Saudi-Palestinian artist Dana Awartani: 'I'm not a refugee, and my parents are supportive'

At Sharjah's Maraya Art Centre, the artist's new exhibition, The Silence Between Us, pushes beyond the East-meets-West narrative

Dana Awartani uses poetry in her work. Courtesy of Jameel Arts Centre
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Listening to Dana Awartani, a Saudi-Palestinian artist who lives in Jeddah, talk about her work, it sounds like those bad, old binaries – East and West, Arab and European – are still forces to be reckoned with for young artists.

Awartani recalls that when she went to art school at ­Central Saint Martins in ­London, she was one of only two Arabs on the course. Everyone expected her to make work about migration or female oppression. "But I'm not a refugee, and my parents are supportive," she says with a shrug.

She swung away from Central Saint ­Martins' conceptualism and trained in Turkey with a master in ­illumination – working ­towards an ijazah, ­meaning that she would become a ­master too. She then ­returned to Jeddah, where her works ­reflect her interests in ­numerology, ­Sufism, and craftsmanship.

Installation view of Dana Awartani's The Silence Between Us, currently showing in Sharjah. Courtesy Maraya Art Centre

A tale of two extremes

The artist has been to two ­extremes: the London art school so happily abstract it offers an MA in "applied imagination", and a form of illumination so exacting that it begins not with a paintbrush, but with a meditative state.

These poles structure the ­artist's mid-size ­retrospective at the Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah. But the work ­itself does not suggest any ­struggle over identity, or even a ­frustration with the formal limitations of either craft or conceptualism. ­Rather, Awartani's The Silence ­Between Us is a serene body of work – occasionally vocal about womens' place in society, occasionally religious in subject, occasionally just exploring the symbolism of numbers – even though East versus West continues to be seen as adversarial.

"When I learnt ­illum­ination, they really ­humble you. I wanted to do justice to that tradition – but I also want to move it forward," she says.

Idea-driven art

The exhibition is curated by the Maraya's Laura Metzler around the theme of light, a surprisingly formal hook for two women whose tastes run to idea-driven art. And, indeed, the works, though they all play with light, do not take long to end up in critique. A mobile made of hand-blown glass is titled To See and Not Be Seen in reference to the effects of mashrabiyas, which obscure women from view, while allowing them to see the outdoors. Glass shards are the negative space where the light passes through the geometry of the ­mashrabiya, as if giving the ­unseen women shape and form as arresting, suspended shafts of light.

Dana Awartani’s hand-blown glass mobile ‘To See and Not Be Seen’ is inspired by mashrabiyas. Courtesy Maraya Art Centre

"The mashrabiya was supposed to be great for the women, to allow them to see outside," says Awartani. "But I looked at it in the context of men being the positive and women as the space in between."

It is not the only work that addresses the role of women in society and there is a slight irony, that after studying traditional craft, she is taking up a line of enquiry she scoffed at years ago at art college. She seems to have arrived at this juncture on her own terms, on a route that meant acquiring the ­fundamentals of her craft and, not to put it too grandly, a cultural lineage.

"I've been perfecting my craft for 10 years," she says. "I am confident enough now to use it as a medium of expression. The traditionalists can't look at my work and say I don't know what I'm doing."

'Listen to My Words'

The large-scale installation Listen to My Words (2018), Awartani's most ambitious work to date, is also on ­display. Its hand-­embroidered screens evoke jalis, the term for mashrabiyas in Mughal ­architecture. Awartani was inspired by the legend of Nur Jahan, the royal consort who ruled through a screen, ­whispering advice to her addled husband, Jahangir. "I wanted to reimagine the idea of the jali, which is often in marble, by using the more feminine material of textiles," she says.  

Projected around the ­installation are the sounds of women reciting often forthright and frank ­poetry that Awartani came across in a book of female poets from pre-Islamic times to the present. "I worked with Saudi women who really ­embodied the spirit of the piece," says Awartani.  

Screens from 'Listen to My Words' (2017). Each screen is made up of three thin, hand-embroidered panels, which together form the design. Courtesy Maraya Art Centre

Listen to My Words has been acquired by the ­Hirshhorn ­Gallery in ­Washington DC, which also says something about ­Awartani's growing ­international ­profile; the curator Jens ­Hoffman worked with her on a solo show last year. Other works demonstrate the artist's interest in geo­metry, such as Love Is My Law, Love Is My Faith (2016), a series of hanging screens that was inspired by a story about Ibn Arabi. "He heard the Kaaba talk to him, asking him to come walk around it," she says. "Every time he went around it, he wrote a poem on the theme of love, and those are ­considered some of the most beautiful in Arabic literature."

A close-up of 'Love Is My Law, Love Is My Faith', which animates Ibn Arabi's poems written while he perambulated the Ka'aba. Courtesy Maraya Art Centre

Awartani's work imagines the story via eight panels, ­embroidered with shapes with a decreasing number of points, from eight to one, with a gold square representing the end of the journey.

A beautiful series of sculptures in glass and wood panelling explore Platonic solids, or the ­mathematical proportions between ­corresponding shapes. The sculptures were a collaboration with woodworkers in Morocco, in one of a number of partnerships with different craftspeople that highlight their expertise.

Expecting the expected

The challenge for ­Awartani, particularly as her work circulates beyond the region, is to show how her interest in geometries and illumination is a choice taken, not because it is expected of an Arab artist, but because it is not. And, ­conversely, she also has to demonstrate how ­traditional Islamic arts can support a discursive argument that often runs counter to the pursuit of an emptying or elevating of knowledge.

It is an exciting, if ­daunting, proposition. Right now, ­precision is this work's ­greatest strength, executed with a light hand.

Dana Awartani’s The Silence Between Us is on display until February 18 at the Maraya Art Centre, Sharjah