Shurooq Amin, "My Harem in Heaven"

Shurooq Amin, “My Harem in Heaven” (nd) (all images courtesy the artist)

KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait — On the evening of March 5, contemporary Kuwaiti artist Shurooq Amin opened her anticipated solo exhibition in Kuwait’s Al M. Gallery. A large crowd of people was in attendance, and many pieces were sold immediately after the doors opened at 8 pm. But by 10 pm local police ordered the exhibition closed and started questioning the artist and gallery owner on-site.

The police had received complaints that the artwork was of a “pornographic” nature and unsuitable to be shown in Kuwait. More investigators arrived and started taking photos of the paintings with their phones, sending them to the Ministry of Interior Affairs and the Ministry of Commerce. In the end, all the paintings were removed and the exhibition was shut down. “This act of invasion of privacy and freedom of expression is unconstitutional. They did not even have a warrant,” Amin wrote in an email to Hyperallergic. “We don’t know who complained, but we are working on finding out.”

Shurooq Amin, "Diwanya"

Shurooq Amin, “Diwanya” (nd)

The series in question, titled It’s a Man’s World, explores the position of the Arabian man in society. The paintings depict men in various situations, some more negative than others, but they’re in no way pornographic; suggestive for sure, but that’s it. However, being from that part of the world, I can understand how easily men there would be offended when seeing their reflection in a mirror made visible to the outside world.

Men in the Middle East (and around the world) have believed throughout the centuries that they can get away with smoking shisha, playing cards and drinking Johnnie Walker Red while women of their choice strut around waiting for them. It may sound like a total fantasy, but it’s not. Many of them are able to get away with such behavior. Amin brings this situation to light, and ironically, it turns out that some men dislike the attention, at least when it’s directed towards outing their reality.

Shurooq Amin, "His Dilemma"

Shurooq Amin, “His Dilemma” (nd)

“I have a role to play in my society, especially in light of the repression we are seeing from the new fundamentalist parliament,” the artist said, reflecting on the political situation in Kuwait and the increased conservatism in the region. “Kuwait used to be the ‘pearl’ of the Arabian Gulf, now it’s regressing to the dark ages. If all I can do to challenge this oppression to freedom of expression is create and exhibit artworks that push the envelope and ruffle a few feathers, then I will. They can’t stop me from doing that. The constitution of Kuwait protects me. This is why the new parliament wants to get rid of the constitution and put shari’a law instead, because it will suit their purposes. Because they can use it as an excuse to kill the art movement, to kill all forms of free thinking.”

Born in Kuwait in 1967, Amin is half Kuwaiti and half Syrian. She has been painting for over eighteen years, and her work has been displayed in various galleries around the world, from London and Cairo to New York and Sweden. The day the Al M. exhibition was shut down, Kuwaitis on Twitter started the hashtag #PaintToFreedom, which went viral in the region.

Shurooq Amin, "Hedonism"

Shurooq Amin, “Hedonism” (nd)

“It starts with closing down my exhibition, and then they will take it as far as monitoring our clothes and then to illogical laws telling us we cannot Botox without permission or travel without a man (the latter is still the case in neighboring Saudi Arabia),” Amin added. “Really? Do we not have far more pressing issues to deal with, such as a bad health care system, poor education system, and lack of economic growth? Is the most vital thing in the nation now a few controversial paintings?”

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Adnan Z. Manjal

Adnan has been working in the art scene in Saudi Arabia for many years; he freelances for print and online publications. Most recently he co-wrote Contemporary Kingdom: The Saudi Art Scene Now (published...

14 replies on “Kuwaiti Censors Shut Down Art Show Because of Complaints”

  1. Unconstitutionality issues notwithstanding, it’s just bad, dare I say, vulgar art! No depth, no story, nothing but single-dimensional brand promotion. The main question should be why is this work in an exhibition to begin with? The artist is depicting all that’s forbidden in islam…? and…? Curators of this show should spend a little more time and effort on cultivating real talent in Kuwait (or wherever) and not show the first pseudo-controversial canvas they find.

          1. people protested the crassness of the work more than religious compliance issues. I agree on the censorship issues, but last I checked Kuwait was a Muslim country and with a vast majority of the population adhering to the canons of that religion they had every right to find the subject matter offensive. Had the artist been a bit more skillful at communicating these same concepts through a better developed language, this could not have had the same results. If you remember Guiliani also protested the Ofili painting at the Brooklyn Museum and the National gallery in DC removed a video installation after some fundamental Christian religious groups voiced their objections. Wrong? Yes! But in my opinion, the curators knew of the impending backlash and displayed this mediocre work solely for publicity purposes. This was nothing more than a publicity stunt and they achieved their goal!

