . . . People want to know more about the women’s lives in Saudi Arabia, which was not what I set forth to do. The other way is the art quality itself. It introduces Arab art as an aesthetic rooted in Islamic art that has the presence of the contemporary world. If you know something about Islamic art you will realize that my work is a little provocative. For example, I have figurative representation even of holy characters, I make calligraphy representing controversial Quranic statements regarding women.
What have been the greatest challenges to your art career and how do you navigate them?
One of the big challenges was my family, . . . my mother in particular because I used to be a doctor and I shifted to doing art and she didn’t like that. She is kind of okay with it now. . . . Surprisingly, since I became an artist, she also became an artist. . . . When I was little she used to make art, then she stopped. . . . She likes art, but she doesn’t think of it as a valuable thing, . . . it’s nice, . . . but it’s not a necessity, it’s an extra. . . . The other challenge is the art world. It is very difficult [to navigate]. . . . It’s not like I have it worse than anybody else, but it’s a little different because people want me when . . . they need to represent the minority. . . . So that’s great because I get that chance to show my work, but I also don’t get “the big piece,” at least partially, because I am not a white male.
What advice has influenced you or your art making?
One person [who] influenced me a lot . . . is Elizabeth Erickson. . . . I don’t remember what particular advice she gave me, but she made me see . . . what I meant in my work. . . . Sometimes you’re not really aware of what is it that your work says and then somebody else will point it out to you . . . she did that to me. She opened a door for me to reach down to my unconscious motivations.
I had a great mentor during my MFA at MCAD, Aribert Munzer. He is a very insightful person, sensitive artist, great man, and a wonderful teacher. . . . When I talked to him I used to get filled with inspiration and ideas just flourished. I miss those days.
If you could meet your younger self and tell her about where you are now, do you think that she would believe you?
Oh no, she would think that I should have been in a better place. More recognized, . . . that I would be in the Walker or MoMA or something. . . . I had a great ambition . . . and I still have ambition, but it is harder than I thought. . . . I feel good, however, and wherever I end up, I won’t be disappointed because I am enjoying myself. . . . I think I am doing the right thing for me to do and many times I feel like I am good at it. . . . If I die today, I will be happy.
In your opinion, how is being a woman artist in 2015 different from what it might have been like one, two, three or even four decades ago?
I know there was more of a struggle to make a living as an artist in general (back then), . . . to prove that you are as needed as doctors and engineers. . . . There is the male supremacy . . . that makes it hard for women to penetrate. . . . Today, I hate to say it, it’s not much different.
Does personal history work its way into your practice? How might who you are be reflected in your current work?
Yes, very much so. I always tell stories of women around me. I reflect on my childhood memories of women in my birthplace. Of course every woman I portray is an image of myself. Currently I like to make art about the powerful sacred feminine that we all search for. The Goddess. For me the Arabian Goddess.
Are there certain ways in which you identify yourself as a feminist artist?
Certainly! . . . My basic quest is gender equality. Feminism is more difficult to thrive in Saudi Arabia. It has to start from the spiritual world because secular feminism can only go so far. It always clashes with the established value system which is based on a certain interpretation of Islamic teachings. That is why I like to address the Islamic teaching directly. I simply want women to claim the other seat next to God. Males had a monopoly on Allah for long, . . . long time.
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