On this episode of the Gallery Girl podcast my guest is Alymamah Rashed, a Kuwaiti visual artist who investigates the discourse of her own body as a Muslima Cyborg, fluctuating between the east and the west. The Muslima Cyborg rests in a liminal spectacle that compartmentalizes the collective tangibility of the mind, the body, and the ornament.
Alymamah’s approach to art is both instinctive and academic. “I’ve grown up to love the arts and to want to draw and paint”, she says, “When I entered the academia of art by going to New York City, that experience really made me focus on collecting my knowledge in regards to technicalities and how to study composition and colour theory, how to look at the semiotics of painting and how to have a critique, as well as breaking borders.” And speaking of moving from Kuwait to New York, Alymamah explains that it was a big change. She speaks of having a breakthrough in New York as she encountered different cultures, with a particularly memorable moment being when she was first confronted with a nude life model in a drawing class. “Walking into that took me aback, I didn’t know how to feel about it. But I felt OK about it because there was a purpose and a function”, she says, “When I walked out of class I was asking my friends if it was OK, and they were laughing of course…from experiencing things that are hyper-different and cultural, I broke boundaries, habits and perceptions…and being in New York outside of school, I was very surprised at how people were very welcoming. It was refreshing to be in such an open space and open culture.”
Following her studies in New York, Alymamah felt that it was important to return to Kuwait. “For my research I felt that I really needed to be in the hub of my country in order to expand my practice”, she says, “I felt like I wanted to be home in my space and have this gift to myself so I can make my work and feel time while I’m making my work.” She explains that returning home also forced her to ask about how she contributes to the artistic ecosystem in Kuwait beyond her art practice, so she has given art classes and is working at a museum called Sadu House to work to cultivate an artist resident programme, contributing as an artist to the art community in Kuwait and create an artistic economy.
Alymamah often describes herself and her work as a “Muslima Cyborg”, although she does not mean that in the robotic or mechanical sense. “I do certainly mean the technological, but in a way that deals with spiritual intelligence”, she says, “It’s a term that moved out of the sensation of prayer. One time in New York I missed all of my prayers during the day, I was having a full studio day. I came back, prayed all of my prayers at once and sat within my thob (a garment that a woman wears when she prays in Islam), and I felt this garment became skin. I started immediately questioning ‘Is this garment the second skin? Or is it the first skin? What lies between this garment and my flesh, my skin?’ I felt like I was drawn to this idea of liminality between the both. I tried to articulate the idea of the Muslima Cyborg as this collective of bodies, the fleshed body, the naked body combined with the thob, which can act as a garment as a skin. The combination of both is what I put on the canvas. It’s the Muslima Cyborg, but it’s a theory in a way, imagining the hidden layers in between this formula.” It follows that much of Alymamah’s research is around spirituality and Muslim scholars. “It’s about reclaiming our spiritual history and bringing it into the contemporary”, she says.
Alymamah’s work is also extremely fluid, especially in her watercolours. “It’s a form of leakage where I’m able to explore the expansion of the body and allow it to merge into one another, creating rhythm through repetition and the expansion of the body”, she explains, “And by creating multiplicity, even though none of these bodies are repeating themselves. They’re birthing new bodies over and over.” This idea of the expansion of the body was also partly led by the feeling as a woman of having to be confined into a small space. “I felt growing up, I was struggling to accept my body as an Arab girl. My body didn’t look like the Western body”, she says, “I didn’t see that represented. I kind of suppressed my perception of myself. But once I went to New York, that pushed me into reclaiming my body.”
Most recently, Alymamah has been working on a large painting that focuses on the idea of motherhood. “It’s a motherhood that exceeds the parental, extracting the mother within you”, she explains, “The mother as a saviour as well. What does it mean to save yourself from yourself and how can I document that journey.” Alymamah has been referencing her mother’s thob, and painting her own thob submerging out of it. She’s also working on a series of watercolours that explore the idea of yearning. “The idea of yearning for love, for a person, for a memory”, she says, “Living that desperateness in an open way that is expanded through the medium and through the fluidity of the body, wanting to escape from itself and entangle within itself. It’s an act of salvation.” These works will be exhibited at Tabari Art Space in Dubai in March.
And what about the lockdown period? Following this experience Alymamah says she rewired her gaze. “The act of seeing was almost expanded”, she explains, “As soon as I was out from the lockdown I was noticing objects that were always there, but I brought them into recognition in a way that I didn’t before, for instance a flower found under my car.” She is now placing these objects and symbols on canvas as a way of reflecting on a moment of pause. “There’s this yearning for the new, so you’re able to articulate your ways of seeing and ways of absorbing what’s around you”, she adds, “I see these objects as a gift in a way, a gift of the day.”
As for the future, Alymamah says she is enjoying making her work before worrying about what or where it’s going to be. “I intend, I create and things come to you”, she says, “It’s 90% instinctive and fuelled by curiosity, and the rest is what follows. You’re able then to make the right plans and place yourself in the right platforms and experiences.”