The field of art in Qatar is shining bright, with artists performing various forms of art. Art and Qatari artists are receiving massive support from governmental and private institutions. In addition to that, they enjoy the public’s love and admiration, as evident on social media platforms. However, this beautiful reality of art in Qatar was just a dream for those who preceded them in the journey. In this interview, we highlight the journey of one of those Qatari artists. We spoke with Fatema Mohammed Al Shebani, a unique artist who shared her journey as a woman who defied the reality of her time and even had a solo exhibition in Palestine. So, who is Fatema Mohammed Al Shebani?
I like to describe myself as a piece of art that rebelled against the “usual” accumulating in our society. As someone who has been trapped behind walls for many years, the walls could not contain her, so they shattered and dissolved. And from their remnants, I was born. I am the disappointed optimist, the defeated fighter, the bittersweet, and the human being.
Have you always aspired to be an artist?
I was raised in an environment that loves art and books, but I didn’t choose art; art chose me. It’s true that I had the talent from the beginning. But recently, I have been chosen by art. Before pursuing fine arts, I was more into poetry. From a young age, I worked to improve my talents in writing poetry and painting, and I used to draw the faces of my family members and those around me and other realistic drawings. After finishing school, I completed my higher education in art, but my choice to study art at university was just a coincidence. Life went on, I got married and started my family, and through it all, it never came to my mind to become an artist. I did participate in group art exhibitions. At that time, it felt like being part of a group was a hindering factor to my art because my work would not stand out, so I decided to fly alone despite the difficulty of the journey, but the difficulties were not an obstacle. Since I was a child, I have loved to venture into dangerous places and take the less-taken routes in life. And Alhamdulillah, I was able to excel and be unique in my journey and in the art that I produce. Currently, with the continuous practice and the accumulation of experience, my talents have expanded to include sculpturing. And I have learned to carry out projects from its start till the end, to it becoming a tangible art that gets installed in public areas with the help of workers. I would say that working on a site with a team of workers and managing projects are things that I have learned from my father. He was one of the first to establish a brick factory in Qatar, so when I was young, I would visit the work sites with him and watch how he was working and handling a team. I was always curious and asked how things are made. In my opinion, what makes an artist successful is curiosity and the love of asking to understand. I used to call myself: the daughter of curiosity and papers because of how curious I was. 99% of what I know today is a result of practice, and only 1% of it is talent.
You mentioned you were trapped within walls, could you elaborate on that?
By walls, I refer to our customs, traditions, and the reality in which women used to live before. I am referring to the time when it was a shame for women to work, a shame to show their face in the media, to work or be in any place with men, and of course, the title “artist” itself was considered shameful. I was one of the first women who put themselves in front of the cannon of society because I was like a bird trapped inside the walls and desperately looking for light. So, I tried to go beyond those walls so I could express what was in my heart through my artwork.
How has your journey has been in the field of art?
A\In my beginnings, I had a passion for fighting the “visual illiteracy and the artistic pollution” in Qatar. I felt that art in Qatar was not improving a lot, I started participating in group exhibitions, and after a while, I started flying alone because “Fatma the Artist” gets lost when put within a group. All these reasons motivated me to hold my first solo art exhibition in 2004, which was held in Sheraton, Doha. I decided to hold the exhibition during the Doha Song Festival in 2004. Choosing the right timing of an exhibition is crucial for its success. The time that I chose was perfect because it attracted the eyes of the local and international media that was highlighting the Song Festival. I would say that an artist needs to be intelligent and plan the exhibition to coincide with major events in the country so that the exhibition receives the attention of the tourists and the attention of local and Arab journalists who may visit the country at the time of big events to cover it. It is like getting free advertising for my exhibition inside and outside Qatar. Two months after the exhibition, I started to feel that I needed to spread out of Qatar and reach new communities and people who would connect with my art and my thinking. And so, I had a solo exhibition in Beirut, and a year after the second exhibition, I had another solo exhibition in Jeddah and Riyadh in 2005. I was the first female artist to hold a mixed exhibition in Riyadh because, in Saudi Arabia, it was not allowed for men and women to mix in exhibitions. Alhamdulillah, I was able to create a large audience for me in Saudi Arabia and in the Arab world. After these ventures, I had exhibitions in Abu Dhabi and Paris, which marked the launch that I aspired to. To reach that level, it requires that the artist plan well, choose the best timing to hold the exhibition, and then organize the ideas and his/her presentation of art according to what is happening in the world at that time. These are all things that help the artist to gain exposure, and they are the things that helped me to successfully move forward in my art career. After these exhibitions, I kept thinking about holding an exhibition in Palestine, and at that time, no Qatari artist had done so. Alhamdulillah, I was able to achieve this dream in 2009 when I visited Gaza, and I was able to display a sculpture of mine in a public place, and that happened before the visit of Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani to Gaza. In 2013, I visited Palestine again, and this time I painted on the “separation wall,” and I was the first Qatari to hold an art gallery in Bethlehem, Palestine. These exhibitions were an opportunity for me to reach out to the Palestinian people and communicate with them.
What reactions have you received towards your art?
