Spirit Unbound: The journey of Female Arab Artists through Time - pt.1

February 5, 2024
Laila Shawa - “Impossible Dream”, 1988
Laila Shawa - “Impossible Dream”, 1988

In the tapestry of history, the stories of female Arab artists weave a narrative of resilience, creativity, and unyielding spirit in the face of a patriarchal world fuelled by societal injustice. This article embarks on a journey back to the 1980s, a pivotal era that saw the rise of ground-breaking female Arab artists who not only confronted the complexities of their own culture but also challenged the injustices and oppression of the Western world.

In search of solid ground to delve into the experiences, stories and artistic triumphs of these trailblazing women, the article follows a timeline of outstanding exhibitions and works of art that stood the test of time and paved the way to raise Arab Art to the global scene; from Samia Halaby’s exhibition confronting Yale University and their practice of tokenism in 1983 to LACMA’s “Women Defining Women'' in 2023. Each of the 7 exhibitions explored were organized to serve unique purposes; bringing artists together in solidarity against oppression and marginalization, to confront and alter the cultural construct and stereotype of Arab women, to reflect on social and feminist themes, decolonization and identity and foster the message of freedom and human dignity. To achieve gender parity, shedding light to unknown artists and finally giving space for Arab female artists to define themselves.

1. Samia Halaby puts Yale on Trial

One major event that stands out as a guiding light to the triumph of female Arab artists is none other than, Palestinian artist, activist, educator and scholar Samia Halaby and her remarkable confrontation with Tokenism at Yale University and her unwavering commitment to her art. Her journey through the art world was not without its challenges, particularly during the 1980’s; a period in which America was going through a significant reform in its education system, with universities across the country striving for a more diverse student body. Yale University, known for its prestigious reputation, and a legacy that was built on the absence of women, was among the institutions facing pressure to embrace this change. During this period around the early 1980’s, Samia Halaby was offered a professorship at Yale, but what should have been a recognition of her talent and skill as a qualified artist was overshadowed by her identity as a woman and a minority. Yale, it seemed, viewed her as a mere trophy to bolster its reputation– a textbook example of "Tokenism".

Samia Halaby via New York Times, 2024
Samia Halaby via New York Times, 2024

A decade later, Samia was on the verge of earning tenure when the institution suddenly decided that ‘women did not belong in their ranks on a full-time basis.’ Faced with this blatant discrimination, Samia Halaby chose to fight back through the grievance system and she did so with unwavering strength. In a bold move, she organized an art exhibition and included many women in similar positions and titled it "On Trial: Yale School of Art." Through this exhibit, she showcased her works of art, leaving no room for doubt about her place among the artistic greats and her right to be respected as such. In this battle against Yale, she exhibited her pioneering and thought-provoking artwork “Red in Darkness”. For this piece she delved into her cultural memory and visual sensation of geometric abstraction. She internalized the architectural and artistic principles of “The Dome” in Jerusalem, in her homeland, Palestine. She won her grievance. After successfully winning her case, she found immense support from her students who wrote heartfelt letters on her behalf, but the administration decided those letters were secret, she never got to see them. After a while, she set herself free from Academia and set out to be an independent artist. Today she is recognized as one of the Arab world’s leading contemporary painters and a pioneer of digital art. She once said,

It’s important for people to remember that their logic is defective, born out of greed and oppression and that we must proceed with confidence.
Samia Halaby - "Red in Darkness", 1982
Samia Halaby - "Red in Darkness", 1982

