#ArtPowerWomen is back! For the month of September, we are delighted to introduce you to Ebtisam Abdulaziz, a multidisciplinary artist and writer. Reflecting her Bachelor’s Degree in Science & Mathematics, Abdulaziz incorporates her unique perspective on mathematics and the structures of systems to explore issues of identity and culture through installations, performance pieces and works on paper.
With impressive accolades such as appearing on the top 100 powerful Arab women list, her work has also been show at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the inaugural UAE and ADACH Pavilions at 53rd Venice Biennale.
It was our privilege to chat with Ebtisam to discuss her powerful art, living in UAE and how her mathematics degree influences her work. Be sure to check out her work on Curatious.
AZ: You grew up in Dubai, and you are one of six, talk to us about your family dynamic and how that influenced your pursuit to become an artist? Where and how did you find your creativity and passion for art?
EA: I think I was born as an artist. I was a little different from my brothers and sisters. I always liked being alone and drew and painted continuously. My father encouraged me in that he used to travel a lot for his job and he made sure I received different and unique gifts. He would always bring me coloring books, books to read, and art supplies. My parents noticed that I had a talent. My father was an artist, he used to make beautiful drawings, paintings and calligraphy. I grew up in a very artistic environment, my parents loved beauty. My dad had a big old home cinema projector, we are talking about 1977, and that was very rare. My mother had a beautiful voice, she sang all the time. She has a great taste for furniture and clothes, she was very fashionable. After finishing school, she thought about studying art. However, at that time there were no art schools in the Emirates and the Gulf region. She has always loved numbers and calculations, so she decided to study mathematics.
AZ: You mentioned at a young age, you were “curating with your hands.” Can you elaborate on that?
EA: That is a very long story that might need an entire book, but I’ll try to cut it short. In the beginning, I did not see myself as an artist; when I started to create artworks I created my own world, and I felt that this world was mine and that no one else could see it. Ever since I was little, I produced works, but I did not know it was art. I was a very little girl when I came up with a work of art. When I was five or six years old I started drawing, and I remember that I used to draw for hours to the point my parents searched all around the house for me, and I had been drawing in the living room for long hours without paying attention to the time.
I even made my own dolls, I never liked Barbies, and I didn’t want to have the same doll as everyone including my other 3 sister, so when my parents got me one, I shaved their heads and challenged myself to give them different look. I would make their new hair out of cotton fabric and change their hair color every time, I would make them new clothes… etc.
As an artist I believe that the first thing I made of value was when I was in junior high school. It was during the summer holiday and I remember my father gave me a gift of oil pastels. I felt it was somehow a fake, tough material, but I was happy with it. It contained almost 46 colors and I was thrilled. I bought papers and started working. First, I made a landscape of trees, forests and mountains; my dad saw it and told me it was very beautiful and encouraged me to do more. Ten years later, I discovered that the painting was missing; my dad had actually taken it, framed it and given it to a friend of his who was an ambassador, and of course, I was unaware of that. For me, this was my first artwork, I was in junior high school, and the painting went to the ambassador’s house. When I remember these simple things now, I say to myself that I had exhibited my work when I was a little girl, long before I became a professional artist.
AZ: We understand your parents wanted you to get a practical education which is why you pursued a math degree in college. How does your math background impact your art, if at all?
EA: I studied mathematics not because it was my passion, but out of curiosity. I don’t regret studying mathematics, but in a way it was a coincidence which added to my experience as an artist. If I look back on those days, I can see myself heading toward the field of art. I saw myself as an artist, even back then. I remember before I made my decision to study mathematics, I looked into pursuing an arts education. I went to see the students at the UAE University; they were producing crafts, working on the loom, and sewing. I thought to myself, “No, I cannot accept this, this is not for me.” I could not accept being an artisan producing things; I believed that art was more than that. On a personal level, I really appreciate education in general because educators play a huge role in life. But when I saw this scene, I was totally convinced that this was not the art that I wanted to create. So I decided to pursue math. Mathematics is somewhat similar to my character, I mean in terms of ambiguity; I have an ambiguous character, which is somehow similar to the ambiguity, or manipulation you exercise when you solve a mathematical problem. And yes, my parents wanted me to get a practical education, so I could get a job and be independent, add to that the fact that people think that art is a hobby, not a career, at least at that time.
AZ: A lot of your work focuses on the feeling of belonging and identity. You also mentioned your hunger for learning drove you to move abroad…How has your experience been since moving to the US? What are some key differences you notice in terms of art and culture?
EA: I am currently in Washington D.C. This is my 5th year here. In the beginning, this was a new experience for me as a human and as an artist. I reached a stage in my life where I needed change. Being an artist, the works I create, alter according to the environment surrounding me as a human being. They are somehow a reaction, an expression, or a message through which I express my views on the things surrounding me.
I think that if I had stayed in the UAE, I would have produced the same things over and over again. I needed to leave, to get out of the ordinary or out of my usual place, and so I moved. Of course, the first year was the hardest one. The weather is different, the people are different, and life itself is different. I consider myself lucky because back home we have a simple life and a simple routine, while in the U.S. life goes by very quickly. The week would start and end without you knowing it. Life here is so rapid, and people can hardly catch up with it. I refused to drive a car here in the USA, even though I used to drive in the UAE. I wanted to challenge myself into taking the subway, to walk and to live a very different life from the one I used to have because I wanted to see different results in my work as an artist.
