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Man arrested over profane online videos

By Abdulwahab Al-Tabatabaie

“Repression cannot exist without opposition,” said Judie Mannaa, an up-and-coming voice in the Kuwaiti art community over coffee in Kuwait City, which has, in recent years, become a cradle of culture and the arts. Scarcely a 100 years ago, contemporary Kuwaiti art (and its artists) amounted to a niche but culturally and creatively rich minority that intended to capture the nation’s, then, simple day-to-day and rural living through modest impressionist tableaux.

Fast forward a few decades, and today, the canvas has widened, giving way for a broad and vibrant art scene, whose artists bear the torch of their predecessors in raising a mirror to a society steeped in tradition and continued innovation. Recent contention and censorship, however, challenge these artists’ ability to balance the legacy of the past with the urgency of the present: How much longer can censorship intrude on art, before it becomes its subject?

In the heyday of Kuwait’s contemporary culture, the country could be described as a modern refuge for regional artists. Historically, the art scene in Kuwait was defined by two distinct eras, which were bold and innovative in both respects: The impressionists, who domineered the years prior to the oil boom, intending to capture the traditional native sensibilities, and beginning from the ‘60s and ‘70s, the modernists, who pioneered artist culture with the advent of such artists as Khalifa Al-Qattan and Munira Al-Kazi.

These artists came to Kuwait from abroad with a knowledge of Western and neighboring cultures which were then applied to local art. Reuters called this era of the Kuwaiti art scene the “most avant garde in the Gulf”. But this scramble for culture and the arts took a deep nosedive as it tackled rising sentiments of conservatism in the region and the Iraqi invasion, which caused a bottleneck in expression.

Superimposed, Judie Mannaa (2023)
Superimposed, Judie Mannaa (2023)

In the years since, the scene has experienced a renaissance headed by young artists eager to reinvent the wheel in the silent struggle against sensitive topics. One of the boldest young pioneers of this cultural — or, rather countercultural — revival is Mannaa, a mixed media artist based in Kuwait. Mannaa, 16, described the issue: “As someone who’s been both an observer and, as of late, an active participant in the Kuwait art scene, I’ve definitely seen the sentiment echoed that the Kuwaiti cultural atmosphere isn’t the most accepting of all art. A lot of artists that I’ve met, both students and established visual artists with careers, feel as though they have to approach specific themes and statements with more subtlety and sensitivity than they’d have to elsewhere.”

But this was not always the case. Many of the era-defining artists of Kuwait’s golden age of art battled harsh traditional and religious convictions. It was only in the years leading up to the Iraqi invasion that a more conservative stance on expression took foothold, which was viewed by some as retaliation against the country’s liberalism. The building of private infrastructure and services has taken precedence over the preservation of the country’s rich creative culture.

These restrictions have had an inverse effect, however, providing artists a platform to communicate their themes in more subtle, dynamic ways, echoing these artists’ opposition to the status quo. “Personally, I see it as a challenge which prompts me to explore more creative, subtle, and symbolic means of visual communication,” Mannaa said. Her works, while not always overtly confrontational, offer a space for communication which defies the classic boundaries of tradition, namely, in her piece exhibited at a showcase earlier last year, Superimposed, which offers a dualistic narrative between those who subscribe to settler-colonist and pro-Palestinian beliefs that highlights a prevailing statement of resistance against apartheid.

For artists like Mannaa, the growing limitations in freedom of expression have allowed them to craft nuanced dialogues between the seen and the unsaid. In her words, “those who oppose with minimal access to tools of self-expression must do so in a way which allows them to maneuver around the hypothetical yellow tape.”

Nevertheless, not all artists view the Kuwaiti creative landscape through this lens of repression. For some, these boundaries are clearly established but flexible, serving as a framework to better cater to the public than restrict creative influence. Hashem Behbehani, a Kuwaiti comic artist and illustrator whose comics frequently address sensitive sociopolitical and bureaucratic issues in Kuwait, for instance, is an artist who feels safe and comfortable speaking on political matters in the country.

“Not at all, actually,” Behbehani, 33, replied when asked if he felt repressed with respect to the art he and artists in Kuwait are able to produce, in an interview with Kuwait Times. “Regardless of all the negative things that come with being in Kuwait ... I think one of the biggest pros is that we do have a certain level of freedom of expression, and I do not feel fear when it comes to making art that’s political in Kuwait. Because, so far, the rules have been clear as to what can and cannot be said,” he pointed out.

Legal restrictions in freedom of expression in Kuwait are reserved for speaking poorly about HH the Amir and the explicit referencing of names and/or personal attacks on public figures, which have been easy for Behbehani to avoid until this point, despite his outspoken illustrations and bold opinions on certain policies and bureaucracy in the country. Some artists are still able to succeed without violating cultural sensitivities. Regardless, he described the future as being unsure: “Can this change? Maybe. Especially with the laws that are being put forward by the ministry of communication.”

While the art scene in Kuwait hosts a large number of conflicting views, as each artist must reconcile themselves with the cultural landscape differently, this diversity only makes for a more colorful social tapestry. Whether they fight against boundaries or embrace them, artists share the collective mission of honoring the hardships of the past with the promise of an infinite future.

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