In conversation... Alymamah Rashed & Wadha Al-Aqeedi

In conversation... Alymamah Rashed & Wadha Al-Aqeedi

Alymamah Rashed (b. 1994, Kuwait) is a visual artist investigating the discourse of her own body, through a ‘third body’ that she coined as a ‘Muslima Cyborg’. Her work stems from her observations of the everyday, readings of Islamic philosophy and poetry, and ornamentation. For seven years, she lived, studied, and worked in New York. In 2016, she received her BFA from the New York School of Visual Arts, followed by her MFA in Fine Arts at Parsons School of Design in 2019. Alymamah participated in several exhibitions in New York, including at the Czech Center, Parsol Projects, and The New School. Her upcoming projects include solo exhibitions with Bawa (December 2020), and Tabari Art Space (May 2021).

Wadha Al-Aqeedi: How would you introduce yourself to someone you just met?

Alymamah Rashed: I would not say that I am an artist. This is a lesson that I learned from Farida Sultan, the Director of Sultan Gallery in Kuwait. In New York, where I lived and studied for seven years, you can bump into someone and introduce yourself as an artist because it is sort of a given occupation. But back home in Kuwait, the term ‘artist’ is something that is given to you rather than eliciting that upon yourself. It is also something that you gain and earn. So, when I meet someone and engage in a conversation, I will eventually be asked: “What do you do? You seem like a creative person.” Usually, that comment is triggered by a necklace I am wearing, or something visually striking that I am carrying, which is funny. I respond by saying that “I am a painter” or “a storyteller”, and have people call me that because it is more engaging, but also to activate the word ‘artist’. You are an artist, but what is your medium? What is your language? For me, being a painter, and a storyteller, resonates with me. That is at least where I am at right now, with my work as well.

“A recent completed work that is yet to be titled”, Alymamah Rashed, 2020.

WA: Can you take us back to how it all began? What sparked your interest in art, to then practicing art?

AR: I was surrounded by art ever since I was a kid due to my parents. My Dad is a writer, researcher, and a humanitarian. Naturally, he surrounded us with books. I remember, ever since I was a kid, every single Thursday after school, my Dad would take me to this tiny bookstore next to our school and we would pick out books together. Also, he used to illustrate stories for me, which we kept and still have. They are quite funny, kitschy, and filled with humor. Whereas my Mom, who studied economics, she worked in the Public Authority for Civil Information (PACI). After work, she would come back home and print colouring book pages for me because she knew I loved colouring. My mom is beyond her professional occupation. She is a multidisciplinary woman who loves interior design, fashion design, and architecture. She birthed a multifaceted energy within me through her fluctuant spirit. Being surrounded by these two energies sparked my interest in art and pushed me towards it. Ultimately, when I was in high school, I took art courses that my school offered: a few art history classes, an AP studio class, a painting class, and a drawing class. As a quite shy and introverted person when I was young, drawing and painting were my focus to lose myself. I loved it, and I knew that I wanted to pursue that as a career. So, I applied to a bunch of schools in New York, and started at the School of Visual Arts for my Bachelor’s.

“A glimpse of my graphite series (a work in progress) grounded by a 
past read.”, Alymamah Rashed, 2020.


WA: How was your art school experience in New York?

AR: It was a good experience, in terms of learning the language, the technicalities, the physicality of material. You would try everything, and it would really make you step out of your comfort zone. I remember from one of my first painting classes, the first thing they teach you is to abandon the small brush and you use a huge house paintbrush. When I was a kid, I used to use tiny brushes and painted small-scale works. So, that was automatically something that was out of my comfort zone, to paint with large brushes. Another example is going to a drawing class, where you have to draw a nude model in front of you, which was something very foreign to me and quite scary. But, I just went with the flow, and the discipline itself demands you to delve into the person, and to be vocal about your emotions. Hence, your work is yourself. My Bachelor’s experience was also a bit difficult, because it was only me and one other Arab person in the program, which made it challenging for a lot of professors to understand my culture, and where I was coming from. But, at the same time, I was developing my interest in my language and I was floating within the ontological, and within abstract forms rather than figuration.

