Spirit Unbound: The journey of Female Arab Artists through Time - pt.2

February 12, 2024
Kezban Arca Batibeki - "Feud", 2020
Kezban Arca Batibeki - "Feud", 2020

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  (check out the Pt.1) 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  (check out the Pt.1) 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.

5. Framed and Unframed: Women Representations in Palestinian Art Practice 2011 Vera Tamari

When it comes to the subject of the possible oppression of women and of the creative instinct of female Arab artists, one cannot avoid the long-standing wars in the region that created and accelerated the oppression of women in Arab societies as means to divide and conquer.

Palestinian artist, activist and pioneer Vera Tamari established the Birzeit University museum in 2005 and held an exhibition there in 2011 that explored the representation around Palestinan women and their status through various artistic modes and concepts made by both male and female artists. Among
the themes that were addressed, women in war was one that caught my attention. The viewer is invited to contemplate the reason behind employing the figure of women in these works, how is she interpreted and received? and where does the body stand?

Two artworks stood out for me in this exhibition; “Over my dead Body” by Mona Hatoum and “Self Portrait” by Samira Badran. Both artworks confront war and race, but while one shows resilience in the face of oppression, another portrays the sense of fragmentation and trauma that comes from oppression.

Mona Hatoum - "Over My Dead Body", 1988
Mona Hatoum - "Over My Dead Body", 1988

In her artwork “Over my Dead Body” created in 1988 as a large billboard, Mona Hatoum portrays herself, defiantly confronting a toy soldier. This image symbolizes the many ways in which women are objectified and exploited in war, it resonates deeply with issues of oppression rooted in factors such as ethnicity, religion, nationality and race. It suggests that war and conquest often revolve around the objectification of women and transcends one army or one country over another, rather it encompasses a global conflict. By being the subject of her artwork, Mona uses this moment to express her own resolute nature and spirit in the face of the war.

Another self-portrait on display at the exhibit is by Samira Badran. She offers a different response to the impact of war. In contrast to Mona Hatoum's defiance against the soldier, Samira's portrayal is one of confinement and restriction by metal wires and bridles. At that time, Samira was in Cairo
studying the manual construction of old ships along the Nile. As she observed the way the metal wires and screws enclose and tighten on the parts of the
ship, she finds herself recalling her experience as a teenager in Palestine and how it felt just like that. The fragmentation and difficulty, barriers that stop motion and block the vision. She incorporated a ship's mast and keel into her artwork while donning a horse's bridle on her face. She presents herself as if encaged, appearing less human and more mechanical, her gaze focused, looks on to a distant city she dreams of. Samira was only 22 years old when she made this.

Samira Badran - "Self Portrait", 1977
Samira Badran - "Self Portrait", 1977

6. Kawkaba 2023

In the midst of war and social turmoil in the region, a significant number of artworks, particularly those created by female artists, suffered theft, destruction, or concealment.The narrative of the female experience in the Arab world was therefore buried as well. Colonization through the erasure of memory was the underlying purpose. Fast forward to 2023, Emirati educator and art collector Sultan al Qassemi curated the first Arab art exhibition at Christies, London, that paid homage to some of the long lost, and often-overlooked female Arab art works.

The exhibition served as a catalyst for committing to gender equality, featuring an equal representation of male and female artists, challenging the prevailing disparities, and promoting mutual respect and collaboration within the Arab art community

It set a new standard for global exhibitions, galleries, and educational institutions, advocating for equitable treatment of female Arab artists. Despite facing criticism for his insistence on a 50% split, Sultan remains steadfast in his pursuit of gender parity, recognizing the need for change in the art world's landscape.

Within the historical global disparities between men and women in access to education and scholarships, women discovered a new sense of liberation unconstrained by rules or institutional boundaries. They found freedom in exploring their creative instincts on their own, they turned to crafting from traditional techniques and local materials like ceramics, sand, henna, glass and carpets. This contributed to a diverse and culturally rich artistic landscape in the Arab world and held onto a distinct Arab essence to their art.

“The female artists had more creativity they had a creative spirit that is broader than men…… there was more creativity in the Arab world.” -Sultan al Qassemi.

The bid to redefine art by setting aside the brush and paint and reaching out to traditional craftmanship was also a form of activism to decolonize art practices in the region. Safia Ferhat, a pioneering Tunisian artist, played an essential role in this transformation.

Following the departure of French colonial authorities, in the 1960s, Safia became the first female director of the postcolonial School of Fine Arts in Tunis. She introduced traditional craftsmanship into art programs, turning to authentic local expertise and materials that had been marginalized during the colonial era. This marked the beginning of the decolonization of art in Tunisia and North Africa.

In her tapestry artwork "The Bride", featured in the exhibition, Safia combines Tunisian artistry with her own creative freedom, painting an abstract landscape as a backdrop to a traditional Tunisian bride, showcasing her dual artistic practice.

