Of lovers whose faces are hidden, we are voyeurs denied the fulfillment of our desires. We cannot see the sultry eyes or long for moistened lips. This is the case with Kuwaiti/Syrian artist Shurooq Amin, who erases the faces of her subjects so as to think more about the nurture (not Nature) of identity creation. In much of her art, the women’s faces are obscured by a veil created by erasing the paint on the canvas. Their eyes are almost always visible, though, which adds mystery and power to the feminine subjects. The men are masked, too, sometimes with their faces completely erased, sometimes with just only a portion missing. Rarely is an entire face shown, and even then most of the time it is behind a fishnet like latticework (such as in “The Last Straw,” 2013). In questioning the individuals in her art, we are forced to come to an understanding of the surrounding culture first, the individual second.
About the masks, in an interview with me last year, Amin reveals:
There are two objectives from masking the faces: 1) to hide the identity of the people in the images, because they are all real people, not made up characters; and 2) to symbolize the double lives we lead here and the encouragement that society in the Middle East gives to double standards: do what I say not what I do, for example. In the Middle East, there are unspoken rules that order us to lie and hide our true identity, because our society doesn't condone individuality—it condones conformity. So, if you want to be accepted, you have to conform to the social norms, even if you don't believe in them.
Amin’s two-dimensional work is almost physical. You can nearly feel the low-boil sensuality and sex placed directly in a canvas of pulsing commercialism and materialism. In her work, one immediately senses the tension between oppression and liberation, conformity and individualism. The atmosphere is flammable. The coming together of ideas and emotions—this smashing of energies—prefigures an imminent explosion.
Amin’s art, it should be noted, has been censored in Kuwait. What is so offensive to conservative authorities? It’s simple: she boldly depicts powerful women and hypocritical men. And in most of her recent work, there is the not-so-subtle theme of sex and power. She who holds the sex holds the power, Amin wants to say, but her two-faced male counterparts—pious by day, playboys at night—haven’t gotten the message. The women are desirable. The men, too, are handsome, but it is their macho behavior that repulses: their confidence is self-evident, which infuriates.
“Of Wives and Men” (2013) depicts an obviously disturbing circumstance. The emotionally charged painting is a commentary on arranged marriages, especially those between older and experienced men and adolescent (and often pre-adolescent) girls. In this work, the girl (not quite a woman), eyes downcast, is resigned to a marriage to which she wants no part. There is no love. In contrast, the man is triumphant. He has been awarded a plaything, an object—a wife-object. In a move that is uncommon among her work, Amin has made the mask around his mouth more transparent, so we see his conquering, toothy grin. His eyes remain hidden, but his head is up, forward-looking, confident. The girl’s arms are slack, shoulders sagging, looking down with disturbing thoughts on her mind. There is more sadness than dread. She is defeated. The enlarged cherries on the ground reference her virginity now in his possession.
Amin’s sense of femininity and feminism is contemporary, instantly recognizable. The repression to which she refers is ancient, outmoded, and yet so very present. The masks on her male and female subjects do not hide these political circumstances. Instead, deliberately erasing faces brings the matter to the surface. Throughout Amin’s oeuvre, the balance between sex and politics is in perfect balance. Her work is hot-blooded without being hotheaded.
Feminism, Identity, Shurooq Amin