What Have You Built Against Your Fractures? (Love Better), 
2020 (100 x 55 inches, oil on canvas).


WA: Can you tell us about your experience after graduating art school?

AR: After I graduated, I had a very rough year, and that was the year that kind of birthed what I would call “my practice” to where it is now. During that year, after graduation, I had two jobs working at galleries, and an internship at MoMA. These jobs were kind of a slap of reality for me, as I was thinking of becoming a curator rather than an artist, or at least becoming a gallerist. I realised that was not the right fit for me, and I actually wanted to paint. So, I continued painting in my tiny New York apartment, with little space and huge canvases. In fact, painting to me was a kind of healing because I experienced multiple traumas during that year, as well as racist incidents within the workplace and on the streets. My experience at the museum was very rewarding and helped my healing process. Contrary to my gallery experiences, there was a sense of respect from others. Additionally, the projects that I was working on were purposeful and were in relation to my culture.

Ornament and Crime beyong Adolf Loos: A handmade concrete vase 
from Kuwait (left), a hand painted plant pot from Mexico (right), and an 
ornamented hand painted tile from Iznik, Turkey (bottom).


WA: How did painting help your healing process?

AR: During that year after graduation, I experienced a major incident at Madison Square park. I was sitting with a friend, and there was a white man who was not himself. He started approaching us, wanting to sit down and talk to us for some reason, so I got off the bench and he approached me and grabbed my hijab off my head. When that happened, it was a shock and it was hurtful. This incident made me rethink the meaning of Hijab for me personally, which I chose to wear at the age of 14. Regardless of being conscious about wearing it, I always felt like it was my skin. Consequently, when the incident happened, I felt like my skin was taken away from me. I wanted to speak about this experience, but I did not know how. It was all internalised and I didn’t tell anyone about it. So, I found myself applying to Graduate school, at Parsons School of Design. That is when I started vocalising my experiences and incidents. In particular, I gave a presentation about my work in a critical thinking class, where I also had the platform to speak about what happened to me for the first time. From that moment on, I was able to proceed and translate that experience onto the canvas.

“An eternal reference: Ibn Sina’s theory on the soul and it’s faculties 
(excerpted from Cyrus Ali Zargar’s The Polished Mirror, 2017)”, 
Alymamah Rashed, 2020.


WA: Can you tell us more about the relation of Hijab to your skin/body, and how it translates conceptually and visually in your work?

AR: After the incident, I started thinking about the layers of my body because of that gesture of having my hijab taken off. It elicited this idea where I felt that my body is multi-layered in a way. So, there is my skin, my flesh naked body, and finally there is the layer on top, which is the hijab. Additionally, I recall experiencing another sensation after prayer. I would come back to my apartment, exhausted, and I would stay in my floral prayer garment forever. It felt like skin, because I kind of marinated in it. I was intrigued and curious, and reflected on Hijab beyond its Islamic prerequisite for a woman to wear. As such, I started layering the body again, stepped out of Hijab, as well as the flesh of the naked body, to finally birth the third body that I call the ‘Muslima Cyborg’ in my work. It is cyborgian not in technological terms, but rather through spiritual intelligence, investigating the layers between a religious garment and a fleshed, humane, and raw elemental existence. To navigate through it, I researched the work of Muslim scholars, for example philosophers such as Suhrawardi, Ghazali. I read a lot of Islamic theology and poetry as well, right now I just completed Ibn ‘Arabi. Also, I like to compare similar texts, for instance, Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah with Plato’s Republic to kind of see the correlations and explore how the East influenced the West, and vice versa. If you walk into my studio, you will find stacks of these books and stacks of Sufi poetry. It was kind of my salvation, and I saw this beautiful part of Islam that I had not been exposed to, really. I used that as a motor to generate what goes behind the Muslima Cyborg, and I would say every canvas is an investigation of that. My work also references my everyday life, sightings, and abandoned objects, such as ornaments that I see abandoned, gas station walls, things I spot at Souq Al-Mubarakiya, etc. I would reference objects that are derived from my culture, talk about yearning that I seek, which is investigating my body as a third body moving through trauma, yearning, desire, love and all of these emotions that we go through, but then I intensify them and romanticise them in a way and stage them. It is almost like a musical instrument that was playing, the volume and the movement would change every time. It is very freeing on my canvas.

