Aysha Almoayyed (b. 1988) is a Bahraini artist living and working in Paris. Her artistic practice spans painting, sculpture, drawing, digital media, photography, and installation. In fact, her medium is everything within her reach. Inherently experimental, her work explores and reveals the hidden microcosms of the Middle East in pursuit of countering limitations in expression. Before obtaining her MFA at Goldsmiths University in London, Almoayyed studied Business at Bentley University in Massachusetts. She exhibited her work regionally and internationally in Manama, Dubai, Paris, London, and Hangzhou.
Wadha Al-Aqeedi: Hello Aysha! Can you introduce yourself and what do you do?
Aysha Almoayyed: I’m Aysha Fareed Almoayyed, I am a visual artist who plays with everything. I have some repeating ideas and motifs, but they take all forms. I’m currently playing around with faience tiles.
WA: Can you take us back to when and how it all started. How did you become interested in art and decided to pursue it academically and professionally?
AM: I took an unconventional route. I went to business school for four years, graduated and started working in a bank as a Market Risk Analyst. If you don’t know this job, it’s pretty fucking boring. I don’t mean to be rude, but it is repetitive; many banks now have a program that does the job. So, in a way, I was the first to become obsolete by AI (Artificial Intelligence). I quickly realized that the job wasn’t for me and found myself painting again. Before I quit, I worked on a portfolio to submit to Goldsmiths. When I completed it, I submitted my resignation letter. It was beautifully crafted using Windows 2000 Paint Program. My boss congratulated me when I resigned, he told me art was a good idea.
I was utterly naive to think I was ready for an MFA. It was also like throwing a child in the deep end of a swimming pool. But I floated, then eventually swam. I spent the first three months of school just writing down words and names that I didn’t know. I remember it took me a while to realize that Kant was a philosopher and not a negation. Thankfully most of my professors thought my lack of art washing was refreshing. I eventually gained a little confidence and began using the great environment and resources to produce work. It was a great two years, and I learned a hell of a lot. In my last year, I asked the professor why I got into the program with obviously little experience. He said I had a strong portfolio and strong ideas. It’s nice to know that they don’t discriminate based on your educational background.
WA: Did you have any sources of inspiration or influences before pursuing your MFA?
AM: I was pissed. I worked near the Souq, and I dealt with a lot of harassment. So, my entrance portfolio was filled with anthropomorphic nudes with animal heads holding weapons. Lol. I just felt so disrespected and degraded compared to my male colleagues that breezed through the day without so effortlessly. As for the artists that influenced me, I was very interested in the YBAs (Young British Artists) at the time. That’s why I applied to Goldsmiths.
My grandmother is an artist as well. She mainly painted pictures of water wells, which are now non-existent or dried. Her process of painting these wells was through just her memory of them. She took photos of the dried-up wells in the ’90s and then oil painted them back to life. Many people don’t know this about her work. They think she’s a landscape artist. But there was a little more to the process than that.
WA: How did your art evolve from entering the MFA programme, graduating to now?
AM: Looking back now, it seems that the portfolio I submitted was full of anger and frustration – not honed yet. My art was a way to express my frustration about gender inequality and harassment in the Gulf.
When I was in the program, I learned to not be so reactive with my feelings or, more so, not channel anger into the work. I started to be a little bit more inquisitive with my emotions and with the world around me. I had the space to do so. I was also exposed to more art than before the program, so I started to learn how other artists comment and express themselves. I think I’ve adopted the things I liked from them.
After Goldsmiths, one big thing changed. The studio and the workshops were no longer easily accessible. At Goldsmiths, I could create anything I wanted with the help and guidance of skilled professionals. Now I had to find those workshops, build relationships with the individuals that ran it, hope that we can work something out where I can play around with their expensive equipment. So yeah, my work started to be whatever I could find at the time. This is nice because it kind of gave me a random group of media to work with.
WA: Can you tell me more about the Conformity project?
AM: Oh, yeah, the conformity project. That started when I left painting and started casting. I was exploring manipulating the form, deformity… which led to conformity. Car crashes, roadkill, obesity, bodybuilding, or even something as simple as a crumpled paper. Anything that manipulates the form. I realized I had a personal relationship with it – and the work took off from there. At first, I really wanted to put a dead Arabian horse into a box, condense it, then somehow cast whatever is in that box. That was the idea that I had. So, I needed to find out the process. So, I thought, “okay, start small”.
So I bought rats for testing, took Tiffany’s jewellery box I had and put it inside. I had the idea to freeze the box to solidify the animal inside long enough to cast it. It worked! But I didn’t want to move away from them – the rats were the perfect subjects; their bodies were so mailable, and the rats were deceivingly not rats anymore. I started to sympathize with the issue – it mirrored me. I thought about my own struggles with conformity and how it’s taught and sort of grown into the foundations of our society. That’s how the work incubation came to be. Against the advice of everyone, I submitted it to the Bahrain Annual Fine Art Exhibition. I also didn’t have anything else to submit – but surprisingly, it won first place. It’s a very conventional prize. Usually, paintings win. So, a bunch of rat blocks winning was a shock.
