Saudi artist Ramah Al-Husseini reveals stories behind some of her favorite work

Saudi artist Ramah Al-Husseini reveals stories behind some of her favorite work
Ramah Al-Husseini studied art for her IB in high school and graduated from Concordia University in Canada with a Bachelor’s in Studio Arts Fine Arts.(Supplied)
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Updated 29 October 2020

Saudi artist Ramah Al-Husseini reveals stories behind some of her favorite work

Saudi artist Ramah Al-Husseini reveals stories behind some of her favorite work

MANAMA: Ramah Al-Husseini is a 31-year-old Saudi artist of Palestinian descent who lives in Bahrain. Her work has been shown widely in the region and overseas and she is particularly known for the use of flowers to represent sometimes-difficult subjects.

Al-Husseini says she has “been into art forever” and “always painting and drawing.” She studied art for her IB in high school and graduated from Concordia University in Canada with a Bachelor’s in Studio Arts Fine Arts.

On returning to Bahrain, she found an art scene that was heavily geared towards traditional, established artists so, in 2011, she decided to set up Anamil, a gallery showcasing her own work and offering a platform for other up-and-coming artists to display theirs. She has also curated shows for other venues, runs workshops and regularly donates her pieces to charity.

For the past several years she has been working on several projects based on the same concept. “I have been using flowers since 2011/2012, mostly desert flowers because I am from the Middle East,” she explains. “What fascinates me is that if you look out of your window here, there’s a lot of desert but, with just a bit of water, all of a sudden, there’s this beautiful greenery and flowers everywhere. So, it’s talking about the dead-looking desert and how something beautiful can come from a harsh environment.”

Through her surrealist floral images, she focusses on existing social pressures that can suppress truth and tackles a variety of other subjects in a bid to prompt discussion.

Here, Al-Husseini talks us through some of her favorite work.

‘Today’s Habit of Suppression for Convenience Becomes the Norm of Tomorrow’

This was part of an exhibition in Bahrain where I brought together five fellow artists working in various other fields, including performance and installation. The concept of this work is how we tend to limit ourselves mentally, either consciously or sub-consciously, because we want to fit in and are afraid that we don’t. There is a fear of not fitting in, even if we don’t actually want to. That’s something that not just I have struggled with but also family and friends. The people in the painting are a family. The older members are wearing traditional clothing and the red flowers on their heads are all one color, symbolizing fixed views. The son has a red palette and is painting out the new ideas in his own head to conform; he is using the paint as a source of limitation. In a way it’s about how we try to hide ourselves from our parents.

‘Heavily Comfortable’

This was a part of the same exhibition in Bahrain as “Today’s Habit…” The subject is comfortable in his position and the scissors provide the source of limitation. This time, he has some new thoughts in his head but, in his lap, you can see those he has cut off in order to stay comfortable with things as they are.

‘Breathing Space’

Also, part of the same exhibition dealing with how we limit ourselves in our eagerness to conform – but this one shows the opposite. He has many different ideas in his head in the form of flowers and is cutting those singular thoughts that would try to overwhelm him — cutting the approaching flowers to give space for his own thoughts. It’s about taking space for yourself.

‘A Thinker’s Guide to Thinking’

This was one of a set of pieces commissioned in 2014 for “Khaleejesque” magazine, which is published in Kuwait. They accompanied a piece written by Haider Al-Mosawi. The two men together show a traditional way of greeting (pre-Covid, obviously) in which they would stand shoulder-to-shoulder, their noses would touch and they would be cheek-to-cheek. This is the most respectful way of greeting in the GCC and what it is basically saying is, “We are equal.” The various headdresses denote that this is common to many Arabs regardless of their nationality and the multiple different colors illustrate that, as Arabs, we come in many different colors too.

‘Sense of Self’

This piece was created in 2016, following all the upheaval in the Middle East. It’s a comment on that and on how I was feeling — it’s pretty literal. The old man is both a clown and a baby. We are crying because we feel helpless, like a baby, and the clown brings laughter but he’s crying and is not taken seriously. He’s wearing the traditional headdresses, as shown in some of my other pieces. I chose a man because, usually, if you want something done you might ask a man, but this man is both a crying baby and a clown. It was shown in Saudi, Bahrain and Oman as well as at the Underland Art Festival and is currently in Desert Design in Alkhobar.

