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

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.


Saudi soundsmith Molham blends Arabic rap with Western pop

Updated 18 min 35 sec ago

Saudi soundsmith Molham blends Arabic rap with Western pop

  • Artist’s eclectic taste in music speaks to a global upbringing and the Kingdom’s promising concert scene
  • Themes of Molham’s lyrics range from love to societal matters and mental-health disorders

DUBAI: The career trajectory of Jeddah-born rap artist Molham Krayem has much in common with his native Saudi Arabia, a country undergoing rapid change in different fields. Both take pride in their unique identity, having embraced the best influences of globalization and its cultural mores while preserving the distinctive textures of Middle Eastern heritage.

For Molham, the process of synthesis does not end here. His musical alchemy fuses Arabic and Khaleeji rap with Western pop melodies, creating a whole new sub-genre of music, a sound best defined by his latest track Khayali.

“Pop/rap is going to be my direction moving forward, because rap has been relatively underground in the last two decades and mainstream radio music is very melodic,” Molham told Arab News from his base in Dubai. “You can sing along to the lyrics, memorize them easily, and the melody there is really what hooks you.”

Molham’s diverse taste in music speaks to a global upbringing since childhood. Leaving Jeddah at a young age, he spent much of his early years in Ontario, Canada. “They were my formative years,” he said. “Coming back to Saudi Arabia, I had a bit of reverse culture shock getting back here. It took about a year or so before I felt integrated really well. Then I spent most of my time here.”

Molham’s musical alchemy fuses Arabic and Khaleeji rap with Western pop melodies. (Supplied)

His discovery of music can be traced back to his high school days, when he would jot down lyrics during math class. While on breaks, he would join rap contests with his peers. Fortunately, his grades did not suffer as a result.

“Sometimes during math class, in the last couple of minutes, the teacher knew I would be writing raps, so he would end early and have me do my bit,” he said. “And the whole class would run wild. It was a conducive environment.”

Next came a move to the US, where he attended Georgetown University to study finance and economics. While there, he performed in coffee shops, talent shows and radio stations as part of a duo called 705B. It was also while here that Molham came to understand the complexities of the music industry.

After graduation, he relocated to Dubai and began plotting a course to professional fulfilment and success.

“Before, I never really saw a music career as a possibility,” he said. “As I dug deeper into what I wanted my impact in this world to be, I saw myself as an artist creating music (for) the Saudi Arabian community.”

From his very first performance, Molham knew he had made the right choice. “My first time performing publicly on stage was in Saudi Arabia,” Molham said. “That was the first time I felt the adrenaline of what it felt like to perform. The most gratifying element for me in music is performing, being with fans and having people sing along.”

Molham says Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries should recognize the value of sharing a distinctive musical style with the outside world. (AFP)

Today, Saudi Arabia feels extremely friendly to concertgoers and welcoming to artists like Molham. Big music festivals such as MDL Beast and a whole new industry of studios and promoters have provided the ecosystem and the fan base he needed to launch his career.

“People began to understand my art, and that led to me wanting to give more,” he told Arab News.

Molham says he feels a close affinity with his fans and recalls the time a fan messaged him from hospital where she was recovering from PTSD. She told him his songs had helped her recuperate.

“When I hear things like that, it’s all worth it,” he said. “Seeing people’s responses and enjoyment of the music really is fuel to continue to put out music. It’s all about connecting with people.”

Molham explores a range of themes in his lyrics, from love to societal matters to mental-health disorders, broadening his appeal with a blend of English and Arabic. He launched his debut EP, The Time Is Yesterday, in March of 2018, with features from Egyptian starlet Malak El-Husseiny and Yusra J.

“My parents have always trusted me to do the things that I wanted to do,” says Molham. (Supplied)

The medium-length album’s breakout single, Me Against the World, hit the top hip-hop charts in the Middle East and North Africa, trending across seven different countries. New singles are already in the works.

Molham says his family has supported the choices he has made in life. “My parents have always trusted me to do the things that I wanted to do,” he said.

“It’s been really incredible. Obviously, they have their opinions on certain things. But since I was a kid, I’ve been able to do what I say because I’ve built that trust with them to be able to say something and actually do it.”

As worthy as it may be, music is not Molham’s sole vocation. He is also the founder of Kraytiv Entertainment Group, a Jeddah-based record label, content studio and talent management agency. In addition, he writes for Forbes magazine, providing his take on business strategy.

Looking to the future, he plans to shuttle between Saudi Arabia and Dubai for performances and collaborations. Although the coronavirus crisis has put a break on his travels and concerts for a time, he says it has enabled him to stay focused and further channel his creativity toward music.

Today, Saudi Arabia feels extremely friendly to concertgoers and welcoming to artists like Molham. (AFP)

Molham remains optimistic despite the blows dealt by the pandemic to the global cultural industry. “We’re prepared,” he said. “The future in the Kingdom is very bright. There is a lot of opportunity in Saudi Arabia and more nurturing of talent, so talents will mature earlier. We will see a lot of superstars.”

Citing the example of K-Pop, which became a defining image for South Korea, Molham says Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries should recognize the value of sharing a distinctive musical style with the outside world.

“There’s a space for this genre, which I’m trying to mold and shed light on,” Molham said. “I am creating this new genre called A-pop.”

Saudi Arabia’s cultural revitalization is underway at full pelt but it is early days yet, so rap artists such as Molham remain a rare breed. Which leads to the inevitable question: What reception does he get when foreigners realize he is Saudi?

“There is still a little bit of surprise, but people are pleasantly surprised,” Molham said. “It’s something new to the mainstream. With anything new, people will be surprised. But how you introduce this newness is where the key is. You show people what you have to offer, and you make space for them to appreciate it.”

Twitter: @CalineMalek