In the conservative Qatari society of Ameera AlAji’s youth, where she says expressing emotions was discouraged or even condemned, she found a liberating outlet in art, and now she hopes to encourage others to do the same.
“Art has been a vital part of my life and has helped me deal with some of the most traumatic and challenging experiences when I had nowhere else to turn,” says AlAji, a multidisciplinary artist who is now head of the Qatar Foundation’s Community Development section.
She wants the new generation of artists coming up in Qatar’s slowing growing cultural scene to find the freedom to show the world that art is a powerful tool not only for self-expression but also for managing life’s trials and tribulations.
AlAji came from a literature-loving family, where novels and poetry were an everyday part of life, but it was art that drew her attention. At school, however, her family discouraged her from studying art and pushed her toward the sciences, believing that was best for her.
For two years, she studied statistics at Qatar University, only to take the brave stand that the subject was not her calling. It was not the only time she stood firm in her life path: She also refused to marry a man her family had chosen for her, confident in her ability to choose for herself.
Now a 37-year-old mother, AlAji says she has always been deemed something of a radical. “I remember putting the paper on my father’s desk and telling him I was switching to art.”
“At that stage in Doha, in 2004, we didn’t have that much fine art, it was all about graphic design,” she says, “so art education was literally my only choice.” That meant she had to train as an art teacher in order to make art a full-time career. “I couldn’t travel to study at that time. There were very few girls traveling back then.”
An Opening to New Opportunities
While she had no aspirations to teach art, her educational choice took her to her first exhibition in 2004, at Al-Jasra Cultural Center, in Doha, which was the springboard for other exhibitions around the region and internationally. It took time for her true expression to come out, she admits. At first, she continued to suppress the more spiritual and emotional concepts she longed to express, focusing on a safer, less edgy aesthetic she knew there was an appetite for in her society.
“I was scared to share anything too personal,” she explains.
Gallery: Works by Ameera AlAji
Soon, however, she began to create works which reflected her own journey, such as Directions, a video asking how much choice one really has in life and questioning controversial subjects such as the will of God, the influence of family and societal expectations. As her first such foray, it was tough, but she says it was a necessary journey not only for her, but to help open up a very conservative society to bigger questions.
“I’m like any human being and have been into dark places, and art really saved me,” she says. “It was my therapy at that stage. I believe art is the biggest key that we can communicate through, to find freedom in expression, and let things go.”
Leading Qatar Foundation’s Community Development section, she says, has been a key way for her to bring her passion into the wider community. The change didn’t really start until around 2012, she says, when local artists such as graffiti artists were supported to display in public spaces.
In 2016, she left for the United Kingdom to pursue her Master of Fine Arts at Sheffield Hallam University—a move that would also be a turning point in her career. “I was really shifting,” focusing more on the process than the final piece of art, she says.
Returning to Qatar, she realized it was time for more dialogue with the artistic community, embracing the conceptual style she had internalized in her two years in the U.K. She returned to a scene that had already evolved hugely in her time away.
“I finally felt like I belonged,” she says, a feeling she had indeed addressed in her earlier video work Confusion. “In our cultures we don’t speak up loudly and honestly about emotional issues, so what I was doing before I left was too much for the community. I guess when I returned, I was no longer the only one.”
Empowering Other Women Artists
AlAji is conscious that her example inspires other women, empowering them to speak up and creating collective dialogue and social change, one artist at a time. She recalls: “One artist said to me, ‘We create beautiful stuff, but we never talk about what’s inside. You are doing this and somehow you make me feel like I am empowered and I want to do this.’”
“Ameera is inviting us to start accepting what was labeled unfairly as taboo or shameful emotions.”Amira Radhi
A Bahraini artist who lives in Qatar
“Now there are many Qatari women out there doing this,” AlAji says, “embracing the spiritual and emotional levels of their creativity in their art.”
Her message to other women is clear: “Honestly, connect to your soul, seek out what you’re looking for and just do it. Don’t think about the community, don’t think about people around you, don’t think about who will judge you, but just do what you really want.”
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Amira Radhi, a Bahraini artist who lives in Qatar, is one responding to the call. The 29-year-old says AlAji’s influence is vital for those following in her wake, raising quality and inspiring productivity, moving away from a stereotypically shallow aesthetic into a deeper and more conceptual space.
“Ameera is inviting us to start accepting what was labeled unfairly as taboo or shameful emotions,” Radhi says. “It is always difficult to be exposed emotionally. She might not be the first or the only artist who is doing this, but her work is a continuation of that powerful legacy.”
Khalifa Al-Obaidli, an adjunct instructor in the department of painting and printmaking at VCUarts Qatar, says AlAji’s work is vital for the country’s young arts scene. Her taboo-breaking vision of delivering a more realistic picture of life and her experiences is a breath of fresh air, he says.
“Ameera is one of the most important artists in the community,” Al-Obaidli says, “and she has a message to deliver. Her wish is to reflect the reality she lives in and her interpretation of that in art form.”