As a child, I grew up in a world that was part fantasy and part reality. I was very visual, and my mind would often wander as I looked at objects, observed patterns, and listened to conversations. I gained a particular interest in observing people and the way they behave. My mother took me along with her whenever she went shopping, and that sparked my passion for aesthetics. I would walk down the aisles in department stores, where clothes seemed to stretch along the racks infinitely, and I would run my fingers through the fabric as I made my way down each section. I often got lost, and in a panic I reached out to the nearest motherly figure dressed in a black Abaya thinking she was my mother. In a panic, I ran across the store, ignoring the flashes of colorful garments that now seemed to taunt me, until I saw my mother. I could instantly tell it was her, just by seeing her silhouette from the back. How could I have mistaken that other woman for my mother? My mother had an aura about her that I could distinguish from a sea of women, and as she turned, I saw her face as she was smiling at me.
My mother grew up in a refugee camp in Lebanon with my grandmother and her six siblings. My grandfather unexpectedly left my grandmother with seven children, and set off to Germany, where he remarried and raised a new family. My mother had told me stories of her childhood that revolved around her three sisters and three brothers, and of course, my grandmother. My grandmother raised seven children in a refugee camp, without a husband or a father figure. I will always be fascinated by the stories that my mother tells me. Surprisingly, the stories are pretty normal. She was a child so all her stories revolved around the dinner table and how chaotic it would get, siblings hitting each other and fighting while their mother would prepare food. When my mother was in her pre-teens, they moved to Dubai. It was the 1970’s, and Dubai was far off from what it is now. My mother would tell me how depressed she was when she came here. It was hot, empty, and there was nothing to do. She missed the refugee camp and how they formed a sense of community within. She spoke about how her only form of entertainment in Dubai was skipping class with her sister and crossing highways to get to a supermarket where they would buy ice-cream, then go to the airport where they would wash their hair in the toilets. My mother laughed hysterically every time she and my aunt would talk about it but I have always imagined it as a wonderful moment and a liberation of youth. Two sisters from a refugee camp, now living in Dubai and unsatisfied with the lack of adventure the city had to offer, turned to danger as a means of entertainment. I always see strength in my mother’s eyes because she truly is fearless.
I was about nine years old when I began to observing people on a deeper level, and the world suddenly unveiled its true characteristics to me. I sat down and began to sketch figures and faces, frantically searching for perfection within my work. My fascination with portraits grew as I did, and women became the dominating theme in my work. From the moment I looked at my mothers face, I felt at ease. I knew that kindness was permanent, and I knew that acceptance was real. As a child, I knew no boundaries, no judgment, no discrimination, and no gender differentiation. I was raised by two generations of strong women. I grew up with two of my closest cousins, both girls, and we did everything together. When they played with their Barbie dolls, so did I. When I played video games, they did as well. There was never an interference as to what was considered masculine and what was feminine. The basis of this upbringing has led me to believe in equality among genders, races and sexes. I found myself becoming more and more of an empath, connecting with others who have been misjudged or discriminated against.
As I grew up, I was engulfed in a world of creative exploration. I looked to magazines for inspiration, studying the faces of models and celebrities. The way women were portrayed by the media was quite magical yet confusing. Most of the time, these women were portrayed as the highest of status, having acquired complete physical perfection. People began to idolize them based upon their outer appearances, completely disregarding whether or not they were of any importance to society. This was quite new and confusing to me. Why weren’t the men portrayed on equal numbers of magazine covers? The more I flipped through magazines, the more it became clear to me. The women portrayed seemed to exude an artificial aura through pre-planned poses. They were places next to perfumes, bags, clothes, jewelry – you name it. I began to study these relationships in terms of gender roles and why women appealed to be the universally used subjects for media.
I thought about my mother and her childhood tales. I thought about my grandmother and the sacrifices she had to make to raise her children, let alone the strength to be a positive supporting human being. Was this what the media and the rest of the world is trying to hide and push away? Women portrayed solely through fashion, glamour and sex. Almost simultaneously, as these realizations surfaced, my cousins and I had already adapted this idea of a false reality where beauty exists only in the pages of magazines. I witnessed my cousins comparing themselves to celebrities, body image started becoming an issue, and an internal struggle began to take place. I as well went through these stages, picking apart pieces of me that were too real to be great, such as flaws, and embracing ignorance by believing in the fantasy that the industry is selling. In the Middle East, plastic surgery has become so popular that the youth rarely get to think twice about cosmetic surgery. Lebanon has become infamous for performing plastic surgery, attracting Arabs from other countries to Lebanon for procedures. From rhinoplasty, to liposuction, Botox and lip fillers, a birth of a new species takes place in the faces of the pop stars and TV presenters. According to Andrew Hammond’s “Pop Culture Arab World! : Media, Arts, and Lifestyle”, published in 2005, the obsession has reached a point where it can break up a marriage. A woman spent most of her husbands’ savings to get plastic surgery to resemble the Lebanese pop star Nancy Ajram. When her husband decided to get a divorced, she blamed him for idolizing Ajram, stating that the divorce was a result of her husbands infidelity with Ajram. Hammond adds,
”The reason is that Arab women got frustrated from the continuous stress put by Arab husbands in comparing their wives with the female singers and actresses, especially those with very seducing music video clips”
In an attempt to emulate the beauty ideals in the West that were fuelled by the media, we now witness clones that reflect these ideals poorly, slowly tearing away at their self confidence and sense of acceptance within the community and most importantly, as a gender.
