The surreal world of Ichraq Bouzidi: exploring Dubai, social identity and the coronavirus through art

Moroccan artist Ichraq Bouzidi, who lives in Dubai, expresses a shared human experience in her drawings

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A strange, surreal world unfolds in Ichraq Bouzidi's illustrations – there are people suspended in galaxies, bodies dissected or morphed into other objects, and labyrinths leading to nowhere. Lately, the Moroccan-born artist, who lives in Dubai, has turned her attention to the coronavirus pandemic, responding to the crisis with works bearing her signature style.

In her digital drawings about Covid-19, people are nestled inside toilet paper rolls, women sitting on flowers demonstrate “social distancing” and a young woman lying in bed imagines herself floating in a koi pond.

“It’s my way to overcome the panic. I always thought of art as a call to unity, a way to share experiences and improve conditions. The pandemic is a condition. These are the facts of today, so I wanted to do something about them,” Bouzidi says.

Staying at home with her husband and their cat, Bouzidi keeps track of the news about the outbreak and translates some of these stories into her images. For example, a recent work was inspired by a report about a bakery store in Mohammadia, Morocco, where the owner offered free bread to those in need.

'Social Distancing' by Ichraq Bouzidi
'Social Distancing' by Ichraq Bouzidi

Her previous works are more personal in nature, such as her Humanity, Duality series. Rendered in black and white digital illustrations, a recurring female figure confronts scrutiny and confusion. Beneath these imaginative scenes is a period of difficult transition in Bouzidi's life, when she moved to the UAE from Morocco in 2015 for her husband's job.

“Coming to Dubai was a very big step for me. I never thought about living here. In Morocco, I set up a company and was very independent, and I had to leave it all behind to come here. Losing and leaving it all behind was very huge for me to do,” she says.

Trained in architecture, Bouzidi completed a master's in Belgium and returned to Casablanca to run an architecture and design company. When she moved to Dubai, the urban landscape, with skyscrapers vying for superlative titles, overwhelmed her. "The scale of the city itself was very huge for me. I was used to having small-scale architecture [around me]. In Dubai's towers, I found myself very lost inside. It was very complex in the beginning. I felt lost between the inner and outside space," she says. Accordingly, in her work Urbanity, a figure lies trapped between buildings, tangled in vertiginous scribbles. The contemplative paintings Journal d'une femme occupee (Diary of a Busy Woman) are also about that time. Created with soft pastels, the works feature faceless woman surrounded by masks, as if waiting to choose her identity.

“It is a story of a confused mind embracing confusion in a new environment,” says Bouzidi. These are recollections from her first days in Dubai, she says.

'Contemplating' from Ichraq Bouzidi's 'Journal d'une femme occupee' series
'Contemplating' from Ichraq Bouzidi's 'Journal d'une femme occupee' series

Her move to the UAE also prompted another change in the artist’s life – she left architecture to pursue art full-time. The decision had its roots from Bouzidi’s younger years. At six years old, she remembers struggling to express artistically.

“My mum used to do all my homework when it came to drawing,” she says. Then one day, Bouzidi’s grandfather asked her to draw him. “I took the paper and pencil, and drew his portrait very beautifully, and people could not believe it was done by me,” she says. 

All it took to bring out her skill was a little encouragement, she says. When she was 17, Bouzidi hoped to go to art school, but the subject was not seen as prestigious enough in society, she says, and her parents convinced her to study architecture instead. By 2017, Bouzidi had been in architecture for nearly a decade and felt it was time to move on.

Although she shifted her practice, architectural elements continue to feature in her work. Series such as The Labyrinth and The Illusion, for example, show subjects traversing stairways, arches, mazes and courtyards that seemingly float over clouds. Borrowing styles from surrealism and fantasy, Bouzidi says, she can express her thoughts in more subtle, nuanced ways. Her work recalls the creations of South Korean artist Henn Kim, whose minimalist and monochromatic drawings intrigue viewers with bizarre juxtapositions.

Artist Ichraq Bouzidi. Courtesy the artist and Tashkeel
Artist Ichraq Bouzidi. Courtesy the artist and Tashkeel

Facing a novel career path, Bouzidi found ways to break into the local art scene. She submitted to open calls by Tashkeel and Dubai Design District, and was accepted to both. This year, two of her installations were to be shown at the Sikka Art Fair, which was postponed from March to October. It is one of the many art events disrupted because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The first installation, Fragmented Dreams, would have explored dreams, memory and the subconscious through a room filled with architectural silhouette illustrations. The second, a collaboration with artist Debjani Bhardwaj, was meant to be a floor-to-ceiling animated video installation paired with paper-cut artworks by Bhardwaj.

Bouzidi may have settled in the UAE, but questions of home and belonging still arise. Currently, she is completing an illustrated book titled Convenient Tales from Home, a collection of visual stories from her childhood in Morocco. Like most of her works, the images feature women, mostly busy with the tasks of domestic life. There are also tender memories from her childhood, such as watching Japanese anime with her stuffed toy.

Her second project Humans of Dubai is a compilation of stories from ordinary people in the city. Visiting parks and markets, she asks people about their journey to the UAE. One illustration is about Ali, a tea-maker who came to the country at the age of 21 in 2007. "Every glass of chai he pours reminds Ali of his mother's chai in Islamabad. The smell of her hands and the warmth of his childhood," Bouzidi writes. "He sees his chai cafeteria in Deira as a place to meet … a social hub of its own kind. Every glass has its own story."

In another story, the artist considers the cultural identity of an ex-colleague who is half-Irish and half-Syrian, and grew up in the Emirates. “I can say that I’m Moroccan, but she has three identities mixed together in her being, which is really complex. She belongs to all three. If it were me, I would see it as an issue. But for her, she sees it as an openness. She sees herself as a child of the world,” Bouzidi says.

It is a common thread that weaves through many expatriates who live in the country. “It’s amazing how I relate to them every day. We always share this sense of belonging and non-belonging at the same time. It’s our home, but not our home. The stories of knowing, not knowing, the less and overwhelming feelings about the city. All these questions that I asked myself when I moved here, I found in their stories,” she says. In Bouzidi’s practice, the personal is never far from the universal.