As the #PaintToFreedom online movement grows and sparks more controversy and discussion and encourages people to speak up, many are wondering what the story is – who Shurooq Amin is. I thought that posting my old article “Sins on Canvas” from the LoYACY magazine in the November issue would help people get a good image of this great artist. I would also like to say that the Paint to Freedom movement is not just about Shurooq’s particular gallery being shut down, nor is it restricted to painters. It includes artists, poets, writers, film-makers, dancers, musicians, designers. It’s one that seeks to protect our right to freedom of expression and appreciation of art, literature, poetry, and beauty in all its forms. No one has the right to control what another person paints, writes, thinks, or believes. Paint to Freedom seeks to abolish the false assumption that the intellectuals will simply hand over the power to people who are blind to such beauty. Art, cinema, poetry, and literature are all tools to enlightenment and liberation – which is the exact reason that these groups are attempting to kill them, and also the reason that in turn, the intellectuals must retaliate by practicing these acts of rebellion from now on more passionately than ever.
Paint on the floor. Poetry in the air. Smiles in the hallway. Children here and there. The home of a woman whose fingers have formed a long-lasting friendship with her paintbrush since her early childhood: Shurooq Amin’s home. I was privileged enough to be invited to visit Shurooq’s studio in her humble home, where I felt more than welcome, and was greeted with warm hellos. After meeting her children, Shurooq and I went up to her studio. Within those four simple walls, I saw some of the most thought-provoking paintings I had ever laid eyes on. Pure taboo: everything that is forbidden, everything deemed unspeakable – painted on canvas, speaking thousands of words that would never do her paintings justice.
Shurooq Amin is an artist, a poet, a member of the Kuwait Arts Association, and a professor at Kuwait University, to name only a few of the high-status positions she holds. She is the first and only Kuwaiti artist to feature a nude painting in international art galleries. She is also a mother of four children: Nujood, Lujain, Khaled, and Abdulla. Just by hearing this, most people would say: there is no way she is managing all of those things at once. Quite the contrary, Shurooq says balancing every factor in her life has not been difficult – it was all a matter of time management.
She considers her job at KU to be a day job which she has maintained simply because it is her source of income, and that it is “not something [I] love anymore because of the education system”. I personally thought this was an interesting point, so I asked Shurooq to elaborate. She discussed how the university used to be an academic environment, but is now politically charged, where “everybody wants to be a politician, but nobody wants to do the work”. She expressed frustration at how the KU Student Union now “has more power than the faculty”. Naturally, her frustration is reasonable; one cannot help but question whether or not all of the KU faculty members feel the same way. As a result, Shurooq no longer feels passionately about her day-career – her students are only growing less and less enthusiastic about their major with each passing year, making it difficult for Shurooq to teach with passion.
Instead, Shurooq focuses on her conceptual, controversial art works and her children. She feels most strongly about those two things: her artwork, and her children, and puts all of her energy into them. I personally have spent my life around adults who said they were too busy with their career to give their all to their children, but Shurooq said that such talk was “merely an excuse”. She considers her children to be gifts, to be future citizens actively taking part in the development of their society.
The sensational artist has paint coursing through her veins. She grew up painting, and had the constant support of her father. Her father took her to art galleries and museums, and at the time, she didn’t realize how exceptional such opportunities were. She assumed all girls her age saw what she saw. At the young age of 11, her father passed away in her arms, and after that point, nothing scared her anymore. At the age of 11, she witnessed the death of one of the dearest people to her heart. Death, Shurooq said, is the most common fear. Since she faced that at an early age, there was nothing left to fear anymore. From that point onwards, all of the endless obstacles she faced didn’t seem so difficult to tackle anymore.
Death threats have surprisingly been amongst those obstacles. But Shurooq says she didn’t care. “They can’t judge me — we’re all souls, only God can judge me, or an art critic, which doesn’t exist in Kuwait. I won’t listen to regular people judging me just because I’m painting the truth. We have people preaching Haram and Halal when they are hypocrites, telling girls not to talk to boys and in the weekend he’s with his mistress.” Because Shurooq addresses taboo subjects in her paintings, she is met with violent opposition. She addresses religion, politics, morality, sex, socio politics.
Shurooq was kind enough to show me her upcoming series, “It’s a Man’s World”, consisting of a total of 18 paintings which depict the secret lives of Arab men, including factors such as homosexuality, polygamy, double-lives, hypocrisy, alcoholism, adultery, the demeaning of women by turning them into non-human objects of sexual gratification, all the while preaching against the very acts they participate in on a nightly basis. The one that most caught my attention was “My Harem in Heaven”, a painting that portrayed a Kuwaiti man laying on a couch, barefoot in his dishdasha. He is smoking shisha, has a glass of whiskey on the table in front of him, an ashtray next to it. The ashtray and the glass of whiskey are placed on a glass table, and underneath the table, you see his bottle of Red Label – the most common choice of alcohol in Kuwait. A key element painted that would be noted is that the table was made of glass, so everyone can see the Red Label. Regardless of how hard he tries to hide it, everyone in the society knows this man is an alcoholic. Furthermore, there are women all around him. Tiny, Tinkerbell-like women, representing the alleged 70 virgins in Heaven–sitting on his shoulder, grabbing his feet, swimming in his glass of whiskey, all posing very promiscuously. He is relaxed and seems to be immensely enjoying this overflow of sensual sinning – because no one can see him indulging in these pleasures. Shurooq says this painting was done with love and passion, it had been a “eureka moment, a vision, pure inspiration from God Himself”.
Another one of her paintings portrayed an Emarati man, a symbol of your average male from any of the Gulf countries, with a BlackBerry, an iPhone, and a pack of cigarettes in front of him. Around him you see symbols of Abercrombie & Fitch, and other popular consumer products within the Gulf region. Next to him you see newspaper articles. Egyptians still fighting for their freedom. Syrians slaughtered ruthlessly. Palestinians oppressed by Israelis. Parliament members stealing millions of Kuwaiti Dinars. Saudi women demanding the simple right to drive, while women in the West are astronauts. The Khaleeji man doesn’t care. He is living in his own little world of consumerism and materialistic values. So long as it does not affect him directly, he sees no reason to care about other people’s pain. He’s naive and happy, driving his expensive car, killing himself slowly with his posh cigarettes, drinking away his petty troubles with cheap Red Label, taking advantage of women and blackmailing them with pictures. He sees no real reason to care. Consumerism has made him grow numb to reality. It has created an alter universe for him, one in which he is content, one in which he does not acknowledge the guilt that should be gnawing at his insides for allowing other human beings to suffer while he lives in luxury and silence. Had he not been a slave to consumerism, he would realize that his silence is complicity.
Shurooq does not take part in that silence. She is doing what she loves, and uses her art as a message to society, to broaden minds, enlighten people, change the world. “Every single person who thinks about the message behind my work is being influenced. His mind works. He discusses it with a friend. Something has shifted. It has been passed on, a ripple effect, a pay-it-forward technique, a new generation of people who are activists, full of hope and power to do something, not just watch TV. They will reach a point where they will challenge themselves to be consistent with their actions, not just their ideas.”
So far, there have been tweets, blog posts, articles, and other forms of media published in support of Paint to Freedom all over the Arab world. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE are only some of the countries whose writers and activists have took part so far. I particularly liked my friend Arie’s bold article here, and greatly appreciate his effort to support us. The influence has been overwhelmingly remarkable. You are more powerful than you think.