Amal Al-Aathem’s Elusive Allegories

Amal Al-Aathem’s exquisitely raw mixed media paintings have a lot to say — and yet they speak in riddles, remaining mysterious, and deliberately so. For hers is a milieu of pattern and poetry, symbolism and struggle, individual identity and a complex cultural tradition that both inspires and defines. In her simultaneously rough and sophisticated compositions one encounters expressive abstract gestures that convey powerful emotion, even as this same vigorous abstraction functions as elements of the very landscapes and figures it inhabits and surrounds. In this way, her imagery itself and the specific ways in which it is rendered to the surface both have active roles to play in extending her message of sublimated power and the agitated heart.

Over the years, both the landscapes and figures in Amal’s work have evolved stylistically to become more and more impressive, confident, and rarefied. She employs a widening range of looser and jauntier lines and shapes in her iconography, as well as a proliferation of text-based pattern-forms; and simultaneously favors an increasingly earthy palette of brown,

black, white, gold, slate, and deep blue. But although the evolution of her style explores diverse avenues of expression, the centrality of her vision remains steadfast — that is, the imagining of an ethereal geography populated by the corporeal spirit of womankind. This is her signature affect — the perennial inclusion of at least one woman’s “silhouette” in every landscape. SIlhouetted but never shrinking in shadows, these cloaked yet — perhaps therefore unmistakably feminine figures are a gentle, insistent presence who give purpose to the quasi-abstract elements of the natural world (reedy plants, mountain soil, moonlight, the fullness of night skies) that surround them.

The newest works although dominated by earth tones are here and there run through with dramatically splashing and rending moments of color — red, pink, orange, and gold flare like flowers and flame that punctuate the relatively reductive, color-blocked, and at times almost totally abstract surroundings. Despite the dearth of realist detail, these are recognizable as desert-inspired landscape settings, all baked soil and infinite clear firmament;

Amal Al-Aathem’s Elusive Allegories By: Shana Nys Dambrot Art critic, curator, and author Los Angeles, February 2013

but then again, by these landscapes being so abstract they must also be read as psychological. Amal has spoken about the idea of expressing “spiritual dimensions,” which may or may not be about any specific religion, instead feeling much more like an inherent faith in being human, that transcends religion to be more personal, and therefore, universal and accessible to everyone. That’s also where a lot of the mystery in her work resides — as ambiguity and urgency combine in service of an intention to balance her compelling personal narrative with broader, timeless themes that transcend individuality, gender, and heritage to address something more fundamental to the human condition.

This same duality of personal specific detail and universal symbol is also functioning in her use of Arabic-language calligraphy in many of her paintings. Presumably not expected to be read for their content by a Western audience, the deployments of text seem as though they’d be largely illegible even to Arabic readers, due to her thick layering and painterly smearing of the writing, as well as cropping it to fit within rows and flights of circular disk shapes. These hover

behind, above, and before the figures, both filling and collapsing pictorial space, and adding sharp colors to the composition — gold like the sun, white like the moon and stars, blue like the planets. Particularly when arranged in grids, these writing-shapes resemble textile patterns, and are not nearly as reminiscent of the way Western artists have used text as one might imagine. The filigree script and its lacey graphic character are different from the clunky blocks of the English alphabet, and thus are more easily employed and consumed as elements of pattern and image- building. In terms of archetypal meaning, the very inclusion of text can be emblematic of any system of rules and oppression, or of this domination being being challenged, or of the empowering, self-determinative nature of education, learning, faith, and intellect as salient pursuits of a complete person — a complete woman.

Juxtaposed with the writing is the presence of stitching, threads sewn through the surface of the paintings, formulating a contrasting kind of mark-making, in this case associated with fabric and textile, which is both one of Qatar’s proudest national cultural heritages, but is also potentially viewed as women’s work within a domestic sphere of thread, connection, and repair. Is this perhaps the social fabric, or the cloak, or the rehabilitation of craft in fine art? There’s no reason it cannot be all of this and more simultaneously. Certainly it’s tempting for an American woman to read feminism into the equation given the way women are presented throughout Amal’s paintings. It’s worth noting here that at several points in her career, Amal has held lofty positions in the Qatari Ministry of Education, acting as head of the visual art center in the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage. That’s a unique position for her to be in, in terms of her oft-stated goal of “investigating cultural dilemmas” and the historical legacy of Qatari culture. All of this can be regarded of course not only in terms of the position of women, but in a broader sense about her nation’s own historical struggle to regain its sovereignty and national identity in the modern era. And none of this is explicit in her work, which suggests open doors through which the mind of the viewer might pass, while the images themselves remain coy.

ut in point of fact, textiles and architecture have been pillars of Qatari culture since the days of ancient literature. There is a resonance with Amal’s own previous work in interior design, clothing, and history/arts education, but on a purely formal sense, her iconography, palette, techniques, and overall gestalt of the paintings seem to have a kind of historical center of gravity that both embraces its own DNA and moves beyond what that is on the surface. As her artistic education and subsequent professional experience and travels have extended her consciousness of all these threads, she now comes to update this cultural legacy of context to include, indeed privilege, the role of women in society and in private in modern-day Qatar. She is representing herself in these women of course, but there are almost always several figures present, which could be read as a community of the gender, the nation, of her ancestry, or of her own divided inner self.

«My painting embodies my objective to express myself, my thoughts, and my burdens as a woman and human. Despite humanity’s common destiny, women›s questions remain hidden behind thick curtains of speech about avoidance and weakness — which has only inspired me further to use my colors and pieces of myself that such speech has shattered. In the paintings, I try to show the depth of the harm and a new completed image of the woman and human being that I am.” The overall effect of her words and pictures is a fine and important art that is folksy but not outsider, both beautiful and bold, astute and intuitive, political but not polemic — and perhaps above all, that has made its peace with paradox.

By: Shana Nys Dambrot Art critic,
curator, and author Los Angeles,
February 2013