First published on BIKYAMASR
In his book “Trial by Ink”, Egyptian writer Yahia Lababidi offers us an intimate look into the world of self-censorship and sexual morality in the Arab world from the perspective of a man himself and he begins his reflection by speaking with brutal sincerity about the new morality of Egypt:
“Much of the new morality is fanned by a kind of Islamic panic, quite foreign to the laid-back Egyptian character. It is the difference between a quiet confidence and a loud insecurity. By defiantly accentuating a superficial religiosity, contemporary Egyptians downplay their natural strengths and exaggerate their weaknesses.
As a general rule, extreme positions are to be mistrusted. In this context, extreme Islamic interpretations are buttressed by people’s insecurities so that seemingly innocuous everyday activities acquire sexual connotations, such as: the slapping of slippers on a woman’s feet, the smacking of chewing gum, or smoking of a cigarette.”
Lababidi throws the punch of his case when he hints at the distorted sense of sexuality implicit in every casual contact between a man and a woman, under this new world order of traditional morality extending all over the Middle East and that yet, it is nothing but the most fundamentally modern of all fundamentalist responses to the challenge posed by the modern world:
“What’s more, even shaking a veiled woman’s hand has become an awkward proposition. Yet why invaginate one palm and make a phallus of the other? This is not religion, and certainly not spirituality.”
He goes on to offer us a whimsical insight of what it is that happens when an otherwise laid back and friendly society charged with the erotic nature of peoples who have lived through the splendor of time, are robbed from the gift of spontaneity of behavior in which passion occurs naturally. From here onwards everything is but a reaction:
“With female flesh under wraps, and no promise of release in the near future, sensuality spills into unexpected spaces. In Cairo, the human need for physical contact manifests in intense same-sex intimacy.
It is not the least bit unusual to encounter men holding hands, pinkies interlocked, hugging and kissing, while calling each other unusually sweet names: sokkar (sugar), a’assall (honey) or rohe albi (my heart’s soul). Equally common is to witness men affectionately wrestling like scrapping puppies, or playfully grabbing each other like testosterone-maddened teens, well into middle age.”
One doesn’t need too much insight to know that the natural reaction to an extreme interpretation – of anything – is a reaction as extreme as whatever it is that is being held in contempt. Thus, Yahia Lababidi puts it into words: “El mamnua’a marghoub, the forbidden is coveted, goes an Egyptian saying (also the oldest human truth). When very little is permitted, everything becomes eroticized.” This same kind of Islamic panic of course, is what has popularized the entirely mistaken assumption that everything that is erotic is sexual – hence sinful – and vice versa.
Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller has expressed with great clarity how the experience of the erotic is intimately associated with beauty and by association, with art: “The experience of beauty is never a merely mental experience; it is the experience of emotions, passions, desires, senses – of feelings. When we experience beauty our senses are also normally aroused. We hear the beautiful sound, we see the beautiful sight, and sometimes (although rarely) we also touch and smell beautiful things. Our body always participates in the experience of beauty. This is so even if the what of the experience is purely spiritual. A kind of rapture, strong or mild, desire (Eros) and satisfaction are ineliminable elements of the experience of the beautiful. The beautiful is erotic.”
Under the sign of this confusion, it is obvious how art will always come under attack by those for whom morality is the exact equivalent of religion, eroticism of sexuality and censorship of virtue. However there is no ground more fertile for artistic metaphors and codes to develop, than under this selfsame censorship. Lababidi himself writes: “Literature under restrictive regimes has tended to develop a flair for allegory – confessing in code, or through the use of symbolism. As Borges shrewdly observes, Censorship is the mother of metaphor.”
The work of celebrated Kuwaiti painter and poet Shurooq Amin is one of those loud metaphors that resist the temptation to merely react to whatever it is that is being offered in the market of truth, and rather, it is something of a detective work: A piercing look inside the paradoxes of Kuwait’s modern life stranded between scandalous wealth – what never comes without excesses of desire – and the just as scandalous attempt to keep morality in check; and this type of intrusive morality is less an article of faith than it is a crusade against values – Western or otherwise – that might translate into political demands for more freedoms.
It couldn’t be otherwise: Amin is certainly the leading figure in Kuwait’s vanguard art and probably the most international painter in the Gulf region, whose work has been exhibited in prestigious European venues and can hardly be classified as “Arab” art: There are no bucolic dreams of the lost pearl divers, no Arabian horses and no frescoes of women hiding behind the veils.
Her work is distinctively modern and as such, more than a school of painting or a political statement – and any art that is consciously politicized can be safely assumed to be false – it is a free arena of expression and experiment in which the social issues of the day surface not globally and totally, but through subtle details that permeate the imagination and the most basic sensuality more than the historical memory of one time or another.
