Fuelled by a desire to express her experiences of being an Arab woman in her time and space, Amna AlBaker (b. 1996) is an artist, photographer and writer with a Qatari, Indian and Persian heritage. Born and raised in Doha, AlBaker’s practice forms as an experimental process, where photography, visual research and writing are often an initial step, laying down the foundations from which she builds her practice further. A self-taught multidisciplinary artist, she is locally well-known for her whimsical artworks with a playful edge, AlBaker’s work revolves around two dualities: the seen and unseen and the self and society—two pairs that are often intrinsically linked to one another. Methodologically driven by introspection and experimentation, much of AlBaker’s work relates to her personal narrative, albeit many of the themes she discusses are frequently manifested in other women’s lives, too. AlBaker’s collections of photos and habitual note-taking serve as starting point for her work which is recurrently driven not only by her need to negotiate her position as a young woman but also the wish to articulate her inner world, resulting in dreamy and playful body of works.
Considering that AlBaker is inspired by her daily experiences as a woman and the women around her, it is perhaps not-so-surprising that depicting women constitutes a significant proportion of the artist’s oeuvre. In Hina (2022), for instance, she portrays five women eloquently dressed in a sheer white garment, standing graciously in a field at sunset. In a similar manner, Rapture (2022) includes a number of women standing on a beach gazing at the horizon; next to the burning orange sun there is a moss green reflection reminiscent of an abstracted side profile of a veiled woman. Central to these depictions of women are the inclusion of references to nature—the terrain of her native Qatar together with its flora plays a great role in AlBaker’s work. Using nature as a metaphor, AlBaker aims to translate women’s everyday experiences from reality to paper and portray parallels between their lived experiences and the plant life. In these works there is also a more societal, almost a political dimension as for AlBaker, being by the beach or in the desert, whether camping, hiking or merely hanging out, is a freeing act in itself—it is in the nature, where women can solely ‘be’, in other words exist without any outside pressure or needing to adhere to any norms, whether cultural, familial or personal. Ultimately, AlBaker’s canvasses can be conceived as safe spaces, where she has the freedom to address taboos such as questions related to mental health and wellbeing. This depiction of women through a female gaze is not, of course, a new phenomenon in the trajectory of art history. In the early 20th century, for example, Egyptian feminist artists such as Inji Efflatoun (1924-1989) and Gazbia Sirry (1925-2021) created portrayals of peasant women through which the artists criticised the lower classes’ poor living conditions but also highlighted the role of these very classes in the changing political landscape of Egypt at the time. While AlBaker’s work is less political by comparison, and sits in the context of the Arabian Peninsula, many of her works, for instance Wilderness I (2022), Wilderness II (2022) and Somewhere out There (2022) act in response to a similar need: a utopian dreamscape where women can be free—a goal that resonates among many feminists.
A second recognisable strand in AlBaker’s work, in addition to these depictions of anonymous women in whimsical dreamscapes surrounded by nature, includes Mimi—a character the artist created back in university. Not to be conceived or equated with self-portraiture despite sharing a number of characteristics with Mimi, AlBaker notes that her character can reflect and encapsulate anyone who relates to her. Encompassing the realms of private and public, in AlBaker’s illustrations Mimi navigates through situations relatable to young women carrying similar attributes to those of the artist while adhering to a recognisable fashion: Mimi has a long bob is always dressed in a pair of jeans and a pink sweater. This character, similarly to the aforementioned more anonymous-looking women, is often depicted in a dreamy and illusory landscape. Together these two strands of AlBaker’s work—the depictions of women and the chronicles of Mimi—represent two sides of the same coin, namely the artist’s underlying wish to combine the personal with the public and draw parallels between the two. Importantly, AlBaker finds it crucial to portray women being active agents of their own lives—proposing an alternative depiction of Muslim and/or Arab women that combats the Orientalist and Western stereotypes while also finding a way to ‘stay true’ to the way these women survive and thrive in a region where the people who perpetuate those stereotypes deem impossible. Her works do not only present a critique of some of the existing narratives but are a celebration of spaces dedicated to girlhood and womanhood.
In these works, AlBaker’s palette is bright, often consisting of vivid hues of red, blue, green and orange. Her female figures tend to be depicted in monochrome—either in black or white carrying modest attire—aesthetically reminiscent of abaya, the sartorial cultural norm for most Qatari women—whereas her character, Mimi, is portrayed in the aforementioned uniform consisting of jeans and a colourful top. While AlBaker’s digital and mixed media illustrations demonstrate her ability to create compositionally playful, albeit slightly quirky, whimsical worlds, in her aquarelles she demonstrates her technical skills. Take Wilderness I (2022) and Wilderness II (2022), where AlBaker exhibits exceptional brushwork while making the most of her medium’s inherent quality—the luminosity of its transparent colours. Similarly in Rapture (2022) and Hina (2022), AlBaker demonstrates a similar attribute—an ease through which she depicts the horizon and the discreet yet careful blending of the hues of bright yellow, burning orange, lavender and light blue. A similar mastery of the watercolour technique can be observed in the commissioned artworks AlBaker created for The Ned Doha. Displaying meticulous strokes and a careful play between intensity and transparency of colour, she re-imagined the former Ministry of Interior building, which houses the current hotel and members-only club, resulting to playful depictions. Overall, AlBaker’s cheerful yet gentle aesthetic supports well her practice and overall goal of creating dreamscapes where the viewer is able to have a good time but also tackle more serious issues such as struggles associated with being a woman.