Aliyah Alawadhi, by Océane Sailly

Aliyah Alawadhi's artistic universe is an expansive and uncanny world made of glitches and pastel colors, saturated with Khaleeji cultural references along hijacks of art history, inhabited by hyper-feminized women with exaggerated, bizarre features performing alternatively mundane and surreal acts, a world in which nostalgia cohabits with satire to better grasp the intricacies of the artist's childhood and early adulthood in the United Arab Emirates. 

Born in the mid-nineties, Alawadhi is part of a generation for whom the material and the digital have always been inevitably intertwined and interconnected. It is a generation that grew up with seemingly endless access to information and whom, through the means of Facebook, Youtube, Reddit, Twitter and, in Alawadhi’s case, especially Tumblr, participated actively in Web 2.0 through the exchange of ideas and imaginaries, producing content and  crafting identities through avatars that operated anonymously under usernames in digital, chosen, communities. For many, this window also provided an escape from a much more constricted real world, as it did for Alawadhi. Growing up, she often felt purposely concealed, hidden within a large home, surrounded by huge, tall, walls, where only the central patio provided the experience of being outside. To overcome this sense of isolation and boredom, Alawadhi found solace in the potentials of virtual space, delving into the realm of fanfiction, movies, anime and video games, fuelling her imagination and especially her inclination towards drawing. Through the  internet, she gained access to a vast repository of information that transcended geographical boundaries. The online sphere became a gateway to unlimited knowledge about the world and empowered her to learn independently, explore polarizing perspectives, access diverse cultural content, and provided her a platform for personal expression.

Though this access had fuelled much creativity in Alawadhi's early years, she never contemplated art as an area of study or as a career, having been routinely discouraged in an environment and time period that valued more pragmatic career choices. Upon enrolling at Zayed University and belatedly discovering that there was an art’s college, she chose to major in Animation Design where she fine-tuned her sense of composition and figuration that  soon began to channel itself into new media, namely video art  and, later on, painting, which gave her the space to explore her numerous, eclectic interests and influences. Alawadhi’s early video works are predominantly made using glitched videos and sound. Her senior project, “Science of a Man” (2020) is a series of five videos employing glitches, text and auditory elements to explore the liminality between tradition and the contemporary. In one of the videos, the viewer might find a digitally distorted scene from Alice in Wonderland (Walt Disney Productions, 1951) where the titular character interacts with volatile and distrustful talking flowers overlayed with a poem by Abdulwahab Al Bayaty lamenting that “the frogs/have stolen our happiness”. Glitches can serve numerous purposes; in the context of technoculture, they have been conceptualized by Legacy Russell as “a part of machinic anxiety, an indicator of something gone wrong.'' As such, glitch functions as a form of dissent. Russell elaborates, “glitch is celebrated as a vehicle of refusal, a strategy of nonperformance” and a tool to “make abstract again that which has been forced into an uncomfortable and ill-defined materal.” (Glitch Feminism, 2020). In the same vein, Alawadhi appropriates the glitch to highlight and critique, through the manipulation and diversion of digital technologies, cultural paradoxes, collisions, dysfunctions, and orientalist tropes. In Samia (2021), for example, she overlays and distorts excerpts from the scene in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (Les Films du Cyclope, 1954) where legendary Egyptian actress and dancer Samia Gamal belly dances in front of seated men–most of them being French actors. The superposition stresses increasingly the opposition between the dancer and the viewers, reinforcing Western male gaze on Gamal.

Screenshot of "Samia" by Aliyah Alawadhi

Samia (2021)

In Artists of Arabia (2021), Alawadhi uses a similar method to satirize orientalist language from British documentaries made about the Arabian Peninsula filmed during the pivotal discovery of oil in the region in the 1950s - 1970s; she superposes them with footage shot during her time at the Salama bint Hamdan Emerging Artists Fellowship as a way to reflect on her experience. Through the work, the artist ponders the power dynamics in transplanting standards of the Western art canon in an environment that was purposefully, and for better or worse, fashioned to be diametrically opposed to it. The social experiences of young girls also plays a key role in Alawadhi’s conceptualization of her work. High School Girls (2021) utilizes glitch to blur between excerpts from two TV shows; one, a raucous Japanese anime from 2006 featuring overtly sexual themes and the other a controversial Kuwaiti Ramadan drama, Banat al Thanawiya (2011) portraying the misadventures of a group of school girls and was subsequently banned. The work plays on the juxtaposition and disaffiliation of these productions, both in their choice of framing this often misunderstood demographic as well as the personal experience of the artist, who derives much of her inspiration from the inexorable social environments of public girls’ schools. Aliyah Alawadhi's practice can be described as maximalist in the sense that its amplitude is limitless. Just like the internet has created within her what she refers to as “a broken library”–an encyclopedia of knowledge and references without obvious links nor linearity–her creative energy and endless topics of interests brings her to venture into multiple forms of media.

