In the second of a new weekly series, the digital artist Summayah al Suwaidi talks about the creative process behind a work from her new exhibition at the Ghaf Gallery
When Summayah al Suwaidi finally came out with the gothic, purplish melodrama that is Standing Still, it's no exaggeration to say she was in meltdown, she recalls. She had been holding down three day jobs, caring for five children and her art had been going nowhere for the best part of a year.
"I'd had my second baby in 18 months, and was looking after my three other stepchildren. I'd started a new job, and had two other jobs on the go. I was curating shows, and I was running my boutique at Al Wadha mall, selling cards and gifts." Friends were telling her to be careful, but hearing this would annoy her. "People were telling me I had to slow down, if I kept doing too much I'd go crazy. But I was sick of hearing it. I didn't answer the phone, and I wasn't returning e-mails."
She went to ground and, holed up at home incommunicado for a week, the Emirates' first female digital artist would sit at her desk, but nothing would come. "I'd hit a kind of creative block," she says. "Months had gone by and I hadn't produced anything worthwhile. I felt I was losing my touch." The panic attacks and crisis of confidence she was going through may have been a form of depression, the artist says now.
"I was unsatisfied with my training in graphics. I was reading books, looking at art, trawling the web. Finally, I went back to my basic methods and techniques." And in the personal watershed that followed, a strange, primordial beast was born. Measuring 123cm by 61cm, the digitally-enhanced photomontage depicts a rapturous figure, half pre-Raphaelite beauty, half blasted oak, standing the test of the elements on some wasted shoreline.
"No matter what the weather throws at her, she's stood there, her head held high," al Suwaidi says. "She's rooted like a tree, standing strong and standing her ground." Coming across the original image on the web, something in the model's demeanour struck a chord, and compelled al Suwaidi to work, she says. The stock image went through a series of digital transposals, taking on an oil-and-acrylics effect that owes its finish to al Suwaidi's skill with a laptop tablet and stylo-pen.
There's a heavy dose of surrealism in the branches of her hair, a visual trope that recurs in the way her trunk is rooted to the earth, while the heavily wrought scoring of the veins at her wrist find their rhyme in the taut sinews at her neck. "I'd been feeling for so long I didn't want to paint, or wanted too much to paint, but nothing would come. But when I came across this, it made me feel I needed to paint. Like keeping a visual diary, it let me speak of troubling things, fears and insecurities like losing the ones you love."
Another piece, Untouchable, was inspired by a bout of depression, while Love Stitched came after a row with her husband. "It must have been a big row," a friend joked of the two metre-wide montage. It was a landmark piece for her, she says, and opened the floodgates to a whole spate of other works. Al Suwaidi is now curating the Express Yourself 30x30 group exhibition at the Marsam Mattar Gallery in Dubai from November 8, while next year she tours China as part of another group show.
She is just back from what she describes as an "educational tour" of Berlin, after a trip to Sweden. One hopes the lack of let-up won't bring on a recurrence of any nervous affliction, but like her bleakly resilient heroine, Al Suwaidi says she has learnt how to handle it. "As an artist, it's something you have to expect."
* Timur Moon
The exhibition is open daily until October 13, 9am-1pm & 5-9pm (closed Fridays), Ghaf Gallery, Abu Dhabi, 02 665 5332.