Kuwaiti artist photographs women in the intimate sanctuary of their rooms


Maha Alasaker, “Djinane Alsuwayeh, 29, artistic director and photographer” (2015) (all images courtesy of the artist)

While living in New York City, Maha Alasaker, a Kuwaiti visual artist, quickly grew fed up with intrusive questions about whether she wears a hijab in Kuwait, if she is allowed to drive, or if she owns a pet camel. After years of suffering from New Yorkers’ ignorance of her culture, she decided to respond with a photographic series that depicts the daily lives of Kuwaiti women and highlights their voices and thoughts, free from Orientalist prejudices.

Alasaker’s book, Women in Kuwait (2019), brings together 25 portraits from the series (produced between 2015 and 18) featuring Kuwaiti women of various ages and origins in the privacy of their bedrooms. The series is the first to offer such a close and authentic glimpse into the personal environment of the country’s women, presented by a native of Kuwait. But it is also a diversion of an old orientalist trope in Western art: the representation of Arab women as exotically locked in their harems, isolated from men and the outside world. “The women of Algiers in their apartment” by Eugène Delacroix (1834) embodies this orientalist gaze. (The painting was later interpreted in a series of drawings by Pablo Picasso, who was known for his abusive treatment of women, whom he called “machines to suffer.”)

Without institutional support, Alasaker self-published his book with the help of friends and peers who participated in a Kickstarter campaign. The book was quickly acquired by the Getty Research Institute and the Thomas J. Watson Library of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Previous versions of the project were exhibited at the Permanent Mission of the State of Kuwait to the United Nations in Manhattan in 2018 and at ArtHelix Gallery and Carrie Able Gallery in Brooklyn in 2017, among other venues around the world. The series also caught the attention of Vogue Italy, Rolling stone, and other publications.

Maha Alasaker, “Fatimah Alyakoob, 32, operations manager at ERA.Media” (2016)

Maha Alasaker, “Amnah Al-Mutawa, 31, orthodontist” (2017)

Alasaker’s photographs are accompanied by excerpts from interviews with the participating women led by his collaborator, Nada Faris, Kuwaiti performance writer and poet. These interviews cover a variety of topics, from family relationships to the trauma of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, but focus primarily on the state of women’s rights in Kuwait.

Kuwait is a relatively young country (it gained independence from Great Britain in 1961) with a small population of just 4.5 million, of which around 70% are expatriates (as of 2016). It is considered one of the most liberal Gulf countries. For example, it is one of the few in the region where an Islamic dress code for women is not mandatory (although modesty is formally encouraged by the government). The country is a hereditary monarchy, ruled by emirs of the Al-Sabah dynasty, but it maintains a separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government and holds democratic elections for parliament.

Article 29 of the constitution of Kuwait, approved in 1962, states that “All persons are equal in human dignity and in public rights and duties before the law, without distinction as to sex, origin, language or religion” . However, women in the country were denied the right to vote and run for political office until 2005 (except for a brief period after 1962). They continue to face discrimination in crucial areas such as marriage, divorce, guardianship and citizenship. A reinstated edition of the constitution in 1992 removed gender from the definition of equality. The amended article 29 now reads: “People are peers in human dignity and have, in the eyes of the law, the same public rights and obligations. No distinction will be made between them on the basis of race, origin, language or religion.

“Kuwait has undeniably maintained a legal framework that discriminates against women and in so doing violates the integrity of the constitution,” writes Lulu Al-Sabah, Kuwaiti art journalist and art consultant, in a preface to delivered. “Yet it would be a mistake to perceive Kuwaiti women only as an oppressed mass. “

This message of local pride alongside an ongoing struggle for equal rights resonates throughout Faris’ interviews with Alasaker’s subjects. “Kuwaiti women are daring,” says Amnah Al-Mutawa, a 31-year-old orthodontist, who was presented to us in a reflection in a mirror. “Proud to be a Kuwaiti woman, but facing challenges balancing traditions and the modern definition of equal rights. “

Maha Alasaker, “Awatif Alsabah, 44, life coach” (2018)

Maha Alasaker, “Mariam Mandani, 25, independent designer” (2016)

Alasaker’s series evokes other photographic projects that have chosen the bedrooms as backdrops for portraits of women (see the series by Rania Matar A girl and her room and Sarah Bennet’s Life after life in prison: the bedroom project, to name just two) but in a conservative society like Kuwait’s, rooms offer not only basic privacy, but also protection from the eyes of society.

In his essay for the book, Faris explains that tradition in Kuwait is for children to live with their parents until marriage. “[Bedrooms] serve as sanctuaries for boys and girls who continue to grow in Kuwaiti families where collective needs trump individuals, ”she writes. Nowadays, women enjoy a little more privacy, whereas in the past they were required to keep their bedroom doors ajar.

“Our constitution gives a number of rights to every citizen and we as women do not have all of these rights, only some of them,” says Mariam Mandani, a 25-year-old freelance designer who filmed in looking at the camera next to her bedroom door. “It’s as if we are less citizens than men,” she continues. In the upper right corner of the photo, above his desk, you can see a tongue-in-cheek traffic sign warning of camels crossing the road. A large “EXIT” emergency sign displayed on the door subtly suggests an urge to escape or break free.

Maha Alasaker, “Shurooq Amin, 50, PhD in Ekphrasis, artist and Pilates instructor”

Maha Alasaker, “Maryam Al-Nusif, 35, chef and gardener” (2017)

Djinane Alsuwayeh, artistic director and photographer of 29, is captured in a thoughtful moment, eyes downcast. She sits on her bed, surrounded by pillows, against a turned canvas and a warm ox blood red wall centered by a black and white photo of a woman in a white dress. “Women are not equal to men,” she said in her interview. “You see it every day in the way children are raised, at work and in conversations. “

Alasaker’s photos radiate warmth, a product of the confidence and intimacy she was able to achieve with her subjects. Whether they are sitting on their bed or cross-legged on the floor of their bedroom, women seem comfortable with the camera. In a patriarchal society with oppressive codes of respectability, “family honor” and “Hurma” (an Islamic term for the “holiness” of women which must be protected from violation), this alone is subversive.

Another recurring motif in Alasaker’s images is the depiction of several women reflected in their bedroom mirrors. What at first appears to be a way to avoid full exposure can alternatively be seen as a plea by these women for the world to see them as they see themselves.

Maha Alasaker, “Rasha Aldoughaji, 38, owner of a bakery” (2017)

Up to Women in Kuwait, Alasaker’s work generally relied on self-portrait. In an earlier series titled Belonging (2017), she addressed the double life she had to maintain in Kuwait as a way to avoid intrusive social scrutiny. Some of the works in the series were included in the #resistanceisfemale advertising takeover that appeared on phone booths and bus stops across New York City in 2017.

“This last project made me think of we rather than me“Alasaker told Hyperallergic in an email conversation.” I’ve always felt like I’m different from everyone at home, but I’ve realized that the struggles I’m going through aren’t my only ones . “

Several months ago, she decided to give up the relative freedom she enjoyed in New York City and return to Kuwait, the very place she had escaped from more than five years ago. “I started to feel that my audience was my people, so I wanted to be closer to them and see how they react to my art,” she wrote. “I think it’s a good time to be in Kuwait. A lot has changed since I left and I wanted to be a part of it.

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