A woman donning a black veil looks out into an unknown sea. The waves approach her from a distance, encircling her it seems, even from afar. Titled The Waves Between Us by Kuwaiti writer and visual artist Mahmoud Shaker, the work is part of a series of photographs that uses the ocean to refer back to the Gulf’s pearl trade and the lone woman to signify the wives that would wait endlessly for their husbands to come back from their mission of diving for pearls.
Amani Althuwaini. Elibelinde. 2017. Tufted wool stretched on MDF with embroidered fabric and plexigass.
“Going off to dive for pearls for four months was the only job Kuwaiti men could do until the last several decades,” says Shaker. “The women would go to the ocean, sing to the ocean and punish the ocean while waiting for their husbands to return. They had mixed feelings about the diving and wanted their husbands to come back safely and well.” As Shaker explains, many of these men at times wouldn’t come back due to either starvation, drowning or shark attacks. “It’s romantic what these women did while waiting for their men to return,” adds Shaker. Poems have been written on each picture alluding to the women’s feelings of longing, love and loneliness.
The work is part of In My Dream I Was In Kuwait, an exhibition featuring six emerging Kuwaiti artists as part of Heart of Culture, Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem Cultural Centre’s first international visual arts programme, situated at the Scuola dell’Arte dei Tiraoro e Battioro in Venice. Taking place in two stages, the works on show respond to a variety of themes, including socio-political injustices, cultural identity, and even mental health. The first display, which is presently on view, includes the work of Amani Althuwaini, Mahmoud Shaker and Zahra Marwan that will be on view until August. The second display, opening in September, will include the work of Ahmed Muqeem, Khaled al Najdi and Naseer Behbehani. Artworks are presented in a range of media such as photography, painting, and multi-media installations. Kuwait’s largest museum complex as well as the flagship development amidst Kuwait City’s cultural renaissance, the Venice programme signifies the institution’s new mission in promoting intercultural exchange. And what a better place to start than in Venice during the Venice Biennale?
On another wall nearby Shaker’s work is a large multimedia installation with a few triangular forms one stacked on top of the other. Upon closer look we see that the form is none other than a female with her arms (also created in a sharp triangular formation) on her hips in position of strength, confidence and perhaps even defiance. Entitled Elibelinde (2017) by Amani Althuwaini and made in with tufted wool stretched on MDF and embroidered fabric on plexiglass, the “Elibelinde” (meaning hands on hips) is a motif for a female figure, which has been commonly used in kilim rugs to symbolise the goddess. The installation combines the fairytale aspect with a reflection on traditional marriage and rituals.
Mahmoud Shaker. The Waves Between Us. 2019. Photography.
“I’ve been looking a lot at the history of dowries and I try to merge together the various histories in which the dowry existed and the different materials used to reflect the old and the new and to question the history of this tradition and our role as artists and designers to include this change,” says Althuwaini. “It happens gradually but I believe that artists and designers have a great role to play in the transformation of traditional practices and traditional objects.” Through her work Althuwaini also criticises the shift from quality craftsmanship and personalisation. “The soul of the object seems to be disappearing and it has become kind of a display case that is usually thrown away after the event,” she says. “Commodities such as the Chanel bag (a work placed next to Elibelinde) can be discarded. I am questioning the afterlife of these objects and how they can be precious once again.”
Zahra Marwan. This Is Where I Always Sleep. 2019.
Althuwaini, Shaker and Marwan stayed for several days in Venice to complete an art residency alongside Venetian and international artists. Traditional craft was at the heart of many workshops they attended. The Venetian artists/companies involved were the historic Tessitura Bevilacqua who works with old weaving techniques using traditional looms from the 18th century; Leonardo Cimolin, an artist and glassmaker who uses a ‘lamp working’ technique; Silvano Rubino, a conceptual artist working with photography and sculpture; and Veronica Green, a young New Zealand-born painter who has been living and working in Venice for 15 years. With aims to promote cross-cultural artistic exchange, the Kuwaiti artists participated in artisanal and contemporary style workshops at the Simone Cenedese glass factory and the Doppio Fondo printmaking studio. As Luca Berta from The Venice Art Factory, an art consultancy in Venice, and one of the curators of the exhibition, says, “Venice was a way for Kuwait to reach out to the world through art.”
In my dream I was in Kuwait runs until 28 November 2019. www.sshic.com