Arwa Abouon is a Libyan-Canadian artist who lives and works in Montreal. Her largely photographic work probes – with beauty and often with humor – her individual experience of straddling multiple cultures and identities. Until 29 June 2016, Abouon will be exhibiting her latest work at the Third Line Gallery in Dubai. In this exclusive interview for IAM, she shares how her family heritage and spirituality have influenced her practise.
Valerie Behiery: You had your first solo show in England last fall. Could you tell us something about ‘Birthmark Theory’ held at the London Print Studio?
Arwa Abouon: This show was part of the annual Nour Festival, which showcases a variety of art forms by artists originating from the MENA region. My show, held in the beautiful space of a printmaking studio right in the heart of the city of London, was especially well received. The audience on opening night was mostly Libyan since the curator, Najlaa El-Ageli, is originally from Libya herself, but the exhibit also garnered some mainstream British interest and overall the experience was very positive. The show was a sort of retrospective of the body of work I’ve made over the past 10 years. It included work from 2004 up until my more recent photographic work.
VB: Seeing all of the major pieces you’ve produced in the last decade or so in one setting underscores the centrality of identity and family in your work. Why are these specific themes so important for you?
AA: My parents instilled in their kids strong family values and so celebrating our relationship comes quite naturally. Our family emigrated from Libya to Canada while the rest of my relatives remained in Libya. My parents made a point of teaching us about our extended family through old photographs so – when the time came for us to meet our cousins, uncles and aunts for the first time – we knew who they were. Photographic documentation constituted an important tool to keep our family history alive for the next generation. This must have influenced my love of photography and the documentary and archival use of the medium seen in my work.
“I’ve always managed to display people positively because of my direct relationship with the individuals photographed. The ‘Islam’ you see in the work is the Islam of my household.”
VB: As you grew up in a Muslim household, spirituality is also a key aspect of your work. What I find most interesting and unique about your work is that you depict Islam as a positive and happy aspect of your individual experience.
AA: I’ve always managed to display people positively because of my direct relationship with the individuals photographed. The ‘Islam’ you see in the work is the Islam of my household. It’s a part of my experience and daily life and so it’s therefore normal and natural that it appears in my work. My images are moments that tell my story and bring me personal insight about the different themes I am exploring, whether spiritual, emotional or conceptual. That being said, because I’m also Canadian, I’m aware that my portraits of Muslims or portrayal of Islam are often different than mainstream or media depictions found here; I hope that my work helps build bridges and demystify things. You can see from my family portraits that we’re just a regular family!
VB: Spectators feel that your works are carefully conceived and designed. Your images are beautiful, but they seem to communicate their meaning or story by unusual juxtapositions of motifs or figures – for example, in ‘Practice of Paradise’ or ‘I’m Sorry, I Forgive You.’ Is this a conscious decision or rather an intuitive strategy?
AA: I studied design and Fine Arts and so piecing together the scene in a photo is something I’ve come to do quite naturally, even instinctively. It’s part of my storytelling process. My works are narrative, but they also use beauty as a vehicle to better portray my family and convey my love for them, but also reach out to the viewer. The images are family portraits, but there are hopefully much larger statements about humans more generally as well. The different juxtapositions must have something to do with my bicultural identity. For instance, I often use diptychs because this is one way of depicting both my identities – Middle Eastern and Western – and bringing them together in the end as one. This technique has allowed me to sometimes bring together opposites, allowing them to work together in order to display with honesty a subject sometimes too difficult to explain in words.
VB: What is next for Arwa Abouon?
AA: ‘Conversing over Saffron,’ taking place from 15 – 29 June 2016, is a summer show, which will be held in the new gallery space of the Third Line in Dubai. I’ll be showing a new piece: a set of hanging flowerpots made from Fez hats. I’m also currently researching my Amazigh background and the jewelry women wore for a mixed media project.
More about Arwa Abuon
Abouon is represented by the Third Line Gallery in Dubai where she had her first solo show, ‘Learning by Heart,’ in 2012. More recently, she has held solo shows in London (Print Studio, 2015), Sharjah (Islamic Arts Festival, 2014) and Sabhan, Kuwait (Sultan Gallery, 2014). In addition, Abouon has participated in dozens of shows and art fairs in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, including at the Institut du monde arabe, Paris; the Bamako Biennale, Mali; and the Sharjah Museum, U.A.E., among others.
13.06.2016 – Interview conducted by Valerie Behiery – Images: Courtesy Arwa Abouon.
More about Valerie Behiery
Valerie Behiery is an Assistant Professor of Art History at Necmettin Erbakan University, Turkey whose research addresses the social politics of visual culture from or relating to the Middle East. Her writing has been appeared in art catalogues, reference works, peer-reviewed journals and art magazines, including Nafas, Islamic Arts Magazine and M: The Magazine of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.