By Alex Whiting
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Kuwait's secret police closed Shurooq Amin's exhibition "It's a Man's World" within three hours of its opening in March last year, the artist became even more determined to push boundaries in her ultra-conservative society.
The police objected to many of Amin's paintings, but one in particular they kept returning to that night as they questioned her and threatened to jail her. It was a painting of a group of Arab men drinking, smoking and gambling.
An award-winning artist in her mid-40s, Amin has exhibited in Damascus, New York, London and Dubai as well as Kuwait.
She is the first Kuwaiti to show homosexuality in her art, and has portrayed child marriage, adultery, attitudes to women's virginity, corruption and censorship.
"(The shutdown) made me more brave, more radical ... not for the sake of sensationalism but for the sake of the truth, for the sake of exposing something rotting, something that stinks," Amin said in a telephone interview from her home in Kuwait.
"Instead of shoving it under the sofa, it's better to actually vacuum it."
Stories of 11 year-old girls being married off to elderly men, inspired one of her favourite paintings this year.
It shows a tall man in a tuxedo and Hannibal Lecter-like mask marrying a little girl. She's dressed in a short white dress, her hair covered, a bunch of giant cherries on the floor beneath her legs.
"He's grabbing onto this child like he's going to eat her, and you can tell from her body language how she's stiff and scared," Amin said.
"That for them ... is not paedophilia ... not rape, that for them is halal (permissible under Islamic law)," she said. At the same time, unmarried women no matter what their age can never have sex, she added. "There is no logic to any of it."
"What I'm trying to do is show all of that. Because sometimes people, they really don't see themselves outside of themselves. When you give them a mirror it can wake them up, it can shake up the system and ruffle the feathers."
"WHERE'S THE WITCH?"
Amin was just nine years old when her work was first exhibited. She has painted all her life although she never trained as an artist, but studied poetry. Many of her poems have been published.
She focused exclusively on her art when she left her husband in 2009 after suffering years of abuse. Her decision to end the marriage and bring up their four children alone, raised a lot of eyebrows, not least among her family.
"It was very simple: I had a right to happiness. And that's an alien concept in this region" where fun – even listening to music – is considered a sin, she said. "Never mind the emotional and mental psychological abuse over the years."
The first time she felt public hostility towards her work was in 2010, when two men barged into an exhibition demanding: "Where is the witch?"
"I thought ... oh my God, we're back in the Middle Ages where they want to hang any woman who dares to speak up," Amin said.
But "all hell broke loose" when an image of her painting called "Take me to heaven" was leaked to the Kuwaiti media in 2011. The painting is of a Muslim woman praying topless, her bare back visible, bent over a prayer mat.
"They started calling me infidel ... and off with her head, and all of that. And that's when I got a couple of death threats."
Amin believes the hostility is partly because many in Kuwait don't understand art, so a figure of a woman praying topless, "that's going to look totally sexual for them and pornographic". In fact, the painting is a portrayal of human spirituality, "that God sees us naked".
THE LAST STRAW
One of her favourite paintings from this year's solo show, Popcornographic, in Dubai is "The Last Straw", a twist on Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper". It is based on Kuwait's parliament which, when it was first elected, came up with proposals for a dress code for women and said women should not travel without a man.
"Instead of focusing on ... the lousy health we have here, or the dying syllabus and education, or the economy, they focused on women. It was so outrageous I wanted to bang my head against the wall."
Last year's closure of "It's a Man's World" came after months of preparation, and a car crash that had left Amin with bad whiplash. "It was really, really a challenging time," she said.
What helped her recover was an outpouring of emails from all over the world in support of her work, and in protest at her treatment.
In a twist of irony, she received Artist of the Year award by the Arab Woman Awards Kuwait just over a year after the shutdown. "It's a 180 degree contrast from being shut down and censored to being awarded artist of the year."
Amin said she is now moving onto other issues, and wants to exhibit her work globally. "The message is basically to liberate minds, to create an atmosphere where there's no judgement based on ... religion, or looks, or nationality, or any stigma, any stereotype."
Her next solo exhibition, to be shown by the Ayyam Gallery in either London or Dubai in 2014, will focus on the plight of stateless people living in Kuwait.