2. Salwa Mikdadi - Forces of Change: Artists of the Arab World 1994

The presence of female Arab artists in the global scene did not gain traction up until 1994, 11 years after Samia Halaby’s big small exhibition. The exhibition that introduced the U.S. and even the Arab World to female Arab artists and decades later remains a force in the art world is Salwa Mikdadi’s “Forces of Change: Artists of the Arab World”. Salwa Mikdadi is an art historian and independent curator, and among many titles, she most recently became the the Director and Principal Investigator of al Mawrid Arab Center for the Study of Art as well as the Professor of Practice in Art History at NYU Abu Dhabi. She was someone who traveled to different cities to capture the Arab Art scene by meeting the artists, getting to know them and collecting their work. And in doing so, she has archived Arab art that is studied till today. In the 1980’s Salwa was working independently in the U.S., sending proposals to museums across the U.S. to promote Arab art that she had personally collected in her travels. However, creating an exhibition such as Forces of Change in the west was far in sight as she was fighting against the marginalization of Arab art.  For instance, in 1985, she proposed an exhibit for Arab Artists at the Young Museum in San Francisco but was rejected and instead advised to showcase the artworks at the ethnographic department. Undeterred, she eventually organized the exhibition in the ethnographic department.

I did not look at it as an insult at all, I felt that they were simply not ready.

Two years later, word got around that there will be a newly established National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. This was her
chance, and she took it. She donated a box of books and catalogs of Arab women artists. Upon receiving the donation, the museum's president expressed their longstanding desire to include Middle Eastern art and wished to thank her. Seizing the opportunity, Salwa cheekily responds “I know how you can thank me.” And suggested they review a proposal she had already prepared, leading to the birth of "Forces of Change''. In harmony with the underlying message of the exhibition as it was formed out of the challenge of western subjugation of Arab art and granted liberation, two artworks stood out for me, and it so happens that both artists are Algerian, Houria Niati and Baya Mahaddiene.

Houria Niati - “No To Torture”, 1982
Houria Niati - “No To Torture”, 1982

In Houria’s “No To Torture” she confronts the French colonial subjugation against women and even local social constraints that they had to endure after the revolution as female fighters were sent “back to the kitchen”. One is confronted with the naked truth of her feminine reality and if you look closely to the artwork you would notice that the composition of the women is uncannily close to that of Delacrouix’s “Women of Algeris”. Houria intentionally re-interpreted the representation of Algerian women from his work and brings history full circle with her painting, back to intendent Algeria and the contemporary Algerian woman.

It confronted France just as much as Delacroix himself. The women I presented were fighters, and they were repressed. It was bang in their face, they could not turn away.

Baya Mahaddiene walks on another road. She refuses any obvious decolonizing interpretation and instead celebrates Algerian women and removes the veil of invisibility. She presents beautiful, powerful, captivating women, true to their culture, basking in their feminine energy. Baya is a truly remarkable artist who has had a challenging past. Orphaned at 5 years old to later becoming “The Algerian Teenager who Painted Liberated Women”. At only 16 years old, Baya painted “Woman in Yellow Dress”. And this is not just any woman but a divine queen with ovaries marked by flamboyant birds and vulva was symbolized by a red winged butterfly. Her crown was tall and draped with flowers, and her gaze commanding.  By depicting a feminine perspective and ingenuity, Baya unintentionally led a battle. She demonstrated a sense of transcendence above the social and cultural boundaries that enveloped women in her country and thus forging a unique path for North African female artists. Her paintings show a utopian Algeria, she loved her country and her culture, she loved being Algerian and her paintings were a celebration of this culture and of women standing in their own power.

Baya Mahaddiene - "Femme robe jaune cheveux bleus", 1947
Baya Mahaddiene - "Femme robe jaune cheveux bleus", 1947

3. Breaking the Veil: Women Artists of the Arab World 2002

Veils in many forms and depths surround our lives from the day we are born. We spend a lifetime trying to see through them, some we manage to remove and some are so transparent that we do not recognize. However, very few of us accept them willingly and most of us try to unveil the truth in order to have a clearer vision of life. - Princess Wijdan of Jordan.

