Originally from Libya, artist Arwa Abouon’s beautiful photographs, signature diptychs, and installation works have always been centred on her family and heavily influenced and inspired by her deep Islamic faith. She offers rare and precious glimpses into her life as the only daughter of Libyan parents, the younger sister to three older brothers, and an independent Muslim woman who grew up and still resides in Montreal, Canada.
The 32-year-old has never shied away from publicly sharing her highly intimate search for identity and confronting the predicament of belonging to multiple worlds at once. In her pieces, she utilizes traditional religious and Libyan icons, symbols, and motifs to address the obvious paradoxes of living both as a proud Muslim woman from an Amazigh background and a strong Western person who quite happily fits into Montreal, speaking both fluent French and English alongside broken Arabic.
Relying on autobiographical material and often featuring her family, Abouon’s bold artistic statements are confessional creations that serve as both visual interpretations and expressions of an inner state of spiritual, psychological, and emotional longing for a certain release, peace, and balance in her outer surroundings, wherever she may be.
According to Abouon:
My work results from the dynamic interactions between my personal reflections on human nature, to meet and see the world as it is and the multiple perspectives of my own gaze… The themes I address stem directly from my life experience as a female artist living and working between cultures, and yet the aim is to show how a single person’s double vision can produce images that possess much wider social effects by collapsing the racial, cultural and religious borders.
With my work, I am also investigating mechanisms at play when having and acquiring knowledge and the different shapes that this knowledge takes on as it is transferred from one generation to another.
Abouon’s previous work received positive international recognition and acclaim, especially because of her direct approach toward the Islamic faith and female gender. She has broached controversial subjects like the veil and also the beauty of Islamic rituals – such as the beginning and ending of prayer – and turned them into visual images that challenge the viewer’s perspective.
Her artwork has already been featured in many group exhibits in Canada, the United States, Europe, Asia, and Middle East. Her work was displayed as part of a group exhibition at the ZKM Museum of Contemporary Arts in 2013 in Karlsruhe, Germany. Her first solo show – titled ‘Learning By Heart’ – was held at The Third Line Gallery in Dubai from October 24-November 29, 2012.
Abouon’s solo show touchingly explored spirituality, interpersonal dynamics, and humanity’s quest to make sense of religion. Using herself, her parents, and siblings as the subject matter, she created three, separate multi-image works: ‘Mirror Mirror, Allah Allah,’ ‘Silent Sight,’ and ‘I’m Sorry, I Forgive You.’
Deconstructing ‘Mirror Mirror, Allah Allah,’ Valerie Behiery, a historian of Islamic art who has written extensively about Abouon in the Canadian Journal of Art History, commented:
As in previous work, deliberate visual simplicity and humour serve to unpack an Islam-related theme. Here the re-enactment of a famous [Western] fairy tail scene dealing with cultural expectations of female beauty recasts the sign of the veil.
Abouon, who belongs to a minority of self-confessed practising Muslim contemporary artists… explains that the work was instigated by her own relationship to the hijab and her desire to, perhaps, at some point adopt it. While the initial laughter the piece provokes diffuses the intense politics surrounding the veil, Mirror Mirror moves beyond the questions of cloth, covering and ‘Who is the most beautiful of them all’?
The ‘Mirror Mirror, Allah Allah’ diptych was so powerful it won second prize at the 26th annual Alexandra Biennale for Mediterranean Countries Award in 2014.
In this double self-portrait we see Abouon standing in front of a mirror. In one image, she wears the veil looking at her reflection in the mirror, which shows her without it. In the other image, she is standing without the veil and looking at the mirror, which shows her wearing the head covering.
With regard to ‘Mirror Mirror,’ Abouon explained in an article published in Ahram Online:
I have composed a scenario where I attempt to exercise inner and outer spirituality equally – whether veiled or unveiled, what is most important is that I see myself through God; as one of his creations.
I can give the impression that I am perhaps commenting in a politicised way but in fact I do not intend to make political artworks because my knowledge in that realm is limited and I am not a good debater – I just think that religion has the power to heal an individual, true religious practice gives birth to moderate actions in all aspects of our lives and should create a more positive society member.
The Life of Mustafa Muhammad Abouon
Abouon’s father, Mustafa Muhammad Abouon (b. 1940), who is featured in her work, including in the ‘Learning By Heart’ series, sadly passed away in 2013. Abouon’s father was an instrumental person in her life and influenced her decision to become a visual artist.
Muhammad Abouon was an avid photographer who documented much of his early life on camera and enjoyed performance art, a passion he passed on to his children. He left a proud legacy and cultural heritage for his sons and daughter. Reflecting on her father’s influence, Abouon said in an interview with Muftah:
As a child, storytelling and the visual odyssey of old photographs immersed me in a world that I was linked to but remained intangible. It was through my father’s old photos that I learned who my extended family members were before I would first meet them in Libya in 1989. He also documented us [as] children and I cherish the video and pictures we have accumulated from him in our years of growing up.