In the same way that Lababidi explored in his writings many experiences belonging to the realm of men, so did Amin in a series of works from 2010 titled “Society Girls” in which she explores deeper layers of the life of women in Gulf society: The extravagance coupled with sameness of identity, the pariah world of the woman free and at home only among her equals; the self-imposed roles in which everything is visible but the truth.
As a sequel to the series “Society Girls” that enjoyed international acclaim, she worked on a new series called not without irony “It’s a Man’s World” in which she explored the private and more or less clandestine inner world of Middle Eastern men; in her own words: Straight, gay, traditional, liberal, and Islamic fundamentalist. It is often the case the men depicted in these incisive works are more than one man, at more than one time. And this is the Middle East of the non-news: Erratic, highly eroticized, sometimes sexual, paradoxical, contradictory, colorful and polemic.
This is the life of men that her 18 paintings – in mixed technique – strips nude along invisible threads of imagery and ideas: Homosexuality, polygamy, alcoholism, vice, adultery, consumerism, indifference, and objectification of women. To the curious observer, perhaps from far away, it might seem whimsical and sympathetic, perhaps a little sarcastic and a little accusatory. However, for those – like the artist and her public – conversant in the language of Kuwait’s society, the works are nothing but an X-ray of unspoken realities taking place behind the thick veil of a paternalist and patristic society.
The metaphors of Amin’s work do not reveal clues or other metaphors but rather reduce reality to its most basic units, so that everything otherwise invisible becomes ineludible to the eye and to the mind. Hence it is not surprising that the pioneering works would have been met with disapproval: After a long-awaited opening that took place at AL M. Gallery in Kuwait City, yesterday March 5; it is reported that the local police received complaints of people feeling insulted by her work. Accordingly, 3 hours after the opening – with record attendance – police notified her that the gallery would be shut down.
The exhibit was permanently closed and pictures of the artworks were said to be sent to the ministry, considering them pornographic and inappropriate. While this doesn’t come entirely as a surprise, knowing the work and trajectory of Amin in Kuwait and outside it, one would have to have either too little or too much familiarity with pornography, in order to consider works of the highest international quality, pornographic. Beyond the pale of legal arguments, it is absolutely certain that what we are dealing with here is simply censorship on Kuwait’s most renowned artist, and the grounds are far from moral, it has to do only with fear and panic of social criticism that might have political consequences.
One of the works, “My Harem in Heaven”, portrays a Kuwaiti man laying barefoot on a couch, wearing the traditional dishdasha, smoking shisha and hiding a bottle of whiskey underneath a deliberately invisible table, surrounded by doll-size women that serve more as the adornment to his manliness than as companion, representing the seventy virgins in heaven, sitting around in a mood of sensual abandonment, all of which happens away from the visible public world in which alcohol is condemned, in which promiscuity is condemned, in which homosexuality is condemned, in which women are banned from, in which sin is a social stain. This work, almost perfectly achieved and composed is not simply a modern painting but a poetic representation of the world of the elites in the Middle East, unmistakably.
As a perfect sequel to “Society Girls”, the paintings in “It’s a Man’s World” materialize what Lababidi had in mind when he wrote that “sensuality spills into unexpected spaces”, and bring us to ask ourselves a lot of questions, not only of the personal kind. I do not think that there is an intrinsic worth in art that pretends to moralize or to teach, but rather, what is at work here is that privilege that the artist has over the journalist, of telling the truth in such singular ways that no facts or theories can be construed out of such truths. The real value lies in the singularity and in the power to evoke and ask questions: Any of the observers could be the man, clad in the dishdasha, without renouncing the world, without renouncing his position in society, and without renouncing his humanity.
Hannah Arendt was right in the 1950’s when she said that the renewal of the arts in the Soviet Union signaled that it was no longer strictly totalitarian and that this fact alone would advance the ineludible collapse of the system. While it cannot be said that Kuwait or any Arab country is strictly totalitarian; there is no doubt in the artist’s mind that authoritarianism can only be defeated through powerful ideas that might call for self-criticism rather than through the powerless power of violence alone.
In an interview from 2011, Amin expressed with clarity her vision about the role of art, offering advice to the younger generation of artists:
“There should be no fear among the new generation! Each artist is a voice of society; every painting, art work should have a message that opens a discussion and has a domino effect. In other words, each work should advocate people to deliberate, make one person cascade the message to another. An artist can change the world in the simplest way and with little effort. Another advice I’d give them is: Be bold! It’s important for me as a Kuwaiti artist to show this to the world and it opens the door for new generations, though I might get into trouble, but someone should take the first step and break the society boundaries in art.”
It has been often said that something like the Arab Spring – in whatever form, even intellectual – would never reach Kuwait, but the truth is that even if you have the right to a house, an education, healthcare, citizenship and food, if you do not have the right to your own opinions, you’re not being permitted to become fully human. That is the reason why Shurooq Amin and Kuwait, will continue painting into freedom.