Poised in traditional surroundings, tinged in vibrant colour, seven cartoon-like, dagger-wielding women are the subject of an uplifting new exhibition, ‘Fighter’, by Emirati artist Khawla Al Marri. But while the women may look like ancient warriors, they actually live in the present.
Alia, Noor, Noora, Raisa, Mariam, Moza and Farha are the 28-year-old pop artist’s closest friends. Playing on the fact there has been evidence of numerous female warriors in Arabia throughout history (Shagaret el Dor, for example, defeated a huge Crusader invasion in 1258), Al Marri says this exhibition is a celebration and reflection of the inner strength of modern women in the region. We sat down with the artist to hear more about female empowerment.
How long have you been working towards this solo exhibition?
I came up with the theme about three months ago, and because it’s my first solo show I wanted to celebrate with everyone. I didn’t want it to be about myself, I wanted to try something that’s more of an appreciation of Arab women and, mostly, seven of my friends. Each of my friends is known for a strength. For example Noor represents power, Alia spreads colour and beauty, and Noora spreads love.
How did you friends react to their portraits?
I told them a month ago and everyone is excited about it. I think most of them were excited that I’m actually including them. This exhibition is not only about me. It’s about everyone: it’s about women, their inner power and what they can give.
Have you portrayed your friends accurately?
Each woman is portrayed in the way I see her. For example, Alia spreads beauty and colour, and in the canvas [above] you can see the sky has purple and green in it. I thought about it in the sense that the world is a battlefield. Sometimes you have to challenge yourself. Your inner power conquers the trouble you may face. A housewife does it, a mother does it, a working lady does it.
Which pop artists inspire you the most?
I admire Frida Kahlo because I’m doing something similar. I’m creating culturally inspired art and I think this is what she used to do. She was always inspired by her Mexican background, and it’s the same with me – I love that Emirati touch. It’s something I’m planning to keep in every type of work I do. Most of my work concentrates on colour and energy, and I want people to really spot that energy. It’s not just cultural –
I want them to look at how colours may change an artwork.
Would you ever explore other mediums?
I recently started practising with street installation, which has nothing to do with painting. The project was about cultural awareness – I wanted to do it in a foreign country because you don’t usually see that kind of [Emirati] art overseas. I created it in London: it was an Arabic coffee pot. We love how the UAE features different cultures and we’re learning from each other, but we do also love our culture and we want to remind people from the same culture about how beautiful it is. It’s amazing how people interact with certain things – it’s really interesting when people get involved with it.
How would you like to see contemporary art in the Middle East develop?
Our culture is not new to art. We’ve had Islamic art and fine art in this region, but contemporary art is kind of new. I think we’re adapting to it really well. Qatar has the Modern Arab Art Museum and the UAE has art districts such as Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, which is all about new art. We’re also building a national museum. I think the number of contemporary artists here will grow in the next two years. We just need a little more time.
What’s next for you?
The street installation project is not only happening in London – every few months I’m going to take it to a different city. The next stop is probably Paris, then New York, Berlin and maybe Tokyo.
Exhibition: ‘Fighter’ until June 2 at The Ara Gallery, Burj Plaza, Downtown Dubai (04 454 2784).
Artist: Khawla Al Marri.
Price range of works: Dhs13,000 to Dhs18,000.