Born and raised in Tunisia, Muhammad Abouon later studied at the Université de Montréal. In the 1970s, he worked as a civil engineer and Director of Roads throughout Libya. He resigned from his position in the early 1980s because of the country’s rising political instability. According to Abouon, many of her father’s colleagues were imprisoned and some were tortured and killed.
Because Muammar Ghaddafi’s regime was recruiting young men for the army, her father feared for his two older sons’ safety. In 1983, the family immigrated to Canada. Although he was originally going to pursue a Masters in Engineering, Muhammad Abouon decided to run a travel agency instead. His wife, a geography teacher in Libya, decided to focus on raising her children full time.
‘Honolulu’ – The Land of Pearls
In a fitting tribute to her late father, Abouon’s latest body of work is dedicated to his memory. Titled ‘Honolulu’ – which translates in Arabic as ‘Land of Pearls’ – an exhibition of Abouon’s new work was held from November 11 to December 4, 2014 at the Sultan Gallery in Kuwait, in collaboration with Third Line Gallery.
Always motivated to bring personal experiences alive through multimedia works, Abouon’s resolve to contemplate even more intense spiritual matters that draw upon Islamic teachings has been strengthened by the passing of her father. In particular, in her recent work, she has turned to beliefs about the passage from life to death, how we are received into the arms of the divine creator and his angels, as well as the union of loved ones in heaven.
In reflecting on this collection, Abouon told Muftah:
My mother now comforts me when I find myself at a loss for words about this man. She says he feels my hopes and fears. Writing or speaking is not my preferred mediums and would never do justice to how I feel about him so designing this space [for the exhibition] is but a part of what I could learn from his passing.
In a more formal way, ‘Honolulu’ is about:
This land that is often described as ‘Heaven on Earth’ establishes a final meeting place where we are promised a reunion with our deceased loved ones. For some, the attainment of Paradise remains a myth, but for others it instils hope and provides motivation to redress wrongs. This show represents both the coming to terms with the landscape of the unknown and embracing its faith counterpart.
‘Honolulu’ included several works titled: The ‘P.B.U.H.’ series, ‘The Practice of Paradise,’ ‘Pathways’ series, ‘Dish-Dash Angels,’ and ‘Barefoot.’ It is intended to be a minimalist show, highlighting the design of the entire gallery space.
In terms of the exhibition’s message, Abouon told Muftah:
Each piece has its references but what I truly want to emit with this show is openness and dispersing complexities. This world has many distractions and is increasing in atrocities. I want to simply encourage people to think in this space of their loved ones, the roots of our faith and what it means to still have time here.
‘Dish Dash Angels’ elaborates on this point. The video installation shows waving fabrics in the wind to hint at the presence of guardian angels revealing the direction to heaven’s gate.
Explaining this piece, Abouon said:
In particular, the Angel Mikaael is he who is responsible for directing the rain and winds according to the will of God. These garments symbolise the committed presence of Angels and encourages the viewer to meditate on the notion that the divine manifests around us at all times.
‘The Practice of Paradise’ addresses something entirely different. It is a series of portraits that depict the etiquette of smiling and laughing whilst wearing prayer attire. The work raises the issue of improving one’s internal state by releasing all constrictive self-discipline. The idea is that faith can be warm-hearted and flexible. The smile belies the need for constant, strict discipline and reinforces the fact that religion does not have to be serious all the time. Instead of being pedantic, one is allowed to engage with the external world, in order to achieve a harmonious dialogue with the external world.
The ‘P.B.U.H.’ series wishes peace upon Prophet Muhammad, bringing together various transliterations of the phrase “Peace Be Upon Him” used by Muslims in North Africa, Asia, and in the Middle East when mentioning the Prophet’s name.
The ‘Pathways’ series tackles the Islamic precept that there be no force or compulsion in faith. In this work, Abouon uses collagraphs (ink-less embossing on Somerset paper) to portray four different stylized Islamic arches that symbolize imprints made on individual lives.
‘Barefoot’ is an archival commemoration of Abouon’s late father. It is composed of self-portraits in which her father re-enacted scenes of his life abroad while he was a university student living in the West, in order to entertain his family at home. The pictures show Abouon’s father as a young man in a new cultural environment, in which he would eventually make his home.
On the question of how Islam remains a driving force behind her artwork and how others may be unable to share her approach to transmitting core Islamic values and beliefs, Abouon told Muftah:
If practised properly and moderately, Islam has the power to put things in order for me. Religion is not meant to push people away by extreme views and ways. I want to be able to talk to people about my belief in God without it being a barrier.
Choosing Fine Arts to transmit my learning in Islamic concepts does not always work in my favour. I often show in Muslim countries when I should be showing in non-Muslim countries more. The art I want to make has to have morals, a motivation for myself first and then onto the viewers, and a perspective that is not rigid but rather has ease to it.’
Arwa Abouon is now exhibiting her work as part of the Islamic Arts Festival at the Sharjah Art Museum in Sharjah, UAE from December 17, 2014 – January 17, 2015. Titled ‘Birthmark Theory,’ it is a retrospective of Abouon’s work from the past ten years.