With her she gave pride to weavers, to artisans, so many people that you don’t see that are in the background and she worked with collaboratively, very closely and endowed so many through her art. Her art is so sophisticated and she makes us proud. – Dr. Ridha Mourn from Tunis, exhibition's curator with Sultan al Qassimi and deputy chairman of Christie's MENA.
Safia Ferhat - "The Bride"
Safia Ferhat - "The Bride"

While Safia Ferhat was decolonizing art in Tunisia, another artist in the Kawkaba room was drawing inspiration and techniques from diverse cultures, and this was Lebanese artist and activist Samia Osseiran Joumblatt. Little noticed in the art world before Kawkaba, Samia was actually a trailblazer in the arts since the early 90’s. She has had a rather unique journey that led her to practice different techniques from Lebanon, Italy and Japan. Her connection with these diverse cultures shaped her artistic practice and helped her to authentically express her inner truth.

Her work “Formative Radiation”, created some time during late 1960’s to 1970, Samia wanted to depict the celestial world, the realm of the divine and the spiritual and her fascination with light and the natural world.

Her work usually studies the journey of birth and death among other natural occurrences, she often takes her inspiration from the sun and the sea. From this, Samia depicts the natural world in a more impressionist approach to representing the topology of its subjects instead of mimicking what the objects she sees actually look like. Therefore, recreating the moment of seeing, instead of reproducing what one sees or what is actually there. And in this work the artist showcases her fascination with light, the sun and the sea.

I am always following an unknown light that pervades everything, that emanates from the soul and from nature – Samia Osseiran Joumblatt.
Samia Osseiran Joumblatt - “Formative Radiation”, 1977
Samia Osseiran Joumblatt - “Formative Radiation”, 1977

7. Woman Defining Woman LACMA 2023

The representation of Arab women artists and their artworks, reflecting the experiences of the Arab woman, has gone through a journey of deconstruction and self-reflection. Through this journey, they have garnered a comprehensive insight on the realities of our existence. Not only of Arab women, but of women, as well as men, everywhere.

In the name of self-determination, Linda Komaroff - Curator and Department Head of Art of the Middle East at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art(LACMA) – also organized an exhibition in 2023, with the title “Women Defining Women in Contemporary Art of the Middle East and Beyond”.

Running at the same time from London to America, another exhibition was taking place in the name of Arab women. In Los Angeles, US a.

The purpose of the exhibition was to depict a breadth of inventively and often ideologically conceived women’s imagery. And it hosted around 75 works by 42 women artists born or living from Africa to Western and Central Asia.

“Each through her unique vision is fashioning not only her own definition of self but is helping to redefine and empower women everywhere and to challenge still-persistent stereotypes” – Linda Komaroff, Curator.

Looking through the exhibition’s catalog one would quickly notice the polarity of representations. Two pairs of artworks in particular caught my attention. One portrays a woman at war with herself, and another lounging by herself with a sense of peace and self-assurance. These two contrasting images placed under the same title as women defining women depicts the breadth of the experiences of women.

Kezban Arca Batibeki - "Feud", 2020
Kezban Arca Batibeki - "Feud", 2020

In “Feud”, Turkish artist Kezban Arca Batibeki presents two striking figures of women facing one another with handguns pointing at each other. Their blown-out hair and the stiffness of their bodies emulate an explosive moment. They reflect the dilemma of living in a violent, patriarchal society, which diminishes and shakes their self confidence so at times the battle is within the woman herself.

On some musings on the exhibition, writer Philip Grant saw a demonstration and mockery of “quintessentially male violence “. He offers some contemplation and wonders “Are women compelled by the enduring structures of this violence to assert themselves through it, to replicate it, and in so doing to risk turning it on each other?”

On the other side, Iranian artist Atien Sohrabi captures a woman lounging unselfconsciously on a familiar Saturday night. In this moment a woman can unaffectedly experience their bodies which are few and far between. In this artwork, Sohrabi celebrates the simple pleasure of lying back and relaxing. The topless pose of the woman is a subtle reference to an Orientalist odalisque and the framing of her legs refashions her exposure to one that is
wholly her own.

These two artworks hold up a mirror to some of the most intimate experiences for a women, the moments she is at war with herself and the moment where she finds solace and some peace of mind on a Saturday night.

Atien Sohrabi - "Saturday Nights", 2018
Atien Sohrabi - "Saturday Nights", 2018

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.


  1. http://museum.birzeit.edu/exhibitions/framed-unframed-women-representations-palestinian-art-practice, http://virtualgallery.birzeit.edu/media/photo?photo_id=61165, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWtURd5bsIMhttps://www.artsy.net/artwork/mona-hatoum-over-my-dead-body-6, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1wYORR5JJo
  2. https://www.mei.edu/publications/kawkaba-sings-songs-lost-constellations?fbclid=IwAR36aX3ovlxzs--cRTL9JjJqZGi3-B0YLNlnpjgnWxaXKnUW_GvGbQDfdzI, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePT_1SpkrSw&t=2485s, https://dafbeirut.org/en/samia-osseiran-junblat, https://awarewomenartists.com/en/artiste/safia-farhat/, https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/arabic-art-women-kawkaba-london-1.6947538
  3. https://archive.org/details/women-defining-women, https://www.widewalls.ch/magazine/lacma-women-contemporary-art-middle-east, https://themarkaz.org/musings-on-a-major-exhibition-women-defining-women-at-lacma/, https://www.manaldowayan.com/exhibitions/120-women-defining-women-in-contemporary-art-of-the-los-angeles-county-museum-of-art-los/