Jordanian painter, art historian and curator Princess Wijdan relays this as the message of her 2002 traveling exhibition “Breaking the Veil: Women Artists from the Islamic World”. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack, Princess Wijdan and her friend Aliki Moschis-Gauguet sought to correct the image of Arab women as seen by the world, one that depicts oppression and figures hiding behind their veils. The exhibit featured works by 52 women from 21 Islamic countries, from Algeria to Yemen. Despite the show's title, not all the artists are Muslim, there were works by Buddhists, Christians and Hindus from the Arab world as well.

When we say the Islamic world, we mean the cultural world ... not the religious world - Wijdan Ali

In coherence with the metaphorical implications of the veil or the act of unveiling the truth, two artists in the exhibition come to mind who challenged the community surrounding them and expressed themselves and their truth with such a clear vision of life. The enchanting Palestinian artist, Juliana Seraphime and the Saudi princess Fahda bint Saud. At just 14 years old Juliana Seraphime fled with her family to Sidon, Lebanon by boat in 1949 following the Palestinian Nakba. And four years later, faced with the impossibility of returning home, they moved to Beirut. Unlike her contemporaries who focused on figurative art to express the Palestinian national struggle, Julianna created art that served her self-discovery and expression. Although she did not address the politics of Palestinian liberation, her artworks are inspired by her homeland, particularly her grandfather’s home in Jerusalem and the seascapes she grew up observing in Jaffa. Driven by the conviction that freedom was the ultimate purpose of artistic expression. Juliana went on to assume a leading role among the first generation of women artists in the Arab world that emerged from Palestinian refugee. Her artwork “Flying Horse” exhibited in “Breaking the Veil” shows the ethereal nature of her fantasies and erotically suggestive imagery that challenged social taboos and conventions. She once said,

I do not differentiate between art and life. Through art I find love and through love I find my freedom.
Juliana Seraphime - "Les Amants D'hier", 1991
Juliana Seraphime - "Les Amants D'hier", 1991

On the other end of the spectrum of self discovery and expression, Princess Fahda Bint Saud paints a desert landscape and a covered woman, barefoot, with her back towards us as she seems to be walking away into the nothingness of the desert. The title of this piece is “Woman”. In the series of artworks for Women, Fahda wanted to depict the reluctance on the part of Saudi women to recognize the reality of their restricted lives. Princess Fahda has always been an influential figure known for her active engagement in her community, particularly recognized in leading various societies dedicated to modernization and women's welfare. She sometimes contributes watercolors of Saudi women to exhibitions which have a feminist drive. This includes the exhibition “Breaking the Veil”. I like to think that this piece in particular is when the women finally decide to take charge of their own life, knowing the risk and the challenges that they will face up ahead, they still walk towards it, facing it. I like to think that maybe these women would meet Juliana Seraphime’s space of self-expression and defiance in the desert.

Fahda Bint Saud - "Three Women", 1992
Fahda Bint Saud - "Three Women", 1992

4. Laila Shawa: The other side of Paradise October Gallery Exhibition 2012

The idea of female identity and the variety of perspectives of what role she should play, or in other words, roles she is placed in is always a subject of discussion, negotiation and at a degree compromise by women as a way to keep the peace.

Palestinian artist Laila Shawa from Gaza tries to dismantle the notion of this homogenous female identity and boldly condemns gender discrimination both within her own society and worldwide, unapologetically holding men and women accountable for continuing this injustice. She firmly believes in the intrinsic power of women, challenging societal rules and advocating for women to embrace their strength and assert their place in the world, all while demanding accountability from men who fail to recognize their own weaknesses.

In the October Gallery exhibition “The other side of Paradise” in 2012, Laila Shawa showcases her artwork that embodies this idea, among them is the “Impossible Dream” created in 1988 during the first resistance movement or Intifada in Palestine.

This artwork intimately reflects her personal experience in Gaza after observing the role of women in her society from proud peasants to revolutionary fighters and finally disappearing into seclusion within their homes. Laila Shawa’s piece serves as a critique of toxic masculinity.