“Current reads and references stacked on my bookshelf and topped 
with a traditional plate from Kuwait that’s been made in Indonesia.”, Alymamah Rashed

WA: Before you start a painting, do you amass any kind of materials that eventually figure into your paintings?

AR: When it comes to starting a painting, I would never sketch and calculate because that limits freedom. In the past, I was a heavy sketchbook user. But now, some images or questions might come to me at random points during the day, while I am driving or before bed. So, I open my iPhone and I draw on the notes application something very rough and quick. I would put it on canvas and expand upon it, and layer my recent observations. When it comes to inspiration, I am inspired again and again by the everyday. It could be a plate that is thrown and abandoned, or an abandoned chair in the middle of the city, which I document and include the pattern to trace it back through history. Where does it come from? Usually, they are (for example) Afghani patterns, or within Kuwait’s history, I think we come from very specific cultures. So, you have a lot of Iranian inspiration, Iraqi, Saudi, Indian and so on. Ornamentation, which is almost like an encyclopedia, is used in my work as a kind of a cultural typology. Similarly, I work through myself and I kind of voice what is within me and put it into the figures themselves, and that is why they are fluid and they are kind of unproportionate, and their sizes can be expansive. They can be leaking, they are in constant flux and movement, and sometimes I capture the figures in solidity within their transformation. It is indeed a process of assemblage and disassemblage. Also, inspiration is all around us. I am inspired by artists I love, such as Francis BaconChris Ofili—these are my two top artists that I love. In terms of ornamentation, I love Matisse, as well my mentor in Graduate school, Kamrooz Aram. He is what I would call the king of ornamentation. As I mentioned earlier, I am also a big reader of Islamic philosophy, which I draw inspiration from. Additionally, I observe how our culture in Kuwait is influenced by the West. For example, the urban typology of Kuwait was done by a British architectural firm in the 1940s. So, looking upon all of these observations and condensing them within me, I have this trust that I can perform one gesture containing all of my observations and they will leak onto my canvas. It took me a while to build an understanding where I would be fluid, have the trust, and the knowledge that I have attained (and will keep attaining) will always be a vessel within me.

“Studio State on Friday, November 13, 2020 at 3:19 PM”, 
Alymamah Rashed, 2020.


WA: What is your creative process in the studio? Do you have any specific routines or rituals?

AR: First of all, I like to build my own canvases, prime them myself. This is the first step that brings you into work automatically, as you are preparing the canvas. Also, I never buy a pre-stretched canvas, which to me is like buying a fake plastic thing. My studio is at home, which is a great benefit. I often have my Mom or my Dad come over to my studio, their presence brings a sense of ease and comfort to me during the making of a canvas or a painting. Also, my studio became a common working space not only for me, but also my Dad. He would be writing in the background, or taking an important call. Another thing that is important to me is coffee. I am a big coffee head, and I like to prep my coffee and take my time. With regard to starting the first gesture of painting, I always automatically think of colour at first and I test it through fluid layers. I work with oil paint, so I thin out the paint, start drawing that first layer, and the image will come out automatically. I believe that the image was harboured within me, but it came into realisation because the trust that was embedded in me has been carried from me, to the brush, to the canvas. The trust is truly the motor that drives me into painting. Another thing about my studio, I am a messy worker, not a tidy painter. My paint is all over the place, I shift the canvas from the wall to the floor, to control the layers and the fluidity. Also, it is important for me to listen to topics within the field of my research, whether a podcast or a reading. They all feed into that continuum or that energy in my studio.

I Am Short On Time B̶u̶t̶ ̶H̶e̶r̶e̶’̶s̶ ̶M̶y̶ ̶U̶n̶s̶e̶t̶t̶l̶e̶d̶ ̶P̶r̶i̶d̶e̶ (Forfiet), 2020 
– (Triptych Series; 38 x 83 inches each, oil on canvas).