It was met with mixed reactions, but I received a lot of support from women in our society despite it being a time in which many did not have confidence in Qatari artists to carry out major projects. Also, I received a lot of support from state institutions and ministries, and even Qatar Airways helped me in shipping and transporting my work. Especially at a time when we didn’t have a lot of well-known Qatari artists. As for the negative opinions, for example, the society didn’t have confidence in the Qatari artist to carry out major projects, and they tried to belittle art and women in general, I faced those opinions with diplomatic intelligence. So, I would agree with those opinions and work accordingly to reach my goals. If society said that it was a shame for women to publish their pictures, I was only showing up in the media with my voice, or publishing pictures of my work, or agreeing to written interviews, and so on. I tried to maintain a sort of peaceful relationship with society, but at the same time, I worked hard to reach my goals. Reaching the top of the mountain is hard and staying at the top is harder. Those who make it to the top will face greater difficulties and stormy winds, but as long as the person stands on firm land, then nothing will be able to shake them off. What kept me fixed during my pursuit is my faith in Allah and my belief that nothing will happen to me unless Allah has written that for me. Since I was a child, I always felt that I have a world within me that wants to breathe, and if I do not stand still in my place and continue in my path, I will kill that world. Alhamdulillah, Qatar’s art scene has witnessed a great improvement and a massive change. Now, artists enjoy moral and financial support from various institutions and social media platforms. Social media platforms have made it easy for artists to reach wider audiences. Artists also have access to educational materials that are available on the internet. All of which makes the artist’s journey much easier compared to the journey that the artists of the old generation went through. We had to support our own art with our effort and money.
Could you tell us about your artwork?
One of my recent works is “Al Buknaq”. One of my interests as an artist is to modernize our past in my artworks. Buknaq has been a piece of our heritage that is engraved in my imagination. As a child, I have grown up around women who wore the buknaq or the battoulah, which I don’t see anymore; maybe only the older generation are still wearing it, or we see buknaq being worn in some festivities, like garangao. So I wanted to preserve the buknaq in an innovative work of art. The artwork is in a form I call my aliens with a body, hands, legs, but no face, and these sculptures wear the buknaq. The sculptures are made of various materials such as resin or bronze because it is considered a more modern material. I also have a work of art that highlights the battoulah, another piece of our culture associated with my grandmother’s memories. I would stare at her battoulah and think about the tales hidden underneath it. Women used to tie to their veils the key of their house or anything they feared from being lost, and others would tie mashmoom (basil)to their veils, and wherever they walked, the scent of mashmoom followed. These are all pictures that are engraved in my imagination, and this is what I wanted to document through my work “battoulah” in 2012. The work was displayed in Abu Dhabi, and in 2015, it was displayed in London. It was put for display three times in Qatar before finding its forever home in Katara. One of my upcoming works is titled “Al adiyat”. It is made of bronze and consists of 9 horses led by a person carrying the Qatari flag. The number 9 symbolizes the number of the nine-points that form that serrated line in the Qatari flag. The work embodies a depiction of the leader and their people behind following the leader, and soon it will be installed in The Pearl. Another upcoming work titled “dugg al hubb” (grinding the seeds by a Mortar) represents one of the oldest practices that women used to do. And this work too will be installed in the pearl. Another work to be presented soon in Katara calls for the preservation of al smar tree as it depicts a man hugging the tree.
What inspires your art?
Qatar’s environment inspires me, and our cultural heritage is also a great inspiration to me because it is a rich one. So, most of my ideas are inspired by these things, especially by our marine and land environment. Through my art, I try to present our culture in a modern form so that the new generation can interact with it, in addition to the older generation. It is my ambition that my art attracts and connects with audiences from inside and outside Qatar. For me, making a piece of art is a long journey by itself because I love to get lost in the process of thinking about it, creating it, and ways to present it. Sometimes I lock myself in my room, play loud music, and think in darkness until the idea, and the end result that I want to reach, are vivid in my mind. I very much enjoy the stages of any work; it is as if I and the artwork melt into each other slowly until it is completed.
What is your favorite artwork of yours?
I find myself in the sea of expressive abstract art. It is a sea that is difficult to sail because it requires a great effort because working with the sculptures, choosing materials for them, and working on creating the sculpture itself can be exhausting to the mind and the body. This type of art also requires that the artist always learn and constantly renew what they produce, or else the artist will drown in that sea and fail. Despite my experience in various arts and working with different materials, I find myself drawn towards iron, bronze, and stainless steel and in the art that is displayed in public places. It is hard to work with materials like iron, as it is hard to melt them and mold them. Yet, these are the materials that I love to work with, and I feel they represent my personality. I find great joy in transforming such tough material into a soft dough that I can form into shapes. So, each one of my works has its own story, and all of them are like my children, and although I don’t differentiate between them, “Al buknaq” may be the closest to my heart. Every work of mine begins with an idea, which is like a flashing light in the dark, and this idea will remain in my mind, fermenting, growing, and looking for ways to become a reality. Then I start drawing the idea on paper and then turn the drawing into a two-dimensional model, which then gets turned into a three-dimensional model. Finally, we do the work in the actual dimensions. Every work goes through a long process to be completed as required, and I have my own workshop to produce works in Qatar, but I have partnerships with factories in China and Hong Kong because large works require skill and efficiency, and then the work gets shipped to Qatar.
Have you faced any challenges in your journey?
I think that losing passion is the worst thing that can happen to anyone. Although I didn’t lose my passion, sometimes it fades away because of external factors that demotivate me. Of course, there were other obstacles and difficulties, but alhamdulillah, I was able to recover quickly from any setbacks; I would cry for two or three days and then return to my work. Today I can say that all the effort I have put into my work is paying off; I see its results now. I am glad that I did not wait for anyone to remove the obstacles I faced and that I relied on myself for support.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
Protect your passion because it is the secret key for motivation and the driving engine of life. It will push you to strive for everything you aspire to achieve. Passion is the guiding light that will help us reach our true selves. And always work hard and go after your dreams, no matter the circumstances or obstacles.
- Interview written by Fatema Ahmad.
- Interview was edited to improve readability and flow.