To Emirati artist Ebtisam Abdulaziz, whose art is on view at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW), the concept comes first. Whether she draws in coloured pencil, paints or performs, Abdulaziz addresses belonging and identity. Usually, she employs geometry and mathematics. Much of her work is autobiographical.
A native of Sharjah, Abdulaziz arrived in the United States in 2015 after finding success as a working artist in the United Arab Emirates. “We have to push things,” she said. “When I first came here, I was like, wow, I am so free. You can talk about politics, religion, stuff we never get the chance to talk about because it’s forbidden. The first year, I couldn’t even make art.”
Before moving to Washington, Abdulaziz exhibited her art in Europe, Japan and the UAE and participated in international biennials. Deutsche Bank opened a floor for her art at its Frankfurt headquarters in 2011. At AGSIW, recent paintings, drawings and stills from her performance pieces, some of which are online, are on view.
One of six children, Abdulaziz said she drew inspiration from her father, who cherished his cameras and showed movies to his children on weekends. “I knew since day one that I wanted to be an artist,” she said. Her parents, however, wanted her to choose a practical major in college. To safeguard her inner artist, she spent hours decorating her math homework with pencil drawings.
Abdulaziz said she still loved math and geometry, which she studied at Al Ain University of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi. “I’m very sharp and honest. I love straight lines. I hate curves. I think math was part of my personality,” she said.
When asked about the relationship between numbers and shapes, she explained that, to her, a triangle represents the number one. The number two is a triangle with a line attached and so forth to infinity. Numbers and shapes have no direct relationship to colours. She said she was falling in love with Arabic letters and appreciated the influence of Islamic art on her two-dimensional work.
When she moved to the United States, numerical street addresses fascinated Abdulaziz. She said she memorised them by forming equations she developed into a coded diary. The result, on display at AGSIW, is a playful field of domino- or dice-like squares. It is reminiscent of an earlier piece she did based on vehicle licence plates.
Even more intriguing are the maps she painted of Washington neighbourhoods. They highlight the negative spaces in red, blue, orange, pink and yellow acrylic on white canvas and include the markings that indicate underground electric, water, communications and gas lines.
Also on display are several pieces from her autobiographical series of 200 grid papers, whose squares she pencilled in with colours that reflected her moods. Although spontaneous, the pages are nonetheless disciplined in their angularity. None of them looks alike.
Her current favourite medium is performance art. “Whenever I’m performing I feel like I’m doing something big because it’s different when your body becomes the art piece,” she said. “You have to be brave and smart to express your concept and not cross the line and do something against your religion or culture.”
In one clip, a figure in a black jumpsuit was barely visible as she silently wrote the English word “unashamed” on her body in orange fluorescent paint. “Sometimes you do a very personal piece to heal yourself,” Abdulaziz said. “I suffered a lot being a female Muslim artist living in the Arab world using her body to perform. During the performance, I was almost crying.”
In “Society Structure,” another orange-on-black performance in an ultraviolet light, Abdulaziz explored the tension between freedom and instability. She imprisoned herself as she built a wooden cube and connected the edges with glow-in-the-dark tape. At the end of the piece, she destroyed the box — the bounds of convention. Suddenly, there was the sound of wood and tape being ripped apart. “Dark is the time for crime, when people break systems,” she said.
Abdulaziz plans everything, except the viewer’s response. For a recent piece, she spliced together the English word “terrorist” from news feeds. She stood dressed in white before her canvas, a pane like those found in interrogation rooms. Each time the word “terrorist” was heard, she defended herself by writing the English word “Muslim” on the glass with a black marker.
The recordings and her efforts gain in momentum and become unrecognisable, somehow more violent. Although her intention was to address Islamophobia, an Egyptian friend said there was a worry that some Americans would conflate the two words more, not less.
Such is the risk of language and the dynamism of art. “Artists are like journalists,” Abdulaziz said. “We write the history of our times.”
Mary Sebold is a Washington-based contributor to The Arab Weekly.