Alymamah Rashed by Lara Arafeh

Alymamah Rashed, born 1994 in Kuwait, is a storyteller and painter. She explores her faith and identity while addressing the personal and collective trauma she experienced.

A painter at heart, Alymamah received her MFA from Parsons School of Design in New York and her BFA from the School of Visual Arts. Her connection to Kuwait and New York converge in a world she creates on her canvas, a surreal and personal depiction of herself. Her autobiographical portraits encompass all that she absorbs in her daily life from her faith to ornaments of found objects culminating in a meditative space. The ritualistic and introspective act of painting makes the canvas a space for healing. Vulnerable and honest, the paintings raise questions and urge self reflection. She questions the faith she was taught and embarks on a journey of rediscovery, probing the delicate discourse of her identity and spirituality. Alymamah’s paintings are not just a visual documentation of her personal life, but also a collective reflection of what many women, Muslims, and Arabs experience. The strength of her paintings comes from her ability to critically tackle difficult subjects in the region with intellect and poise. Not overtly political, her work nevertheless addresses issues of Islamophobia, gender equality, racism, reclaiming one’s spirituality and femininity, and challenging social norms.

These large gestural canvases bring together the dichotomy of Alymamah’s two worlds: New York and Kuwait. Having spent most of her adult life in New York and spending her youth in Kuwait, she is a product of both cultures. Returning to Kuwait as an adult, she became aware of the western influence present in Kuwaiti typology, society, and consumerism. This had an effect on her creative practice where she focused on researching indigenous Kuwaiti culture, architecture, and craft. She also explores the origins of certain commodities in Kuwait, like fabrics or tableware, which were originally brought over from Iran, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, among others. Prior to this exploration in Kuwait, Alymamah encountered different voices from within her faith at the Strand bookstore in New York through Sufi poetry and Islamic philosophy. The irony of having to travel thousands of miles away to get exposure to texts from her own region does not escape her. Oscillating between the two cultures, she combines them to create her autobiographical portraits revealing the complexity of her identity. She visually absorbs fragments she sees in her life and travels, intuitively attracted to abandoned objects and spaces. These elements — such as tiles, plates, and patterns, make direct appearances on the canvas.

In the process of exploring the discourse within her faith, Alymamah coined the term Muslima Cyborg. The Muslima Cyborg is a culmination of 3 parts: the naked body or the ‘rooh’, the prayer thobe, and the combination of the two. Her figurative work refers back to the cyborg, which here does not refer to Artificial Intelligence, but rather what she calls ‘Spiritual Intelligence.’ Through this discourse she aims to revive the teachings of 13th-14th century Muslim scholars and reject the patriarchal approach of Islam she was taught in school. The Muslima Cyborg thus is a manifestation of her internal world developed on canvas.

In her early practice, the figures appeared genderless. Through more experimentation, she began reflecting herself in the figures, eventually transforming them into more feminine shapes. By doing so, she recenters herself in her faith and asserts her place as a woman exploring her freedom. There are no specific features on the faces other than eyes. The eyes, symbolizing the power of the gaze, are a gateway into one’s soul. The eyes follow the viewer, urging them to look into their own self in order to reflect upon a dialogue of their personal traumas, pain, and growth. The figures appear to be cutout of a silhouette. Without any trace of the materiality and the physicality of a body, they further address the ‘rooh’ or the soul. Appearing in transition, the body is depicted in multiple states. The figures are constantly in a state of flux, like the human body. Both ugly and beautiful at the same time, the figures represent the reality of femininity, healing, and growth. Also appearing hurt in a way, the figures have wounds depicting both the harm in one’s own critical gaze and the pain inflicted by society. By recognizing the damage that internal and external criticism has on oneself, she creates a meditative space for healing both for herself and the viewer. She celebrates her growth and survival through these figures while also admitting the strength and pain it took to begin healing. Courage, vulnerability, and strength are required to begin one’s own healing. Alymamah depicts the contradictions that await on one’s journey through the vivid and hazy nature of the figures. Distinct with bold, strong colors and fluid layers, varying thick and thin layers of paint expose her vulnerability and place her in the canvas. Figures delicately caressing one another, submerging out of themselves, reflecting both the idea of birth and rebirth. The overlapping figures are caught in embrace, a plea to be gentler with oneself.

Large watercolor paintings were the beginning of her transition to focusing on the present. There is a sense of immediacy with the watercolor that is not present with oil due to the nature of the paint. Intentional with her choice of material, watercolors must be done in a single session. This sense of immediacy in the creative process allowed her to focus more on the present. The watery nature of the paint, an element that flows or sits still, reflects the movement of the figures. Still inspired by her faith and religious practice she references the practice of circling the Kaaba with circular brushstrokes and formations. These figures evolve to resemble flowers, blooming out of their stem. The focus of her current work is less so on the transformative elements of nature and humans, and more so on verbalizing her emotions.

Alymamah’s work shows her exposure to modernist art in New York, most evident is Baya Mahieddine, Algerian surrealist painter. Baya’s distinct female subjectivity and energized color palette are mirrored in Alymamah’s large canvases. She has also referenced influences from Matisse’s ornamentation, drawing inspiration from decorative elements from her own culture and overcoming the orientalist gaze. Others include Francis Bacon, Chris Ofili, and Frida Kahlo, tending to the delicate, vulnerable yet strong identities they have in common, and particularly, Kahlo’s surrealist and personal painting technique.

Alymamah’s work is expansive, bringing the viewer in, demanding engagement. Her use of color is also evolving, introducing darker and more opaque colors. There is a sense of yearning, a sense of growth and desire in her canvases. Like a personal diary, Alymamah’s work continues to evolve as she does spiritually and emotionally. The canvas will always be a safe space for her, and for all those seeking a space for introspection.

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