Podcast: Gallery Girl Meets Moza Al Matrooshi

In this episode of the Gallery Girl podcast we are joined by Moza Al Matrooshi, an artist based in Sharjah whose work consists of cooking, storytelling and summoning higher powers. 

Moza grew up in an artistic family, her mother was an art teacher and her grandfather was a musician and photographer. “Even though it was rare to have a person with such a profession coming from the Emirates…I never really thought about it”, she says, going on to Zayed University with the goal to become an architect with a specialism in interior design. “Because it was in the fine arts college I had to do my art foundation”, says Moza, “Even then it was quite limited. It was still looked at as this is what you do if you don’t feel like doing the other majors.” That said, after graduating in 2013, Moza interned at the UAE pavilion at the Venice Biennale. “That was my first true introduction to art”, she says, of the experience that pushed her to write articles and document her experience, “It really forced me to look at so many eras of art in one place. Where you have contemporary and modern and renaissance art in one place. This was the first time for me to truly see something that I would only have encountered online.”

MOZA image by Jalal Abuthina
Moza Al Matrooshi by Jalal Abuthina

Initially, having experienced a great loss, Moza’s art practice was about healing, delay and revival. “I started going to the mountains where a lot of the area was being excavated and quarried for building materials”, she says, “In general there’s this constant shift in the land in the UAE. It always prompted me to feel like I’m in a constant state of mourning.” So she wanted to be a land artist, but she was left with questions. “Who am I to take from the space?”, explains Moza, “What kind of agency do I have over these choices? So I left it there very quickly and decided that i wouldn’t brand myself again.” In fact, Moza has an aversion to categorising herself. “Even though I work with food I wouldn’t call myself a food artist”, she adds, “Categorisation brands you and sets you up to some sort of commercial aspect to your work. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it’s not what i want.”

MOZA Image from Praise Hiya (performance), taken by Ryan Prince
Image from Moza’s Praise Hiya (performance), taken by Ryan Prince

After making art in the UAE, Moza was nominated for the Shaikha Salama bint Hamdan Emerging Artist Fellowship where she received a scholarship that took her to the Slade School of Art in London. She explains that friends had felt objectified in the US, but though she had high hopes for London, she found that it was not as diverse as she expected. “I decided to water myself down so much just so I wouldn’t have to constantly explain myself or be some sort of representative of a culture, a heritage that people don’t have to understand”, she says, “My tutorials were often wasted on questions that no-one else would be asked because they’re understood.” She talks about finally feeling understood through working with initiatives like Laundry Arts and curators like Loren El Hili, working with people who really understood what she was doing. “No matter what I do, I’m going to be read a certain way”, she explains, “So I need to not care anymore.”

MOZA Still from Glaze
Still from Glaze by Moza Al Matrooshi

Following her time in London, Moza took a residency at Townhouse in Cairo, where she met her current project partner Marwa Benhalim.  “It was very nice to be in a place where everyone spoke Arabic”, she says, “Even in the Emirates we usually speak in English.” In Cairo she collected a lot of Arabic cookbooks and showed them to Marwa, one particular book being by Abla Nazira about quick and economic recipes for working women. ““We thought we’d use the recipes from there while we question why these recipes and why working women were still expected to maintain the household while going out into the workforce, and how this reflects today in our region”, says Moza, of their project Attempting Abla Nazira. From there it became a platform to dig deeper, questioning things about the gender stereotypes around the kitchen, and the pair will also use books written by other Arab women. Together they have been cooking recipes from the books via live Instagram cooking sessions. “The goal is that we have these live sessions where we make those dishes with a guest”, says Moza, who has collaborated with ethnographers, anthropologists, artists and food bloggers, and in the future she hopes to get funding to commission people to write and respond, making the project accessible online to download as a resource. 

MOZA Still from Staff of Life
Still from Staff of Life by Moza Al Matrooshi

After her time in Cairo, Moza then went back to Sharjah to study for her pastry chef diploma. So what drew her towards food? “My first project was research about irreversibility. I was still looking at land but I wanted to stop using earth as a material. I was researching flags that were painted on mountains from coast to coast in the Emirates. I was taken by this display of love and patriotism but at the same time ruining this place that you love”, she says, “I was thinking about how food can display irreversibility in a way that’s not violent…I made these series of acts where I put milk into tea and filmed sugar burning.” Following this however, she took a step back away from edible materials as a curator told her she “wasn’t ready” to work with food, but she found her way back later. “I started looking more at the stories I wanted to tell and was so worried about being asked endlessly about it”, she explains, “So I used food to tell the story. Ultimately I wanted to tell a story and I’m always hit by censorship or not being understood. I just felt to be the storyteller I wanted to be food was my tool to do that.” 

Moza has just set up a studio in Sharjah and has been preparing a kitchen and working on writing during the lockdown. She likens being a pastry chef to being like a science. “This must be like seeing a plant grow but really quickly”, she says, “It’s like magic.” 

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer and curator. She is the founder of Gallery Girl - a London-based curatorial platform and website dedicated to modern and contemporary art from across the globe. Her work is primarily focused on supporting emerging female artists from the Middle East and the Caucasus. She has written for Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, Suitcase and Vice Arabia among other publications. Her exhibitions in London and Armenia have been featured in Vogue Arabia, The Art Newspaper, The Art Gorgeous and numerous other news outlets. Gallery Girl has also spoken in the UK, UAE and Belgium about the contemporary art scene in the MENA region, and is planning further events in London and Amman.

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