WA: The image of the extended, stretched, and pulled body is recurrent in your work. Why is that?

AR: Growing up, I was very self-conscious about my body as a woman. As women, we might have discolouration, hyperpigmentation, chickenpox spots, and stretch marks. Whatever I experienced in terms of complications, such as hormonal imbalancement, I always felt like there was something wrong with me, because when we would sit in gatherings, we would present the most polished image of ourselves. But we wouldn’t talk about our journey to accepting our body and embracing this reality. Navigating this was a struggle, because sometimes I was at a point in my life where I wanted to step out of my body and go into another one and segregate myself from birth a new idea. With time and maturity, I have healed myself, especially when I started painting figures. Also, I started thinking: What if every passing thought that we have on a daily basis, was a body? That kind of constructs itself, deconstructs itself, and births itself. How many bodies would we have per day? It is something that I started thinking, yet it is all stemming from the same source, which is yourself as the main body.

WA: In your paintings, where does the third body, the Muslima Cyborg, reside?

AR: In my earlier work, I would reference memories and sightings and translate them through ornamentation. I wouldn’t cite an entire space onto my canvas, but moments and snippets. I was trying to figure out that there is a third body, meaning that the third body resides in a third place, or in a third spatial typology. This is when I started researching the idea from an Islamic perspective: What does Islam say about that? Then, I found out about Barzakh, which is the space that lies in between earth and the afterlife, or the seven skies. I was very curious about that, because again it is coming out of belief, which is not tangible, or witnessed. Therefore, I started to theorise and ask questions such as, “What is the colour of Barzakh? What is the space of Barzakh? What does it look like? How would the body move over there? Is there gravity? So, I took that concept and I webbed it into my figures. They are not necessarily residing in Barzakh, but in a space that lies between that distortion of time; between the past and the present, or the present and the future. It is a space of liminality in a way, and it is like gravity, changing all the time. Sometimes, things leak, or stay static and solid.  It is almost like getting a camera, and then changing the shutter speed; sometimes you are in the same space, but you experience different sensations, or you evoke different sensations in a way. All of that was triggered by the idea of Barzakh, and all the theories. Such research has been proposed by many Muslim scholars, and also within other faiths. So, I have always been curious about work from Islamic philosophy because it is a free space of theorising, and I am a theoriser. I love to ask questions rather than find the solution or answers.

“Detail shot of the completed untitled work.”, Alymamah Rashed, 2020.

WA: What do you wish to convey through your work? Would you say it is autobiographical?

AR: I am painting myself, one hundred percent, and then speaking about my healing journey, my trauma, my survival, my emotions and everything else. Through that, I would like to connect with other women and their stories, as well as have them embed their stories within my own narrative. I want to voice out that reality, our struggles, even when it is something in relation to our flesh and our body. During my Bachelor’s, I was drawing figures that I called genderless beings. But, in reality, I was painting myself, not the physical body, but the spirit. I am always trying to embody the spirit, and layer it with intangible perceptions that were projected upon myself, by myself, in relation to my body. By condensing that as a new body – that is why they are kind of stretched, fluid, and expansive. They would shrink, and then there is a hint of violence sometimes in my work, or signs of scars. It is a process of speaking explicitly about healing, wounding yourself through your own gaze and perception to make that into a physical bruise. Taking that toxic gaze that was coming from you, and making it into physical evidence. It really is a time capsule as well, you are in the present talking about the past, but you are establishing this third body that is kind of the future of the work. So, it distorts time in an interesting way for me, and that is why I enjoy painting so much. Because it is a distortion of time.

Images courtesy of Alymamah Rashed, 2020.


By Wadha Al-Aqeedi 

Wadha Al-Aqeedi is the co-founder of Mathqaf, curator and art historian, based between Doha and Paris. From 2016 until 2020, she worked at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha as an Assistant Curator. Presently, she is a PhD candidate at Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Her research interests include performance and media art, cultural history and policy of the Gulf region. In her doctoral research, she investigates how performance art has emerged as an artistic language that carries out discourses that relate to society and contemporary issues, from and within the Arab world.

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