Thuraya al-Baqsami’s feminist approach to art

Acclaimed Arab artist Thuraya al-Baqsami and her daughter

A ground-breaking ex­hibition dedicated to the career of one of the Arab world’s most in­fluential female artists, Thuraya al-Baqsami, runs through December 16 at the Sharjah Art Museum.
“Lasting Impressions: Thuraya al-Baqsami” is the eighth entry in Sharjah Art Museum’s “Lasting Im­pressions” series that pays tribute to the region’s most influential art­ists.
Born in Kuwait in 1951, Baqsami was one of the pioneering female artists in the Gulf region, exhibit­ing art and publishing short stories as a teenager in the 1960s.
Having studied fine art in Cairo, she went to Moscow for her mas­ter’s degree in illustration and to Senegal to learn silk painting, batik and ceramics in the 1980s. Back in Kuwait, she plunged headlong into her work, which reflects the vibrant and intense modernisation phase in Gulf society.
Baqsami developed along a fo­cused path that reflected various cultural influences and her own experiences and the highs and lows of the Arab world as well, all through the women’s view.
The exhibition, curated by her daughter Monira al-Qadiri, an ac­complished artist herself, is the most comprehensive retrospec­tive of her mother’s career. A book about Baqsami was released in Sharjah at the opening of the show and a documentary is be­ing shown, along with the more than 200 paintings, posters, draw­ings and illustrations dating to the 1960s.
“It is a long journey that start­ed when I was 13,” Baqsami said. “Now I am 66 but when I look back at my growth — how my work has developed, changed over the course of the years in terms of sub­ject, medium and technique — I am happy about it.”
Baqsami said she could absorb whatever was going around her, in her art as well as in her writ­ing “like a sponge.” Many women ventured into art in Kuwait in the 1960s, most of whom have stopped producing, while she continued as an artist and writer along with a ca­reer as a journalist.
A mother of three, Baqsami only recently stopped working in media to devote full time to her art. She attributes her tenacity and produc­tivity to her determination to leave behind her own legacy.
Baqsami has written a novel, six short story collections, three vol­umes of poems, three children’s books and art criticism papers.
For Qadiri, who has been collect­ing her mother’s work since 2010, bringing together works from pub­lic and private collections around the world, along with the Sharjah Art Museum officials, has been a “labour of love.” She said that, ex­cept for a smaller show in Kuwait in 2011, such a comprehensive and historic show was unprecedented, although Baqsami has had 60 solo exhibitions worldwide and par­ticipated in more than 250 group exhibitions. Her works are in the collections of the British Museum, UNESCO, the Museum of Human Rights in Geneva and the Kuwait National Museum, among others.
The exhibition in Sharjah is neatly organised allowing viewers to follow the evolution of Baqsa­mi’s art, the various cultural and stylistic influences and the artist’s feminist vision from an Arab per­spective.
The intense growth and experi­mentation mark the period from 1964-82, at the end of which her personal style emerges. Vibrant colours mark the phase through 1990, when she returned to Kuwait and entered her busiest period as artist, journalist, columnist, illus­trator and radio host.
In the early 1990s, Baqsami and her family experienced months of trauma following the occupation of Kuwait by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s forces. Her husband was a prisoner of war and a paint­ing from 1992 titled “Return of the Parted” depicts a very personal and universal emotion of joy when the family was reunited. She cre­ated 85 highly symbolic artworks during that period depicting the trauma of violence and tragedy so close to home.
From 1993-99, there is a renewed passion for life in the artist fol­lowing the liberation of her coun­try. During the next two decades Baqsami incorporated new stylis­tic elements as she explored inner worlds of untold stories and hid­den memories.
Baqsami is working on a mam­moth project of 1,000 paintings to form a giant mural, targeted for completion by next year. She has created 680 so far, some of which are on display in Sharjah.
N.P. Krishna Kumar is an Arab Weekly correspondent in Dubai.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.