During the Intifada women played a vital role in the resistance movement, as men in the city stayed home to avoid risking their jobs, which were tied to Israeli employment, a livelihood born out of necessity rather than choice. The resistance was led by women and children, as the Israeli army would be running around Gaza pursuing children with stones, the only people who have stood up against the Israelis, defending their own children from being arrested, were the women in Gaza.

This shift displaced traditional male leadership roles within families and communities, paving the way for women to ascend to positions of power and authority. Unfortunately, they were eventually defeated by the Israeli occupiers, leading to a dramatic change in the community and at the same time there was a new resurgence of Islamic ideologies in the region. Proud and outspoken women were forced into niqabs and confined to their homes as men, in the artist’s description of events, were threatened by women's newfound influence, suppressed them in a bid to reclaim societal dominance, silencing the once-resilient voices of these women.

Here in this painting Laila Shawa satirically captures this moment depicting women with niqabs holding ice cream cones in their hands yet seem impossible to reach. One can only glimpse at the expression of these women’s eyes to understand their suppression and frustration, but also quickly realize that that which they desire is already in their own hands.

Women do not have equality with men in any society including in the west, otherwise we would not have a month for women… I don’t know how one can fight that kind of control over women’s lives but I think everyone tries. But I blame women who accept to become victims of their societies, their families, their men folk or their occupiers. There it is.
Laila Shawa - “Impossible Dream”, 1988
Laila Shawa - “Impossible Dream”, 1988

I only hope, through this article, to foster a deep understanding that the artist’s spirit can never be oppressed or defined by others, no matter where you come from. And to recognize that despite the patriarchal and oppressive nature of the world, this same spirit of the artist remains unbound and defiant. This journey into the past is a reflective moment to celebrate the courage and tenacity of the female Arab artists and gather the wisdom of those who came before us before venturing into the stories of the artists of today.

And to add a personal note, I wish to dedicate this article to my grandmother and artist Ilham Ghantous, whose stories and teachings, jewelry and style I carry with me to this day. As part of discovering these amazing female Arab artists, I dove deeper to find out more about you. We found archives of the exhibition you took part in way back in 1989 in Amman. Having learned what the female artists have gone through, I can just imagine what you went through as well. Even though you never shared that part of your journey, I am glad that it did not change you. Your love for nature and colour and beauty shines through. You still carried that artistic spirit and taught me how to see the world through the eyes of an artist. I feel so grateful for these memories, I remember thinking that all I wanted was to be an artist just like you. Thank you for all you have taught me.

(Chek out the pt.2)


  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VMU687H6oFo, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwW4st-VivM, https://samiahalaby.com/1980-89.html, https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/33718, https://samiahalaby.com/press.html
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVf4c7FIfZ8, https://dafbeirut.org/contentFiles/file/2020/04/968-1920-1-SM.pdf, https://www.brainscanmag.com/houria-niati, extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://greyartgallery.nyu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Layout_Baya_20171206_lores.pdf, http://hourianiati.com/gallery.php?c=0, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-algerian-teenager-painted-liberated-women-1940s-paris
  3. https://dafbeirut.org/contentFiles/file/2020/10/Breaking-the-Veils-Women-Artists-from-the-Islamic-World.pd, fhttp://www.hagar-gallery.com/Catalogues/Self_Portrait_02_01.pdf, https://universes.art/en/nafas/articles/2003/princess-wijdan-ali, https://interfaithcentre.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/veils-brochure.pdf, https://www.abouther.com/content/princess-fahda-bint-saud, https://dafbeirut.org/contentFiles/file/2021/03/Lifting-the-veils-from-our-own-eyes-MPR-News.pdf, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/breaking-the-veils-through-art/
  4. https://octobergallery.co.uk/exhibitions/2012osp, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNl5wW1Hlh8, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSi4AOznmSI, https://shemakesarttoo.medium.com/laila-shawa-a-prolific-and-revolutionary-artist-from-palestine-56fd6727203c