Exhibition Abolish 153 at Contemporary Art Platform
May 16 – June 1, 2015
Abolish 153 is pleased to present a group exhibition at the Contemporary Art Platform on 16 May 2015, marking ten years since women obtained their political rights in Kuwait. The exhibition will feature works in various media by local and regional artists to raise awareness and funding for our campaign, Abolish 153. This campaign is committed to abolishing article 153 of Kuwait’s penal code that sanctifies the murder of female kin. Many Kuwaitis are not aware of this law’s existence, which violates the constitution, Islamic Sharia and CEDAW, which Kuwait ratified in 1996. Once abolished in Kuwait, we will establish coalitions across the GCC and Arab countries where similar laws exist and transform our local campaign into a regional one.
Participating artists: Salar Ahmadian, Ibrahim Al-Attiya, Khadija Al-Bahaweed, Thuraya Al-Baqsami, Nasser Al-Ghanim, Alaa Al-Haddad, Suhaila Al-Najdi, Majdah Al-Sabah, Amani Al-Thuwaini, Shaimaa Ashkanani, Amira Behbehani, Behnaz Ghasemi, Maryam Mesri, Mohammed Qambar, Mohammed Ramadan, Mohammed Sarkouh and Katya Traboulsi.
by Arie Amaya-Akkermans
Kuwait was the pioneering Gulf state in the cinema industry when Khalid Al-Siddiq’s ‘Bas Ya Bahar’ appeared in 1972, a dramatic tale about the harsh of life in Kuwait’s pre-oil era, based on a harrowing depiction of traditional society, in which there was little place for the individual desires of women. Moussaid, the son of an elderly pearl diver, is forbidden to go to the sea to avoid death but sets out to seek fortune to meet the demands of Noura’s dowry, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. In his absence, Noura is married against her will to a rich, older merchant. As a metaphor for our contemporary condition, Al-Siddiq’s writing on the wall is still clear: Without a solid legal foundation to safeguard their rights, women in Kuwait and the Arab world are deprived from the ability to act in the world. Disempowerment is in itself a mode of exclusion from the project of a modern state.
The wide-sweeping effects of modernization notwithstanding, the struggles of women in Kuwait and the broader region, are still the same depicted by Al-Siddiq in 1972, and it is possible to reduce them to one fine point: The lack of personal autonomy. This does not come without overlapping paradoxes: At the same time that Kuwait pioneered regionally in personal freedoms, models of authentic political contestation and the emergence of a public domain, granting full political rights to women in 2005, article 153 in the Kuwaiti penal code sanctifies the killing of mothers, daughters, sisters and wives by male relatives. Rescinding this article, inconsistent with Kuwait’s legal system, is the raison d’être of an advocacy campaign.
Abolish 153 is an exhibition marking the ten years since women were granted the right to engage in politics and that laid a major step in participatory democratic models in Kuwait and the Arab world. Concerned primarily with the female form and the representation thereof, the exhibition brings under the umbrella of ‘form,’ a diverse set of practices by local and regional artists, reflecting not necessarily what it means to be a woman in the turbulent times of globalization, but how women see themselves and are seen by others in a context where there is a clear mismatch between the technological imaginary of modernity with its foundational aspect of constitutional rights, and the historical imaginary of tradition, with its reverence for the past and concern with the permanence of institutions.
The disillusionment with globalization and modernity in the Arab world, shaped by a century of wars and the fragile body politics left behind by the colonial era together with anachronistic legal systems and deep-seated bureaucracies, is in itself part of the experience of being modern. And this ‘modern’ body of thought and reality is more than newness or recentness; it is also a strategy to move between modes of temporality, in order to achieve the best of all possible worlds. And it is not untrue to argue that indeed we have arrived at that, but the anxiety of not knowing where to go from here, having lost the ability to perceive historical transitions in the seamless chaotic mass of global time, awakens a reactionary instinct to return to a glorious past. To restore times of hope and security.
And one is left wondering if perhaps, are we not being led towards the worst of all possible pasts? The struggle for women’s rights, as old as our ancient traditions, has historically been a thermometer for eras of emancipation and clarity. While it is impossible today to think of living in autonomous political entities and societies without a vortex of reference to our own past, our sense of pastness is ought to be constructed around the meaning of freedom rather than social facts: How do the manifestations of cultural and historical memory prevent us from understanding the present shared world and whether it is possible to negotiate them? In a time of crisis and uncertainty, consolation is not a position safe enough to build a future that will last long enough to be remembered as once past.
The exhibition Abolish 153 is, as an aesthetic proposal, not a grand narrative about women or representation thereof in the context of the Arab world or globalization or modernity in the Islamic world. The operation at stake is something far more fundamental; looking at the practices of different artists synchronized along a thread both thematic and geographical, it is possible to survey the pressing need for honest dialogue about invisible forms of oppression, the highlighting of which is in itself a modification of consciousness in the public domain. In a situation of constrained autonomy, it is always possible to argue that it is stability and safety what can save us from the vertiginous dangers of contingency, but that truce is always and only temporal.
Paintings by Katya Traboulsi, Alaa Al-Haddad, Salar Ahmadian, Khadija Al-Bahaweed, Mohammed Ramadan, Majdah Al-Sabah, Mohammed Sarkouh, Shaimaa Ashkanani, Suhaila Al-Najdi, Thuraya Al-Baqsami, Amani Al-Thuwaini, Amira Behbehani and Behnaz Ghasemi all explore either invisibility or silence, from cubist abstraction to figuration to expressionism, making manifest the difficulties of discourse and representation in the absence of personal agency. Isolated from the realm of radical needs, these women depicted are not dispossessed but yet without access to the utterance of the concrete world, disappearance becomes a condition in which signals appear as muted. Traces of these signals, however, are latent, and might awake or reappear at any time. The process is never whole.
The calligraphy of Ibrahim Al-Atiyya becomes a spatial reflection of this half-lost language articulated through the interface of text and symbols. Nasser Al Ghanim’s digital prints recreate the quotidian of symbolic violence and Maryam Mesri’s photographic surrealism depicts the same lack of personal agency in the language of historical painting. While the different practices showcased are by no means homogeneous, they are intrinsically bound together by a desire to transcend the limitations of the female form alone and become thought forms, producing archetypes and narrative sites of expanded consciousness, when and where the heterogeneous modern experience of public and private, largely absent in the postcolonial world, becomes a marker and not merely a question mark.