High School Girls (2021)

In parallel to video art, Aliyah Alawadhi has found in painting a medium of reflection, whether the focus be on her childhood, her surroundings and/or personal experience of womanhood. Her influences and formation appear clearly in this practice, whether through seamless composition or her depiction of a cast of characters who, with their overemphasized features and attributes, are reminiscent of the exaggerated forms found in video games and cartoons. Yet, painting constitutes for the artist a way to honestly and immediately mine personal memories and feelings. 

Several of her paintings can be regrouped into a body of work that reflects her experience. Building from memories that are inextricable from the aforementioned constant feeling of isolation, she also explores the strong sense of sorority and the strategies developed, alone or with her sisters, to escape mentally as well as physically, the overbearing realm of the household. One of them, for example, was to resort to magic rituals and mysticism. The late 1990s saw the popularization of Wicca and witchcraft among teenage girls, promoted by cultural productions that offered a new and glamorous image of the witch archetype. What started as mainly a US-based phenomenon soon gained a wider prominence through TV shows (remember Charmed?), movies and the internet. While Alawadhi was too young to pick up on the trend, her older sister dabbled and often invited her siblings into mystical rituals, as depicted in Down to the swimming hole, where there grows a bitter herb (2020), Salvation (2021) and Divining with bougainvillea (2020), bonding them into a sorority that infused everyday life with a welcomed sense of magic. While the global resurgence of Wicca could be overlooked, as most things that capture the imagination of teen girls often are, it can most comprehensively be understood as a way to instill an empowering magic into an overly masculine and growingly rational and disenchanted world. Especially for women looking to reclaim an ancient and ancestral connection to nature which came with a great knowledge of healing and maintaining community. 

Down to the swimming hole, where there grows a bitter herb (2020), Salvation (2021) and Divining with bougainvilleas (2020)

In later works, the role of escapism takes on a more concrete dimension. Sneaking Out (2021) features three sisters who are posted at a crossroad, behind them the house they just stealthily departed from, huddling tightly together to form a barrier of protection. In Alawadhi's paintings, there is a strong dichotomy between the inside–seen as a place of boredom but also of sanctuary–and the outside–which is in comparison a domain of freedom but also of potential dangers–that transposes how the world was presented to her. This is apparent in Devils won't find me out here (2021) where the  home, noticeably sha’bi (a term that literally translates to “of the people” and is used in this context as a reference to public housing) in its appearance, seen as a refuge from demonic figures or in Mother (2021) in which daughters are being diligently brought back from the outside into the home, whisked away on a conveyor belt of uniformity after being exposed to the outside.

Sneaking Out (2021), Devils won't find me out here (2021) and Mother (2021)

The complex relationship that the artist has developed towards the familial domestic space is further conveyed in Bedroom (2021) in which three female figures inhabit a closed space that recalls–through the pink and purple hues, the oriental carpet and the marble floor–a young person’s room in a traditional household. While one figure sits on the bed, mildly engaging with the scene, the two other characters are entertaining themselves with ludo-occult games, one holding the other’s hand as they levitate. The playful and innocent initial reading of it is soon replaced by an uncanny feeling stirred by the scale. The figures are disproportionate for this bedroom, the floating one's feet are already touching the ceiling and the women have outgrown the childish space to which they are assigned. The choice of composition is not trivial, it is a key element. The artist has been heavily influenced by the world of animation and character design where each detail is carefully plotted and meticulously chosen. Therefore, the bedroom here assumes a double meaning; it is as much a space of childhood memories marked by a sense of isolation and boredom as it is a vessel of joy and amusement rendered only possible by the imagination and sorority developed within the constricted familial setting–as we can also see in Light as a feather, stiff as a board (2020). 

