Young artists push boundaries on sensitive topics in Kuwait

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A new generation of Kuwaiti artists are highlighting social and political taboos in their artworks, hoping to raise awareness on the issues faced by people in Kuwait and the surrounding regions.

With its generous welfare state policies and a parliamentary system that allows democratically elected representatives, Kuwait has managed to avoid social and political upheavals witnessed in Arab Spring countries over the past few years.

However, like most of its neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, Kuwait remains a conservative society bounded by its traditional and social values. And young Kuwaitis are turning to art as their preferred medium of expression for issues that confront the oil rich country.

Graphic designer Mohammad Sharaf, who incorporates humor into his work that reflects regional political issues, has won recognition at several competitions and been published locally and internationally. But he says his style is mostly influenced by foreign artists such as Swiss graphic designers Emil Ruder and Armin Hofmann, Iran’s Reza Abedini, and international art movements.

“In Kuwait, we don’t have schools that teach new art methods such as graphic design. Also, because we don’t have many schools that teach this kind of art, people lack the knowledge and the understanding of modern art and the various skills involved in it. There is some encouragement, but it is still very limited and it is not up to the level I see in other foreign countries. Even in Saudi Arabia where people don’t expect to see progress in art, I see that young Saudi artists are doing very well and their work is even as good as artists in the United States, Europe and other places,” said Sharaf.

His artistic takes on current events in the region have generated buzz in Kuwait, including one artwork that represents Saudi women’s new-found freedom to cycle for leisure.

“All I did was that I depicted a Saudi woman riding a bike, and instead of putting a child in the back seat, which is the norm, I put the Muharram [male relative] that they asked for. The idea behind this aims to reflect that a Saudi woman could now ride a bike only when accompanied by a Muharram, it also shows that her journey is not only for transportation purposes but for leisure and fun,” he explained.

One of Sharaf’s designs depicts a chair accompanied by text definition.

“The idea from this piece represents how [Egyptian] President Mohamed Mursi issued a decision, or decided to be above the constitution and how he can possibly cancel any other decision. So the entire subject focuses on Mohamed Mursi and how he is being represented by the presidential seat,” said Sharaf.

“Boundaries”, an art and fashion exhibition by conceptual designer Abdullah AlSaab, is a creative experiment for his exclusive designer label clothing line. AlSaab says the collection is an attempt to inject “hope” into the society.

“Black is the new reality. But if you noticed, I have a white cloth for both men and women among my clothing collection. I called it “The Pick of Hope,” it represents that we need one man or one woman who can change the future, make it brighter and bring hope to it,” he explained.

AlSaab says he’s encouraged by Kuwait’s gradual acceptance of fashion and wants to bring Kuwaiti couture to the global stage.

“The fashion industry is developing in Kuwait and it is being taken into consideration, and it’s a beautiful thing that people in Kuwait are starting to consider it,” he said.

“This is a small boom, it is growing but it needs time and attention, and hopefully it won’t take much time because such talents shouldn’t be suppressed. It’s nice to see them prosper and have the government and the society’s support. We want the entire society to start accepting this art, because we aim to put the name of our country at high levels, and not hold it back,” added AlSaab.

Freedom of expression is not always encouraged in Kuwait. In April a prominent Kuwaiti opposition politician was sentenced to five years in jail for insulting the country’s ruler, his lawyer said.