Saudi-American interdisciplinary artist Hawazin Alotaibi has a distinct and instantly recognisable voice. Through hazy, distorted and almost undefinable renderings of male figures, she creates a discursive framework within which to critique a very poignant topic: gender roles and acts of censorship in the Middle East. Based in London and having recently graduated with a master’s degree from the Royal College of Art, Alotaibi is rapidly making a name for herself as both a fine artist and a DJ. Her work is currently on show at the newly opened gallery, Night Caféin Fitzrovia as part of their unmissable inaugural group exhibition titled ‘Fluidity’.
In many ways, Alotaibi’s practice captures the very essence of fluidity. She moves easily between multiple disciplines, highlighting DJing as a vital tool to avoid repetition and staleness in her wider work: “I feel my interest in Electronic Music has shown me how to avoid boxing myself in with just one medium. Music, in particular, is praised for breaking conventional structures and pushing boundaries.” Her paintings are informed by this desire for innovation, even rebellion. She works outside the customary confines of the medium to create pieces that resist categorisation, “I try to find new ways of defining painting by experimenting with printmaking and unusual applications of pigment. In a sense, I have created a form of painting that is entirely my own, to best serve the ideas and concepts I am working with.” On a deeper level, Alotaibi’s work can be understood as an urgent call for a more nuanced and fluid understanding of identity. In particular, she challenges the traditional gender presentations that have been reinforced for many years in the Middle East, drawing on her own upbringing within “a culture that pretty much-discouraged individuality.”
I try to find new ways of defining painting by experimenting with printmaking and unusual applications of pigment. In a sense, I have created a form of painting that is entirely my own, to best serve the ideas and concepts I am working with.
On initial inspection, Alotaibi’s paintings are somewhat inconspicuous and almost decorative, featuring an abundance of flowers, rich fuchsia backgrounds and opulent traditional Gulf furniture. This element of subtlety is key to the immense impact of her practice; by gently enticing the viewer into the world she creates, she is able to encourage open dialogue around hypermasculinity, censorship and prescribed gendered behaviour in the Gulf region. Much of the imagery that now appears in her paintings was drawn from pamphlets she was given at school in her tween years: “Growing up, I was indoctrinated to conform to specific behavioural patterns that aligned with my gender role in society. When I graduated from elementary school, I was given pamphlets to learn how to become a woman. These became emblematic of the pervasive gendered expectations that permeated my culture and shaped my way of life.”
Adorned with floral motifs, these booklets included doctrines like, ‘A good girl helps her mom, helps her brother, doesn’t wear perfume.’ For Alotaibi, the “gentle hues and drawings evoking notions of innocence, purity, and beauty” were not enough to dispel her cynicism towards the overall message. In many ways, she mirrors the techniques of these very pamphlets in her paintings; by camouflaging her critique of hypermasculinity amongst feminine iconography, she lures the viewer into a perhaps unfamiliar world of rigidity and confinement. Meanwhile, by “placing men in a fictional feminine space”, she is able to highlight the starkness and intensity of the binarized gender expectations and presentations that were forced upon her as an adolescent.
Given that Alotaibi’s practice reflects intensely upon her personal experiences growing up in Saudi Arabia, it follows that their stylistic appearance is almost akin to the experience of remembering. Her paintings appear like personal recollections featuring unspecific figures perhaps seen so long ago that their individual features are hard to define. In most cases, the viewer identifies the subject as an Arab man by attributing meaning to cultural signifiers such as traditional clothing, skin tone and hints of facial hair. For Alotaibi, this undefinably is deliberate and allows her to illuminate the acts of censorship that are still so common in the Arab world. In orthodox Islamic law, it is technically forbidden to recreate human forms, a philosophy that has greatly influenced her practice: “During my years living in Saudi, there were a lot of societal and cultural expectations I experienced that made me feel very restricted as an artist. I was taught that drawing faces was not acceptable because we should not depict God’s creations.” Alotaibi’s indistinct renderings delicately blur compliance with this doctrine, she chooses to include figures but smudges their features beyond recognition. The men pictured cannot be understood to refer to one individual, and instead are able to stand in for overarching paradigms of Arabian masculinity. As a result, Alotaibi is afforded the space to probe at understandings of censorship and representation as a whole.
During my years living in Saudi, there were a lot of societal and cultural expectations I experienced that made me feel very restricted as an artist. I was taught that drawing faces was not acceptable because we should not depict God’s creations.
And, she is not giving up. She notes that Saudi Arabian society and culture are continuously changing, as we head towards the country’s “2030 Vision”, “which promises greater freedoms for women, including the ability to drive, open bank accounts, access more job opportunities, and reduce reliance on male guardianship in various aspects of their lives.” For Alotaibi, this state of transition, when moves should be being made towards wholehearted change, makes now the perfect time for honest critique and open dialogue around the topic of gendered experience in the Middle East, “a lot is changing and moving fast, but we need to take a moment to sit and discuss these shifts and what it means to live in Saudi now in comparison to the culture in which I lived as a child. I want to contribute to these changes by focusing on masculinity and illuminating the fact that when living in Saudi as a woman, one automatically needs the presence of a man.”
Fluidity is on show at Night Café, 62 New Cavendish St, London, W1W 6YS until the 17th of June 2023.
Art writer, curator and public relations specialist, focussed on platforming emerging talent across the visual culture sector. When not walking my dog in rainy East London parks, I can be found on my sofa writing articles for Bricks Magazine, FAD magazine, Art Plugged and Off the Block Magazine.
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