One week after an exhibition by the provocative artist Shurooq Amin opened in Kuwait, the Kuwaiti authorities shut it down, claiming that her work was offensive to Kuwaiti society.
With images combining women in bikinis, women in conservative Muslim dress, and men consuming alcohol, the exhibit prodded and poked at what liberal Kuwaitis feel are fundamental hypocrisies underlying their society. The Ministries of the Interior and of Information shuttered the exhibition.
Artists in Kuwait, a country long considered a bastion of cultural and press freedom in the Arab region and one of the most open Gulf societies, say that the walls are moving in on them.
“There is a decline in freedoms; every new decade we lose more freedoms, until we have reached the narrowest limit now,” said Ahmed Fouad al-Shatti, chairman of the Arab Theater Board, an independent theatrical group.
He said that artists could express their opinions in their work much more freely in the 1960s and 1970s than they can now. “New laws were passed to further restrict freedom of creativity in Kuwait instead of protecting freedom of expression,” he added. (Since 2013, many new laws have been passed to regulate both traditional and social media.)
Art About the Forbidden
Shurooq Amin was first female Kuwaiti artist to exhibit at the Venice Biennale, arguably the world’s premier art event. She was also the first female Kuwaiti artist to be auctioned at Christie’s, and has had 15 solo art exhibitions internationally.
The exhibition that was shut down in Kuwait was titled Like Russian Dolls, We Nest in Our Previous Selves, which was inspired by a verse of a poem by the American poet Diane Ackerman.
The title refers to the Russian dolls known as matryoshka, or sets of wooden dolls of different sizes nested inside each other.
“There is a decline in freedoms; every new decade we lose more freedoms, until we have reached the narrowest limit now.”Ahmed Fouad al-Shatti
Chairman of the Arab Theater Board
The nesting arrangement, Amin said in a statement, is a metaphor demonstrating that “there remains inside us the seed of our ancestors, people we never knew, whose blood runs through our veins, whose identity shapes ours despite how much we fight it, whose history haunts us.”
The figures in the Russian Doll paintings sat on chairs as a metaphor for authoritarian positions in Arab countries, and a symbol of all the ideological, political and masculine control that the chairs represent. Chairs also refer to immobility and persistence, a way to control the drawn character, the artist explained in her statement.
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“I am a mirror of my community, reflecting what I see, and I am not afraid,” Amin said. “I address the taboos Arabs refuse to talk about, such as religious hypocrisy, adultery, homosexuality, and alcoholism.”
Amin admits that her paintings do not reflect all of Kuwaiti society, but says they do often reflect the reality of what is taking place in society behind closed doors. This is not her first exhibit to be shut down: In 2012 an exhibit called It’s a Man’s World was closed.
“I told the community what it really is, it wears double masks, a mask in its own world, and a mask in front of others outside,” she said. “This provokes many people, especially that I am a woman, a Muslim, and not married.” (She left her husband to raise four children alone.)
Controversial Use of Veils
In her most recent exhibition, Amin put mannequins of women with veiled faces around the exhibition space. She said she knew that many such women would not be able to attend her show and so she wanted to display figures depicting their presence in the exhibition.
In addition, she said, “I wanted to tell such a woman that she can preserve the traditional identity within the framework of vital and renewed ideas that seeks to raise children, males in particular, on the basis of moral values that make them men who are more accepting to the rights of the opposite sex and being more tolerant to women.”
In the wake of the exhibition’s closing, the Contemporary Art Platform (CAP), which hosted the show, said that none of the exhibit’s elements contradicted the Ministry of Information’s publishing laws and that the gallery had never before been stopped from displaying an artwork.
The organization said that it would have been much better if the rejection of the exhibition’s content had taken place “in the form of discussion or art criticism, as arts and literature should be dealt with this way.”
Powerful Art From Wine Bottles
Amin has courted controversy in other shows, as well. “I don’t like safe art that avoids clashing,” she said.
n 2016, she created an exhibit that included an eight-square-meter room with 500 wine bottles that she collected from Kuwaiti families. Each family left a message inside the bottle they contributed about the alcoholism problem.
“It was not easy in a country where alcohol is forbidden, yet my exhibition and I did not face a problem,” she said in an interview.
“I told the community of what it really is, it wears doublemasks, a mask in its own world, and a mask in front of others outside.”Shurooq Amin
In an attempt to stop the backward movement in the country’s freedom of creativity, eight independent organizations representing artists, writers, educators and journalists, among others, issued a statement calling on the government to support artists, cancel the censorship of books and art shows, and amend a “press and publications law” to abolish prison sentences for crimes related to expressing opinions. (See a related article, “Book Banning in Kuwait: Whatever Next?”)
“There is a conflict between two cultures in Kuwait, the traditional and conservative one and the civil one,” said Khalid Abdel-Latif Ramadan, secretary-general of the Kuwaiti Writers Association. “We represent the second category. We want our voice to be heard and influencing the censoring authorities and the first culture alike.”
Istbarq Ahmed, a Kuwaiti writer, does not think that making such a change is easy, because freedom scares many people. “The hand that is freaked out by the word ‘freedom,’ and starts to dig for it in every text, painting or idea, is a frightened and obsessed hand,” she said.
“In arts’ battles,” she added, “there is always an idea that will rebel and cross the walls that were built by that hand and you will always find the key to the minds of others, even if it takes time.”
Amin continues her battle for artistic freedom on social media.
“My exhibition is continuous on Twitter and Instagram. I will continue to draw and publish and they will not be able to silence me except by killing me. Then, my paintings will continue to speak for me, as they are part of the history of society in Kuwait,” she said.