Bedroom (2021) and Light as a feather, stiff as a board (2020) 

The artist's research on the dichotomy of womanhood, the female body and its commodification marks another direction in her work in which canvases become spaces to explore and address multilayered representations of women. Drawing from the Freudian notion of the Madonna–whore complex – a behavioral complex identified in men who can not desire women they respect nor respect the women they desire – the triptych Psychic Impotence (2021), whose title can be attributed to the specific dysfunction that can often result in such anxieties, explores this polarization by excluding the male presence and instead bringing together two opposing female archetypes. This theme is common in Western art history which has been heavily influenced by Christianity’s depiction of women with one side occupied by Madonna or the Virgin Mary, representing purity, virtue and love, and Eve on the other side, the sinful, promiscuous temptress (see for example, The Madonna of Humility with the Temptation of Eve by Olivuccio di Ciccarello, c.1400). In  Psychic Impotence, Aliyah Alawadhi transposes this duality within her own cultural context. On the left side of the wide triptych, a woman offers in a lascivious pose her nakedness to the viewers, gazing upon them with a grotesque grin while one the right side of it, a woman wearing a green dress, her head an oryx skull smoking a dokha pipe, glancing nonchalantly at the woman on the other end. The pipe, just as the Toyota Land Cruiser in the background, are symbols of a performative masculinity that allow the artist to highlight the tenuous positions, further depicted in the chaotic central panel, of both women who appear assigned to rigid roles. 

Psychic Impotence (2021)

In an early painting, The Unrighteous Salome (2020), Alawadhi invokes the figure of Salome, known for her role in the biblical narrative where she requested and received the head of John the Baptist as a reward for her dance before her grandfather Herod, following the instructions of her mother Herodias. While originally depicted in the Old and New Testaments as a girl performing a chaste dance, Salome has evolved over the centuries into the archetypal femme fatale— a seductress and an immoral, lustful figure symbolizing the pinnacle of women's corruption. She also serves as a projection of male desire, as evidenced in numerous literary and visual artworks. In the realm of art history, Salome is primarily portrayed in the midst of two key actions: either holding the plate with the head of John the Baptist or dancing before Herod and his court. However, The Unrighteous Salome presents an alternative perspective. The scene is no longer set in a palace but in a living room, with Salome reclining on a red sofa beneath an air conditioning unit. Outside the windows, the viewer catches glimpses of suburban architecture. At her feet, instead of the typical depiction of John the Baptist's head on a tray, it is presented as a plate of biryani, a traditional rice dish. Salome's pose, sheer stockings, and form-fitting nightdress harken back to Gulf-core aesthetics, reminiscent of the often anonymous, and tendentious, figures that inhabit Khaleeji internet culture. Salome gazes through the window, apathetic to the severed head, disinterested in its significance. Instead, she challenges the role that has been assigned to her. Through this painting, Alawadhi disrupts and reimagines the traditional portrayal of this biblical figure. The painting prompts viewers to reconsider Salome's agency, her position within patriarchal narratives, and the limitations imposed upon women throughout history.

The unrighteous Salome (2020)

Many of Alawadhi’s paintings are characterized by their immediacy born out of profound emotional responses. Corpse (2022) for example is a reaction to the seemingly universal diminishment of women’s bodily autonomy and the lack of collective consensus surrounding their right to liberation. This painting presents a striking visual narrative, featuring a naked woman positioned on a platter. She is bound, her body subjected to a knife piercing through it, while her mouth is filled with a red apple–an allusion to the tradition of presenting roasted suckling pig, a dish often marking celebratory occasions–lending to a more satirical interpretation of the work.

Corpse (2022)

As a product of her time, Aliyah Alawadhi thinks a lot about what she creates, the messages it conveys–particularly to a foreign eye–and what it means to be a painter in the era of the Web 3.0,  a crypto-anarchist wasteland that seems to further diminish the role of the artist. Although critical, her gaze on her own experience and environment is also suffused with sentiment and tenderness, imbued with Khaleeji references and cultural elements, that resonate strongly with her audience; for many, entering into Alawadhi’s art is being transported back to childhood, but instead of employing the rose-colored veneer of nostalgia, it is often imbued it with a lurking, eerie reality. But, it also echoes beyond. Her honest, uncompromising and vulnerable depiction of an albeit personal experience of womanhood challenges and  interrogates the absurdity of societal expectation and embraces the complexity of feminine existence. By delving into the depths of her own psychological makeup and personal experiences, Alawadhi opens up a dialogue that extends beyond gender boundaries, inviting manifold audiences to reflect on their own journeys and find connection within the shared human experiences of fear, shame and joy.

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