I asked myself how and why. How did we get to realize that physical perfection is automatically associated with being a generally all-round good person? Why have we let our community, and the world, to use women to set these examples? I began exploring these themes within my art as I got older, using portraits of women to portray the strength that I see in the women in my family. I was always asked why my focus was on women, and I said why not? My aim is to capture the aura and the glimpse in ones eyes. I am fully aware that most male artists have portrayed female subjects, dominating the museums of the world, while women artists are often ignored. During my time at the American University in Dubai, I was exposed to female professors that have inspired me beyond creativity. They continuously introduced me to female artists from the past and in the contemporary art world. The more I read about these women the angrier I got at society for leaving them out of the spotlight, and shining the light on either drastically feminist artists, or entirely focus on male artists like they have done for years.
In my work, black and white portraits dominate the canvas. While working on my latest series titled Beautopsy, I channeled all my perceptions of beauty in society and the ideals enforced upon women into pieces of art. I wanted to challenge myself by creating distorted portraits that appear chaotic to the viewer, but enabling them to pick up elements within the work that are appealing. My concept revolved around seeing the beauty in everything, in the flaws, in the eyes, again – the aura. I began dissecting portraits of iconic Old Hollywood celebrities such as Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn and Veronica Lake. To me, going back to the root of global modern day beauty was tracing it back to the 1950’s and the post World war II era. The combination of timeless classic beauty in contrast with todays ‘plastic beauty’ inspired me. I wanted to approach my subjects with a theme of cosmetic surgery, using the marks created by the surgeon on the subjects face and body during a consultation. I abstracted these marks into strips and explored cutting up portraits, shifting each strip as it revealed an image that was both aggressive and drastic. What I began to see within these shifts is a double portrait, almost like an exterior of the self and the character.
In my attempt to break down any preconceived beliefs and stereotypes placed upon women in our society, I approached my work from a very personal place. Always being the only guy in most of my classes, I never felt the need to tip toe around any situations. I saw no barrier between the two genders, just as I had never seen one as I was raised with my two cousins. I did, however, notice an internal problem within our society; judgment. I could not believe that girls were judging each other based on physical appearances, what they wore, and how they looked. A beautiful and confident woman seemed to always be faced with accusations of plastic surgery, or simply labeled a bimbo or a bitch. I am completely aware of the cultural and social pressures that have been placed on women, but I truly believe that the answer lies within women. Unity, acceptance, support and empowerment need to be evident at all times, and why should it not? The world has become a competitive playground that fuels and highlights ignorance. I have countlessly asked girl friends of mine what their dreams and aspirations were, only to be told they wanted to get married, find the perfect man. I became furious at the fact that these smart and interesting women that I know revolve their time and energy focusing on that purpose solely in life. Again, I’m not anti-marriage but I do believe that we all serve a certain purpose in life, not to anyone else but to ourselves. In the Middle East, it is harder to introduce these thoughts of liberal thinking upon both men and women. Rooted within tradition, simple things like jobs and careers can be considered off limits to women, having their fate determined by their family and/or spouse.
I may not be the most politically savvy person or have enough facts to tackle the problem, but I do believe in the human experience. A generation that is educated beyond the classroom, questions what is right and wrong in society, and disregards social taboos is the future of the Middle East. With various Middle Eastern countries showing their support for women such as the United Arab Emirates, it is up to us as a society to accept and nurture the outcome they provide us with. We must learn to bear no prejudice when it comes down to what job a woman is fit for, and only show support. I have never known any other way of approaching the subject at hand, and I proudly call myself a feminist. I will portray women in my work in a way that challenges the viewer to think beyond skin and surface. I will think of my sisters, my mother and my grandmother who have showed not only unlimited support, but also unparalleled strength. I will empower the women in the work force, my friends, and my family. I may not be read about or known for my efforts, but why should I? Why should empowering women be on the news? It should simply become our basic instinct – total 360-degree gender equality.
Hammond, Andrew. Pop Culture Arab World! : Media, Arts, And Lifestyle. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2005. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost). Web.14Apr2015.
Munoz, Maria Sanchez. The Perfect Me: Cosmetic Surgery and the Social Body in Egypt. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Sams, Leroy B., and Janet A. Keels. Handbook on Body Image: Gender Differences, Sociocultural Influences and Health Implications. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print