‘Collision of Worlds’

This 2018 piece is part of a set. There are two other pictures: One is a happy face which has red flowers, the other is a miserable face with yellow flowers. One was commenting on the other — the new things that you learn; that’s the happy red flowers. The yellow talks about the things that you were born into: culture, religion, community, family. The final piece, shown here, talks about the struggle with both and the collision of the two worlds.

‘Me, Myself and I’ 

Created in 2016, this trio has been showcased in both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. It’s a play on the three wise monkeys but turned around, so, rather than ‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,’ the message is ‘Speak out, listen well and look out.’ The person represents me and is drawn in traditional Saudi dress and painted onto raw wood.

‘Charity Chair’

I donated this piece to a Saudi-based charity raising funds for Syria. It was done in 2014, when I was only two or three years out of uni. Coming from a place like Canada, where you have so many mediums and endless creative possibilities, I felt a bit limited as there was little like that here. So, I decided to challenge that restriction by painting on different surfaces. I used the jasmine flower because it is common in Syria as well as in Lebanon and Palestine. Whenever I do things for charity, I try to connect them to the place or people they will, hopefully, benefit.

‘Collaboration with Reem BuQais’ 

These pieces were created for a collaboration with local fashion designer Reem BuQais. She had just been to Japan and came back wanting to make a tribute — through fashion — celebrating Arab and Japanese culture. She invited me to create pieces that represent that. The hair is traditional Japanese, and the background is traditional Saudi patterns. She took elements from my work and used them in her designs; it’s a nice compliment to see people wearing them.


Palestinian singer Rasha Nahas discusses her long-delayed debut album

Updated 04 December 2020

Palestinian singer Rasha Nahas discusses her long-delayed debut album

Palestinian singer Rasha Nahas discusses her long-delayed debut album

AMSTERDAM: In May 2019, life was looking good for Palestinian singer-songwriter Rasha Nahas. She had begun to establish herself in Berlin — having moved there from her hometown of Haifa in 2017; her debut album — wrapped in 2018 — was just weeks away from being released; and she had a prospective tour of the Middle East and Europe lined up. 

“I feel like a lot of exciting things are happening and hopefully the album will bring more,” she told me then. “I’m not in a hurry, but I’m going full-power with all of my will and passion.”

Fast-forward to today and that debut album is still just weeks away from release. Not long after we spoke last year, Nahas began to experience pain in her wrists and hands. It quickly became serious enough that she went to see a doctor who diagnosed her with repetitive strain injury. 

Her debut album (cover pictured) is just weeks away from release. Supplied

“It was really hardcore,” she says. “Both my hands and wrists had very, very bad inflammation. I couldn’t type emails or hold my phone or carry groceries and stuff. It was basically from overplaying. It had been a very busy time with shows and traveling, and a lot of stress. That was good, in some ways, because it meant things were happening for me, but the mental stress also wasn’t good for my body. I just had to stop everything, take a break and focus on getting better.”

Having psyched herself up for the release of her album, the necessary postponement — and cancellation of her tour plans — was something of a comedown. 

“Everything was a big frustration,” she says. “And I couldn’t really let that energy out in music, because I wasn’t able to (play).”

That last part, especially, was a huge blow to someone for whom music has been “a place of escape and expression and dealing with things and understanding myself” since her early teens and has become the thing from which she makes her living — an impressive feat for any artist, but particularly an independent musician from the Middle East. 

Nahas first picked up a guitar – which actually belonged to her sister – when she was a kid. Supplied

Nahas first picked up a guitar when she was a kid. It actually belonged to her sister, who “took a few lessons then stopped.” 

“I would tune it in very weird ways and strum it and sing out of tune,” she says. “Then I decided to study guitar. The only available option that my parents liked was classical music. So for nine years I did classical guitar and theory. I wanted to drop it (often), but I’m glad I didn’t.”