Frankly, the first year I could not create any artworks, to the point that I questioned myself, and the possibility of ever creating art again. I was skeptical about whether this was the right place for me, maybe I should just go back to the UAE. Nevertheless, I tried to read, to go out and meet people, to get to know their community and their way of thinking. The subway experience was very helpful, and it was wise not to drive around, because this made me a little more aware of the community. In the subway, you see and hear things.
By the end of that first year, I joined a residency in New York. It included accommodations and a special studio for each artist for a month. I liked the idea because the house was far from New York and its chaos as a city. The house was in an area where there were forests as well. This was something quite different from the environment of the UAE and its architecture. It was away from the city, the chaos and traffic, which was actually very nice. I was able to create artworks during this time. I got my inspiration from the things surrounding me. I got to know many artists in this residency, and began to create artworks during this period. I am very happy with this experience and the fact that I started from scratch.
AZ: You’ve got a pretty incredible resume. In 2016, the Wall Street Journal named you one of the 7 most exciting artists in the UAE, and in 2017, you showed at Abu Dhabi Guggenheim, which acquired your work. What it’s like to be so successful in one part of the world and then start over in another?
EA: I understand that some people might be surprised by my happiness with starting from scratch, but I needed to challenge myself and to feel like an unbreakable, strong woman. I managed to survive during the first year, and I’m still here after 5 years. I am still the same strong woman who challenges herself, and succeeds in her pursuits. The U.S. is characterized by freedom, and this might be the reason why it took me a year to start creating art again. I did not know what I wanted to get out of this community.
Back home we initially had to struggle to defend our work, and later we had the chance to create what we wanted. We had a lot of galleries and art schools; everything became available, but I still felt like I was somehow in a closed environment. Then, when I moved to the U.S., and I felt free. This made me think about what I could do with this vast amount of freedom. Although in the first year I could not produce any works; I actually read and wrote a lot.
I have a studio in Washington and it’s interesting: there are other artists in this building, which means that you meet people from different cultures who have other ways of thinking and distinct works. My new work tackles politics and discusses the U.S.: the place, me as a human being, the culture I came from, being a Muslim and all these things that may seem sensitive to some people in the U.S. which is to me is a challenge and encouraging at the same time. I am definitely finding my way here. I am happy that I can share my knowledge and my experience with my students. I am still looking for a good art gallery to work with me. I don’t want to be represented with just any art gallery. That is something that isn’t negotiable, it has to be a good one.
AZ: You were the first woman in the Gulf to use your body for performance. You said “I wouldn’t show my body, because that’s not me. My art is never about my body. It’s about sending a message & using my body to do that.” What types of reactions did you receive? Additionally, your work is political but gentle, is there a reason for that?
EA: The nature of my work, or my way of thinking, has changed during my stay in the U.S. Back home, I experienced certain restrictions being a female performance artist; community and family will pose certain restrictions on you as a woman, and you might have to challenge them because they think that you might use your body to produce a work of art. At the early stages of my career, those restrictions were one of the reasons that made me think about every detail before I did anything. I do not know if there are many women in the UAE who produce works of art that include performance art. But this was one of the things that made me think a lot before I produced any work that included a performance. I had to think through every detail in a way that does not cross limits, I was keen to respect all religions and societal traditions knowing that there are topics that should not be addressed.
I believe that somehow I carried all these restrictions, my community and my culture along with me to the U.S. I produce works that include performances, but I never break any of these restrictions or limitations because I will not change despite the fact that I am in the U.S. There are certain topics I did not address in my past works – one of them being freedom. The freedom of expression here allowed me to produce works about freedom and express my ideas without any fear. Perhaps in some of my past works, I had to represent my beliefs indirectly, without expressing my mind freely and clearly. But here, I feel that I can pose my ideas clearly and openly. Another topic I did not touch upon in my past work was political issues. I live in Washington D.C. where politics plays a huge role, especially with all the issues happening in the U.S. In my recent works, you will notice things I never discussed in my art before; a great transition and change have occurred in my way of thinking and in my work.
AZ: How would you describe the artistic landscape in Dubai vs Washington D.C?. How are you navigating it as an female Emirati female artist?
EA: It is totally different. We don’t have four seasons in Dubai. I walk a lot in D.C. , which is great to see things and observe my surroundings. We share the same big buildings, but the architecture is totally different.
AZ: You have a new studio, (congrats!) What are some must-haves that you keep in your studio at all times?
EA: Paint (acrylic, gouache), brushes, a video camera, photography camera, fabric, clothes for performance purposes, canvas, sketch books, books to read, rulers and pencils.
AZ: What advice would you share with young and aspiring artists? What advice would you give young, Emirati artists in particular?
EA: Go for it, think big, go crazy with your art. It is who you are, it is your way to express yourself. Be brave, read, see art as much as you can.
AZ: What is next for you?
EA: I am working on big projects for Abu Dhabi Art this year, I’m excited about producing big installation work. Working on new performance work, that will be documented in video and photographs; all discussing identity, social, justice and political issues.
AZ: How can we stay in touch? (website, Instagram, etc)