WA: That’s a perfect transition to my next question, which is: When you work in your studio, do you amass any research materials before you produce new work, or do you just follow your instinct? I would love to know more about your process.
AM: I am a hoarder when it comes to art-making. So, whenever I work, I have to hoard a collection of materials, books, printouts, and I just keep them around. Sometimes they turn into something, and other times they don’t. But my studio is always a fucking mess. Yet, some sort of organization goes on in my mind that I’m not aware of. But yeah, there’s a lot of things on the walls and a lot of books. There’s no use in planning because I’m exploring. I can’t plan where something is going to take me. I just must be opened to going there. No resistance or explanations are needed. I like to work on multiple projects at the same time. I try not to overthink my actions.
WA: I would like to know about your choice of medium. I’m curious about what medium are you working with now and what theme are you pursuing in your work? Is it always the same theme, or does it evolve?
AM: I think it evolved based on events and some stuff I go through. But, the ideas are sort of the same, but a little evolution with every project.
In the beginning, I didn’t understand why I kept coming back to some of them. Until I started to understand how other artists work and their processes. For many authors and artists, a recurring theme is a way for them to process the trauma they went through. It takes a few years, sometimes a lifetime, to just even come to terms with that. For me, some of the imagery that’s recurring in my work is just me trying to figure things out. Feel, process, and accept.
WA: Is there a backstory to the car crashes in your paintings? Is it based on a real-life situation?
AM: It was a mix of both, to be honest. I found myself drawn to car crashes on the side of the roads in Middle Eastern countries. Especially in Bahrain, if you’re driving around, you will usually see a car wreck on the side of the road that hasn’t been picked up by the scrapyard yet. I just had such a fascination. I would just stop next to them and just stare, and for lots of reasons. The form itself is fascinating, just to see how this strong and heavy material is just being crushed by an impact. Its trauma being so visible, head-on collision. And, of course, you can’t help but think about the deformed bodies or the lives lost in the making of this sculpture. I started to take pictures of them and then seek them out and go to scrap yards and find them there. I would describe it as a graveyard, where all our things go to die, and there are scrap yards for cars and electronic machinery. That made me realize the sort of ecology of our environments and where we’re all going. I started to see the symbolism behind the car as an object in our society and its public and private space. It’s one of the only places that an individual living in the Gulf can go to express themselves beyond the clan identity. But, I have also been in a few car accidents before. I blame my undiagnosed ADD. I daydream a lot. Bad for driving, but good for my art-ing.
WA: That is very true, and I completely relate to that point about how a car becomes your own property that lives between the two boundaries of private and public. I’m curious about what has inspired you to change the direction of your work, shifting into what you’re working on at the moment. Apart from the Car Crashes series, what are your most recent projects and the themes you’re pursuing?
AM: I guess it’s just life and being exposed to different things. I’ve been crafting recently, and I’m really enjoying it. I also always loved Greyson Perrys and his work! Recently went to Portugal and was mesmerized by the Azulejo tiles on the buildings. I thought, “that looks fun”. Do you know what I mean? Something as simple as just projecting yourself onto something. Obviously, my human curiosity was like, “How is this made? What’s the history behind this sort of thing?”. The more I learned about it, the more I started to build the project. The Spanish and the Portuguese took their methods from Islamic art. Still, they used iconographic figures, battles, nature and other scenes. I started to read about what events are valid and who commissioned these works. It is usually a church or a nobleman who commissioned these tiles from artists. They sometimes made them to educate the public about their religious figures through art. There are other humorous scenes, such as the wedding of the chicken, which I believe has something to do with another monarch being wed and they just didn’t like that monarch. So, as you can see, nothing has changed in the art world.
But what’s cool about that is that you can very clearly see what life was like back then, what made them laugh, what they were doing, unlike Islamic art, which is mainly geometrical. I felt that was a little bit missing from our history in Islamic art because we weren’t allowed to depict images of people and figures. So, I was thinking: “what if I made tiles about today?”. Something super basic that occured today. When you watch a vintage film, you find it interesting, just because the basics become interesting. You’re like, “Oh, they stopped using this, or that’s politically incorrect now”. So I sort of wanted to make a few basic tiles about how we are living today and sort of dreamscapes. Whatever it is, I have a few ideas so far. One does involve a car crash haha.
WA: Can you tell me about the process behind making these tiles? How would you go about it in your studio?
AM: I have never worked with tiles before. But again, that is why I want to go into this. Funny enough, my mom told me she works with ceramics. I took that as a sign that I’m heading in the right direction. I have worked with ceramics before, and I guess the process is quite similar, but not exactly. In short, it’s a lot of failing and trying again.
WA: How do you envision the final result?
AM: I couldn’t say, I have to start the project and see where it takes me. For now, I see a room covered in tiles from ceiling to floor.
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.