Alymamah Rashed, a Kuwaiti visual artist, draws inspiration from her upbringing and experiences in Kuwait, as well as her time in New York. Born and raised in a small household in Kuwait, she pursued her Bachelor’s degree at the School of Visual Arts in New York, working in galleries and at the Museum of Modern Art during her studies.
Alymamah explores topics of identity and the natural environment through the story of her body, fluctuating between perspectives of the east and the west. Her work negotiates her female subjectivity in relation to regional folklore, the banal objects she encounters everyday, and her local botanical finds. She was also a fellow at the Professional Development Initiative Program sponsored by the National U.S-Arab Chamber of Commerce, Kuwait Ministry of Higher Education, Embassy of Kuwait, and the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences. Her work has been published in Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Vogue Arabia or Architectural Digest.
KHAMSA had the opportunity to interview Alymamah Rashed and pick her brain on her art methods, her inspirations, and how she goes about maintaining a solid balance between her personal and professional life.
١. How has your youth in Kuwait and in New York influenced your work?
I was born and raised in a very small household in Kuwait. At the age of seventeen, I decided to pursue my Bachelor at the School of Visual Art in New York, and I ended up staying in New-York for seven years. During my studies, I worked in multiple galleries and at the Museum of Modern Art. I went through a lot of fluctuations within my career.
At that time in Kuwait, there wasn’t much context in regards to art, despite our rich history in Arab art. When it came to art schools and other disciplines within the arts, there was a complete lack of focus. I remember that my school had a few art classes like art history, drawing, and ceramic. I took all of them, that was my way of defining what my stories and my experiences were as I was growing up. I didn’t think that art could be a career because I hadn’t seen any example around me.
٢. How did your career begin?
Fortunately, I had full support from my parents – they were drawing and writing with me, we were making stories together, which gave me the courage to start painting. My brother was the first person in my family to study abroad, which exposed me to that possibility. I just wanted to study art and I applied for a scholarship and I was very fortunate to get it. From there, I started my career because I knew I simply wanted to create work, and I had faith that it would work out, without really knowing what that path would look like.
There isn’t a specific path or a specific way that we should follow. I think that the hardest thing is to decide that you will cultivate your own path, but it excited me. It’s partly due to faith and being naive when you are young. Through my experiences in New York, I believe it has significantly shaped my career and who I am today.
٣. How do you express yourself through painting?
I feel like painting is an act of layering many memories or specific time scapes. At the beginning, it was an entryway to feel the utility of the human figure. What does it mean to paint the eyes, the face, a portrait, to paint the body? How can I paint flesh, how can I paint the soul ? I started to ask myself how I can describe and feel the tangibility of the soul. I am always after painting the intangible existences, and playing with this contradiction. Painting is an act of birthing possibilities, it’s an act of cultivating as many theories as I can.
I was really engaged with the physicality of the paint; there is a richness to it. I have a profound relationship with it, especially concerning the subjects I paint. I am deeply fascinated by painting the human body, delving into the essence of the soul and spirit. I aim to intertwine them harmoniously, giving birth to many bodies and diverse representations. This process feels infinite, and I believe painting carries the weight of this profound question effortlessly.
٤. You say that you are a painter and a storyteller; which story are you telling?
To me, storytelling involves tapping into various sources. My creative process begins internally, it starts with my own gaze, my personal introspection about my body and how I perceive my soul, assessing the significance of each aspect. Additionally, to establish a connection with the world, I’ve found that ordinary objects I’ve gathered around me, such as flowers, seashells, or pebbles – often collected from my daily experiences, even unexpected instances like finding a flower in an unlikely place – hold immense value. I immerse myself in these objects, embodying their essence and perspective.
I had the opportunity to work at the prestigious National Museum, where I delved into archives and curated Kuwaiti artifacts displayed from places like Failaka Island, Kuwait, and several other locations. While examining these objects, I pondered how to connect with them beyond their archaeological context. I began intertwining the history of my body and my personal journey, my own gaze towards myself, particularly as a woman, with these artifacts. The objects became a gateway for me to embed my own story or perhaps even create a myth.
٥. Your last exhibition, Earth can be as dead as it can be alive, was in Failaka Island, in Kuwait, could you explain to us why you chose this island?
Earth can be as dead as it can be alive, is the result of a one year residency that I had for Dar Fikar. It has been my most long term project, marking the launch where various collaborators, including my friends and I, worked together. My access to Failaka began while I was working at the Kuwait National Museum. I had been exposed to the archaeological world for two years prior to this residency. Visiting the archaeological sites on Failaka Island and assisting the excavation teams heightened my fascination with our rich, yet often overlooked, history in Kuwait. Many are unaware of the existence of such artifacts.
We all share a profound curiosity about the island. Failaka embodies fluidity, it pulsates with life despite its apparent destruction, having been touched by civilizations over the past five thousand years until today. It holds a wealth of mythology intertwined with its archaeological history and the folklore surrounding its existence. Additionally, the island’s botanical and geological aspects add layers to its allure. Just a thirty-minute ride from the mainland, visiting this space became a process of collecting objects and immersing myself in their essence. I found myself captivated by the environment, deeply absorbed by its essence. Each visit brings forth something new to explore on the island.
٦. You talk a lot about archeology and mythology in your work. How does it link to your art?
For me, storytelling is intricately connected to mythology. Recently, it has expanded its scope, encompassing folktales and more. Initially, it involved exploring the concept of the soul, drawing from various mythological and theological references within the Arab world, including the context of Islam. However, it gradually evolved into something more rooted in mythology, particularly after my residency on Failaka Island with Dar Fikar.
Failaka, being an island built upon archaeological remnants dating back to the Bronze Age and pre-colonial eras, incorporates folk traditions due to its history of indigenous inhabitants residing on the island. This led me to ask myself – how can I access these narratives today without reproducing them as they were? How can I establish a connection with them? For me, the discovery of an object always serves as an entryway to addressing this question, or rather, to creating a divergence and a rebirth.
٧. Why did you choose to stay in Kuwait?
When I graduated in 2019, I was planning to move to Qatar and to stay in New York for an extra year. Suddently, I felt the need to be back home, my art was calling for it. My work is about me and my country. I felt the need to rediscover what “home” means to me beyond bearing a nationality. I had to turn down a lot of opportunities, but it felt good to do that. As soon as I got back, a few months later, Covid and the lockdown happened. I was very grateful; I was at home with my family and I was creating work again. I was painting every single day, like today. I met my gallerist during that time, so my career started during Covid.
٨. What do you think about the situation of artists in Kuwait, and in the Middle East?
Today, there are incredible contemporary artists in the region and specifically in Kuwait.
People are learning not only to create work, but also to get exhibitions, to bring people together. I think there needs to be more of a push about making more exhibitions, having governmental entities fund the artist, give them more spaces, give them more opportunities to actually bare their work out.
Universities are bringing this contemporary artist to talk to students. There are many facilities that are built. On the other hand, I wish I could see this pioneer artist actually working with younger artists, rather than segregating them from one another. I feel happy knowing that younger students have people right now who are examples. I didn’t grow up having that, and I’m very happy to see that happening now through multiple people and multiple artists.
٩. What do you hope for young artists in Kuwait?
I just hope that people won’t hesitate to express their truth and create art for the sake of freedom, something that can often get lost in translation. The focus should not stray from this essence, because art serves as both an entryway and a gateway to allow people in and liberate each other. This is why we produce art, and it shapes my perception of my work every single day. People, including in the art system itself, may attempt to divert one’s focus from this truth. Nevertheless, remember – you own your work and through freedom, you also give it to the world.
To know more about Alymamah Rashed, visit here.