"Exposing identity is important because it is the foundation of a story": Amani AlThuwaini, artist
25 jan 2017 by Brooke Eastman
In this interview, art:i:curate artist Amani AlThuwaini discusses her works, focusing on issues of identity, memory and tradition. Being half Kuwaiti, half Ukrainian, identity and memory have always been the driving force behind Amani’s work. She explores these themes, as well as socio-political issues relevant to Kuwait through mixed media, painting, video and installation.
B.E. What are you currently working on?
A.A. I am currently making a body of work that directly relates to the topic of marriage. It is based on a research, a collection of stories and personal observations on how marriage is changing throughout the years, exploring the traditions and processes that come with it and the difference between arranged marriage and marriage based on a relationship in our society.
B.E. Where do you find inspiration for your work?
A.A. My work is often inspired by people, more specifically, stories and narratives. Social structures, behaviours and relationships. But when I actually think of it, I realise that it is also a reflection of myself, usually something that I went through. There's always the personal within what inspires me in people.
Amani Al Thuwaini, He's not your choice, digital embroidery on wedding veils, 2016.
B.E. You cite identity as a driving force in your practice, could you tell me more about how this concept manifests itself in your work?
A.A. As a person from two different backgrounds: one in Kuwait and one in Ukraine, I often find influences from both sides trying to take over. My childhood and early memories are strongly connected to Ukraine, specifically Kharkiv where I was born and had my first education. My childhood in Ukraine was filled with emotions, spontaneity and simple life pleasures. Then growing up in Kuwait, I found myself face to face with logical thinking, structures and rules in relation to religion, family bonding and traditions. The two sides represent my identity-- who I am and what I am-- and they manifest themselves in my work showing how I embraced both sides: the emotional and the logical. Sometimes, there's a struggle and a fight between them.
In my latest exhibition "Unveiling marriage", my works were a result of reflections on the way I got married, and how my identity influenced it. I didn't have an arranged marriage like many of my married friends -- I met my husband through work and got the chance to know him before we went through the "traditional" marriage proposal process. This was me, taking both sides of my identity. This is how it started. Identity also inspires my work not only in this personal sense, but also people's identities and the stories that come with that. An example on identity manifests in my work is "Displaced convention", which shows how people's identities show through the level of their feet. This shows their social and economic status, and it also shows a hierarchy from a wealthy business owner to a construction labourer. Exposing identity is very important for me because it is the foundation of a story.
B.E. How do you personally relate to the subject of memory?
A.A. For some reason, it takes me a while to reflect and look back at things. I relive a lot of moments that happen in my life through memories in solitude. For example, I made a lot of works from the "Grief" series, about the death of my father due to brain cancer, two years after his death. My father actually died in front of me while I was holding his head in my arms in the ambulance car. When I realised that he died while we were on our way to the hospital, I was blessed with an unbelievable calmness that I still don't understand. It took me a while to realise that this actually happened. In his last days, when he lost his ability to speak, we started communicating through pressing each other's hands. I relived that moment through the installation "To speak without words" that I made last year. The installation was a very cold, dark room, with liles on the floor and a projection of two people pressing hands. My father loved lilies-- he used to bring them home every few weeks from his flower shop and the house would smell like that for a long time. In symbolism, lilies represent death. This, I think, is a piece that remade a memory.
Amani AlThuwaini, Fragments of her, screen print on paper, 2015.
B.E. How has your exploration of memory developed throughout your career?
A.A. Architecture school definitely had an influence on my art career. Research and analysis is something that drives the work. Research, field work and talking to people became crucial in the making of my artwork. I also became a planner with my artwork. I construct stuff, even paintings. It also influenced the scale of my work, I am now slowly finding my way through making artwork that communicates with the surrounding space and with human scale. Attending Goldsmiths and Prague's Academy of Art, Architecture and Design also were also big influencers of how my work developed, both in terms of cricitcal thinking and craft. Because a lot of my works are context speciffic, talking about it with amazing creatives from different parts of the world really taught me what my work communicates and how it's viewed differently in various contexts. I learned that finding a way to relate to multiple contexts is important.
B.E. You had an exhibtion at Goldsmiths this year on the subject of marriage in Kuwait. How did this project emerge?
A.A. Being the first child and first grandchild in the family, I never saw anyone before me going through the process of marriage in Kuwait. My mother did not know because she's from the Ukraine. I did not know how things go and what I was supposed to do. I slowly realised how it works: woman's proposal; man's proposal; engagement period; receiving a dowry; signing the marriage [contract]; pre-wedding period; and then the wedding. All those include certain social norms, customs and behaviours that I have to understand. After going through all of those, I started questioning those traditions: where they came from; how they develped and changed throughout the years; and what it will become in the future. There's a lot of resistance towards them from younger generations. I started observing things that I never paid attention to and collecting stories about marriage and marriage traditions from friends, relatives and sometimes strangers in the hospital waiting room.
Amani AlThuwaini, Bride and Groom, silkscreen print, 2016.
B.E. You were also in Kuwait that summer doing research and a residency. Tell me about your experiences there.
A.A. I had a two-week residence at a place called Almakan in Kuwait City. The space was amazing because it is actually in a restaurant/cafe. The important thing for me was that I got the chance to speak to the general public who mostly know nothing about contemporary art. They'd see me working on my paintings and installation in the space and come in to talk about what I'm doing. I did surveys about marriage in Kuwait, asking people whether they prefer arranged marriage or marriage based on a relationship. Most people wanted the freedom to know the person first through relationships. I also collected stories and asked people what they would change about marriage in Kuwait. Something that was mentioned in most of the surveys, was the material side of marriage. I also did some research into the making of marriage-- the labor that goes into weddings and dowry gift boxes. It was definitely amazing to be there during the summer and be able to use this data for my thesis at Goldsmiths next year.
B.E. That sounds like an incredible experience. How are you now expanding on the information you gathered during your stay?
A.A. What I'm currently doing is a deconstruction of marriage in Kuwait, breaking it into pieces, trying to make sense of it and dividing it into smaller parts that one can absorb. This will hopefully come together in my MFA graduation show next year, which will be based on my finding from this summer. I am very excited to be able to use this data now to make new work that communicates all the struggles, emotions and complexities of marriage as a social structure in Kuwait. It is important for me to communicate the personal and intimate to a larger audience in a way that they can relate to it, even if it's in a different context.
Amani AlThuwaini was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine in 1989. She holds a MFA degree from Goldsmiths, University of London (2016) and a BA in Architecture, College of Architecture, Kuwait University, Kuwait (2013). She was an artist-in-residence at "Out of Kuwait", led by David Rayson, Contemporary Art Platform (CAP), Kuwait (2013). Amani's works have been exhibited in group shows including 'Peace One Day exhibition', Contemporary Art Platform (Kuwait, 2014); 'Out of Kuwait exhibition', Edge of Arabia (London 2013); 'Peace One Day exhibition', Contemporary Art Platform (Kuwait 2012); and 'Slippery surface' at Hartslane Studios in London.