I decompose like a rose, and rot from the inside before out. – Mai Al Moataz
The rose is probably the most delicate and symbolic flower. An emblem of love, affection and beauty, it is most often associated with a romantic sentiment. But the rose is also fragile, and its polished exterior can sometimes mask a hidden pain that is contained inside it. Across Bahraini artist Mai Al Moataz’s photographs, the rose is presented as a single source of light in complete darkness. Gallery Girl spoke to Mai about her approach to making art, as well as the symbolism that repeats itself throughout her work.
Mai collects dead roses and for the past decade, has used black and white film to produce images of the flower through a meticulous analogue darkroom process in what she describes as “a deeply cathartic ritual.” In some of her works, including Stop + Smell The Roses (2018), the prints were produced using expired chemistry – with the intention of silvering over time. The resulting images are alive, changing with alterations in temperature, humidity and exposure to sunlight. And, while the flowers’ colours are unclear, you can clearly trace the tonal range from white to grey to black.
Why the rose? “Because I decompose like a rose, and rot from the inside before out”, Mai explains, “The idea started that I, myself, and by extension I, as woman, am pristine and perfect on the outside, yet dead inside. The dichotomy, the split, the rift, the pain – but also the perfection.” Her work is deeply personal, and emotional. It is a direct reflection of her own thoughts, feelings and emotions, and one gets the sense that she is an incredibly sensitive yet delicate woman. “The rose is this ultimate symbol of you know, love”, she adds, “The gesture of affection, admiration, the perfect gesture.”
Historically, the rose – like in Mai’s photographs – has long been associated with both love and pain. In Greek mythology the rose originated from Adonis, the deity of plants and rebirth. When he was dying – having been attacked by Ares, a jealous ex-lover of Aphrodite – the blood that ran from his wounds turned into roses when it touched the ground. This mix of beauty coming from pain is something that lingers quietly throughout Mai’s work.
There is softness in Mai’s images, even when they are tinged with sadness. This is particularly true in The Lovers That Never Meet (2016), where two dying roses are separated behind two frames by a 1-inch gap – so close, yet so far. “It’s a love story of the two lovers who never meet”, she explains, “I mean they meet, they know each other, they see each other, but they can’t really be together…it’s that story, you know the one. We all have some form of it in our own life story, do you agree?” I do, and maybe that’s why the work is so powerfully heart-breaking.
The artist’s process is just as emotional as her artworks. “Everything is practically based on this idea of emotion and solitary confinement”, she explains, “This sounds horrible but it’s literal.” She makes prints in a dark room alone employing a precise chemical process. It is in this space that she experiments with negatives to create layers. “I became fascinated with layers because I am multilayered”, explains Mai, “We all are. To go beneath the surface is everything. To seek, to search, to look and peer into the self, to explore, to wander, to get lost only to find the answer. This is everything.” Layers have become almost a constant throughout her most recent work, where negatives are placed on top of one another to create three-dimensional images with a hidden presence.
This act of layering is a result of putting the remnants of the photographic process that Mai is unhappy with together. “I would hate the negative, and then it would find its pair, and then I would love the print because the result would be so seductive”, she says. Generally, she layers two negatives, but occasionally she will add a third. More recently, she has started to play with the photogram – a method of printing in the darkroom without a negative – and sometimes she uses dead roses on top of the paper while exposing to get the reverse shadow of the rose. “The viewer may not look into the shadow deeply, and just take the silhouette as an element on a visual level”, she adds, “But it’s beyond fascinating for me.” The resulting images show where the light passes through the rose’s petals, inverting its shadows almost like a super soft x-ray.
In Stop + Smell The Roses (2017), the roses are immersed in what appear to be bubbles. The rose is drowning, with the ripples showing its last breath. Unlike the majority of Mai’s images – which are normally printed through a well-calculated process, where the time and ratios of the chemicals are carefully considered – this series comes from a recent tendency to indulge in the element of surprise, a derivate of chemical play. She has also moved into the three-dimensional, making flower boxes which she calls Box of Rose. “I love them”, she says, “They are so poetically disturbing because the nails try to enter the box and the rose remains intact and undisturbed.”
In her latest work, Mai incorporates herself, as well as her clothing into her photographs. Mirroring the way she layers negatives in her images of roses, in these latest photographs, Mai physically layers sheer dresses over herself, with the translucent fabrics emulating the negatives used in the darkroom process. “The idea is a consolidation of myself”, says the artist, who also designs clothes. Like her roses, her garments have a lightness to them, that only a flower’s petals could mirror. “I really am inspired by comfort, and the idea of feeling light and not suffocating”, she explains, “Which generally are themes in my work as well.” The parallels between the photographs and Mai’s sartorial designs encapsulate the femininity omnipresent throughout her images of the rose.
It is apparent that Mai is the rose, and the rose is Mai. Her work is a visual metaphor for herself, and like her photographs, they are deeply layered and emotive, with a sense of both strength and fragility. What plans does this rose have for the future? “Only God knows”, the rose replies, “I’m certain that everything is uncertain.”