Shuwaikh, Kuwait – It took some time, but Shurooq Amin is finally at peace.
The artist, known for her politically charged and visually seductive work, relaxes over coffee at a spacious art gallery in an industrial section of Kuwait, where her show It’s a Mad World recently ended after an impactful six-week run.
For the 48-year-old Kuwaiti, there is a sense of relief that four years after the notorious opening-day shutdown of her previous hometown exhibit, things went off without a hitch this time.
“It’s been the best time of my life,” Amin told Al Jazeera, grinning. “A lot has changed in Kuwait, and a lot has changed for me as an artist, and as a human being.”
Back in 2012, the unveiling of her show It’s A Man’s World lasted just three hours before a raid by Kuwaiti authorities, who labelled it as “pornographic” and “anti-Islamic”.
Images of locals drinking whisky, getting high and gambling – along with scenes of closeted gay men in crisis – were enough ammo for hardliners.
Ironically, though, the strongest criticism came from fellow artists who recoiled from the spotlight. “They resented me for that,” she said. “But the country needed it. It wasn’t intentional, but it opened a dialogue about censorship.”
Such discussion is crucial, as mastering the limits for pushing artistic boundaries in a country such as Kuwait is itself more art than science.
According to Khalid Alhamad, an official at the country’s National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters, it is vital to avoid art that could offend the country or criticise its ruling emir. But what is considered offensive can vary widely: “These are the firm laws; the others are to do with common sense and issues with visual nudity,” Alhamad told Al Jazeera.
Yet stifling creativity is not part of the country’s ethos, he said, citing a project to build one of the largest cultural centres in the world as Kuwait heads “in a new direction to really encourage and promote the arts in all aspects”.
Nevertheless, Amin received a significant amount of hate mail after the well-publicised raid on her show, prompting her to avoid email for some time. Amin, a mother of four, also had to defend her tearful children from school bullies.
However, when she finally checked her email inbox three weeks later, she was stunned by an outpouring of support from total strangers. “They gave me so much strength, and I took that situation and turned it into something positive.
It's been the best time of my life. A lot has changed in Kuwait, and a lot has changed for me as an artist, and as a human being.
“Now it’s the other way around,” she added. “Now people who don’t even know [my daughter] want to talk to her because they want to know me.”
What changed was the skewed perception that she was being unpatriotic, she explained. “It’s because I love my country that I want it to progress.”
Farida Sultan, director of the Sultan Gallery in Kuwait, also dismissed the anti-nationalistic accusation. “It’s about time somebody did that,” she said, although she conceded that Amin’s works “could have been more subtle”.
Amin took the right steps to avoid confrontation this time around, said Sultan, whose gallery has been open since 1969. Notably, It’s a Mad World opened at the remote Contemporary Art Platform space, rather than the popular Salhia mall downtown, where the ban was originally implemented.
“If she showed up in a mall [with her artwork again], she might get hell,” Sultan said. “The space has a lot to do with it.”
Amin’s renaissance coincided with personal events – a painful divorce being one of them – which led to a path of self-discovery that manifested in her art over the years. She doubles as an English professor at Kuwait University, and her artwork also tends to play on literature.
One piece on display, For Whom the Bed Tolls, is a giant self-portrait with Amin wrapped in white lace, reclining in a Jesus-on-the-crucifix position, representing her post-divorce resurrection.
Women’s empowerment is Amin’s most powerful message, one amplified repeatedly in her seven exhibits. Another flashpoint is the plight of refugees, both in Kuwait and Syria, the birthplace of Amin’s mother.
Lovers in the Sun shows a couple interacting in front of a backdrop of graffiti that the artist photographed in Taimaa, a remote slum in Kuwait that serves as home to its stateless population of roughly 100,000, known as Bidoons. Much of the canvas is awash in blood-red.
The exhibit’s definitive piece, however, is a strong statement on alcoholism and the devastation it wreaks on loved ones. The Last Sip is displayed discreetly behind a blank wall in the gallery, with a “no photography” sign at its entrance.
The room, it turns out, is cluttered with 300 empty bottles of alcohol, displayed on dining tables and hung from walls. Kuwait enforces a strict alcohol ban, so the bottles were collected from behind-closed-doors drinkers over a period of 18 months.
Behind them sit three paintings mimicking Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, with 13 Amin lookalikes displaying painful expressions – meant to represent the feelings of alcoholics’ loved ones.
“On the day of the opening, I would be standing outside and people would come out in tears,” she recalled.
Despite the weight of her topics, however, Amin – who sports several tattoos with words of inspiration, including “blessed” – remains an optimist.
“I’m never without hope,” she said. “In all of these paintings – every single one – though the initial message may seem to be dark, there’s always a flower or butterfly or something to indicate growth and blooming and hope and evolution.”