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.”
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.
“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.
“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?”