          2. I think it’s more complicated than that and unless you have more information about the case than we do that’s not a fair but a cynical assessment.

            Many of these artists are educated outside Kuwait and return to find the society less open than Beirut, Cairo or elsewhere (it’s not all Muslim countries that have problems, as you can see). This exhibit would not have been controversial in either of those places, and probably not in Baghdad, Damascus or Amman either (again, all countries dominated by a Muslim and Arab population).

            The case of the Brooklyn Museum and National Portrait Gallery shows is very different since they are at public institutions, while this is a private gallery. When a government sweeps in to censor a private gallery that is indeed more worrisome.

          3. Sorry, but the Brooklyn Museum is NOT a publicly owned museum.  NYC owns the building, but the Museum is a non-profit organization over which the City has no control.  There is an operating agreement about the building between the City and the Museum.  This distinction between “public” and “private” is not only a mis-understanding, but very, very dangerous.  It is precisely because the Supreme Court has held that public funding does not and cannot equal censorship, that we can have public funding without censoring in this country.  As for Rudy and his censorship efforts, it was constant throughout his eight years as mayor.  22 cases/he lost 21.5 of them.  Slow learner!

          4. You’re right, I should have clearer about the distinction, but the Brooklyn Museum does get public funds in various ways (including payment of utility bills, etc.). It is not public but as a nonprofit with a public mission it’s not perceived as private either.

          5. Actually, they get all their energy costs paid by the City as do 33 cultural groups in city owned buildings. However, several hundred cultural groups in NYC also receive public dollars from the City. Just not for energy. We consider MoMa, the Whitney, Roundabout Theatre, Alvin Ailey Dance, etc. none of which are one of the 33, to have a public mission. So also does IRS and NYS. That public responsibility is very important. I see all of the non-profit cultural groups as providing a public space in which we have an opportunity to experience, learn, and debate every aspect of life. Each will carry out that role differently, and some will do better than others, but that common space is essential to a society.

            We are very wary of the attempts to make this public/private distinction since that is exactly the basis on which Rudy brought his lawsuit. It has also been major part of the reasoning behind most attempts by government to censor. They take the line “We pay for it, therefore we can say what they do.” Courts say otherwise, and for those us involved in these battles, it is a real distinction with serious consequences. I don’t mean to suggest that you take it lightly, but rather to explain my strong reaction.

          6. Sorry, I am the Chair of a citywide coalition in NYC that deals with public policy, public funding, and have been writing in that role to members (arts groups) for past two days trying to explain the City budget hearing that took place a few days ago, and forgot to write only for myself. However, in the Brooklyn Museum situation, the coalition I direct filed an amicus brief and worked closely with several other groups doing the same, as well as numerous elected officials who opposed Rudy’s suit, so there was a lot of discussion among dozens of groups and individuals. I also worked closely with many groups on the NEA censorship issues in the early ’90s, both local and across the country, and coordinated a lot of the work done with non-arts entities, such as the ACLU and People for the American Way. The “we” is misplaced in that I have not talked to any of them today on this specific situation, but censorship is an issue to which I, and those who are members of the coalition I manage, have paid close attention for years. The “we” was inappropriate, but based on several decades of daily contact and relationships.

    1. Hi, Sycomore Ch. I have curated that ehibition. There is nothing related to the religion in those artworks. It was about lifestyle of certain people. If the reflection in the mirror is vulgar, it’s not a problem of the mirror. Is it right solution to break a mirror, or cover it ? Exhibition’s goal was to discuss. Thank you for your advice about searching real talents. I know Shurooq for many years and familiar with her art as with many other renowned Kuwaiti artists the Gallery currently represents.

    1. I don’t think it’s the artist’s “role” to do anything but make art. Even so, the artist, if a battle against convention is crucial, should choose the battles realistically and judiciously. In societies such as rigid, misogynist Islam or the now defunct totalitarian Soviet Union, the dissident artist might be censored or punished. China, where American artists are falling all over themselves to show, beat its own Ai Wei Wei to within inches of his life, threw him in prison and bulldozed his studio. As brave as he is, it seems his art work is not the issue with his oppressive government but rather his voice with its international range.

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