Music was popular in the Nahas household — from classic Arab artists including Fayrouz (“My mother’s a big fan”) to Western artists. Nahas chose to listen mostly to the latter. “We had a massive collection of CDs in the car and every Saturday we’d drive to the Galilee with the windows open and very fresh air and listen to John Lennon. That’s my main memory of music from my childhood,” she says. As a teenager she branched out into hard rock, pop, jazz and more. Oh, and Avril Lavigne (“That’s a bit embarrassing now,” she admits). 

Music was popular in the Nahas household — from classic Arab artists to Western artists. Supplied

She estimates she wrote her first original song around the age of 15. “It probably sounded like a normal indie-rock song, but I think the (lyrical) content was quite different,” she says. “It was about life as a Palestinian girl understanding her identity, and asking questions — about the political situation too. Looking at it now, I think, ‘Woah! That’s what I was dealing with at the age of 15?’”

It took a few years before she felt she was developing her own identity as an artist, though. She played her first gig as she finished high school, aged 18, by which time she had about an hour’s worth of original material. 

It makes sense that Nahas had classical training and listened to a wide variety of genres growing up — and that she composes music for the theater professionally. Her songs, and particularly her vocal delivery, have a definite theatrical vibe, and there are hints of several influences — pop, indie rock, jazz, rockabilly, surrealism, punk, spoken-word, and more. The result is something that seems entirely organic and entirely honest. It’s not necessarily easily accessible, but it’s certainly some of the most interesting work you’ll hear from a contemporary Middle Eastern artist, at least in the English language. 

A still from the “Desert” music video. Supplied

The two singles released from the album so far — “The Clown” and title track “Desert” — are good examples; both showcasing her distinctive style. The former was written a month after Nahas moved to Berlin, aged 21 (because “I just needed to be away, make music and take time to just be and understand things”). “It came from a few days of thoughts that were gathering and piling up — about being away from home, about artists getting on stage and getting labeled as Palestinian or as Israeli, about the political situation that never really leaves you.”

The latter, released in November, was written around the same time. “It’s a very personal song talking about searching and the things that are changing around us,” Nahas explains. “In the video (shot in Haifa), we played a lot with metaphors and images — we have kids with guns, we have a dancer crucified on an olive tree to symbolize the ties to the land. We have an old, abandoned building in Haifa contrasted with the big glass buildings to ask ourselves where our identity — as Palestinian 48ers — fits between tradition and modern colonialism.”

“The Clown” is the first single from her debut album. Supplied

The search for identity is a central theme of Nahas’ debut album, which will finally see the light of day on January 29. “It was very influenced by the relocation from Palestine to Germany,” she says. “So it deals with questions of identity and of what our responsibility to our identity is. I come from this place that has a certain political weight, traditionally. So how do I deal with that weight? How do I sing about it? Who am I in it?”

The end to the record’s long delay will doubtless come as a huge relief to Nahas, after what she describes as “one of the heaviest years for me.” Her almost-complete recovery from injury all but coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the year also included the death of a close friend — one of the dancers in the “Desert” video. 

The search for identity is a central theme of Nahas’ debut album, which will finally see the light of day on January 29. Supplied

“That challenged my relationship with the (record). He was part of the creation, in a way. And the release was postponed because of the injury and the pandemic. I wished it had been finished and that he could have seen it, because he really put everything into it. So it just added another layer to everything.”

That heavy year hasn’t been entirely without positives though, she stresses. “Even though it’s been very unsettling, with my injury and the pandemic, it did ground something in me. It forced me to look inward more, but also to look at what’s around me and appreciate it and grow from it.”

She played her first gig as she finished high school, aged 18, by which time she had about an hour’s worth of original material. Supplied

Given the years between the album’s completion and release, I wonder if Nahas still feels as connected to the work. Her answer is a definite yes. 

“It captures a period in my life that I needed to capture and I’m really happy I did that. The songs came from a very honest place. That’s the most important thing — I feel like that doesn’t get old,” she says. “ So, it doesn’t matter when it comes out, because it’s real and it’s truthful — and I’m sure that will be reflected in the interaction with the people who are going to listen to it.”