Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

For paint alone

Nourhan Tewfik quizzes the Moroccan-British artist Wadia Boutaba on her woman-oriented work

For paint alone
For paint alone
Al-Ahram Weekly

“When I go back to Morocco, everything I see is colourful. Whether it’s the food, markets, floor patterns, kaftans, landscape, textiles, wood or metal work, Morocco is full of beautiful patterns. And I think this is how we display ourselves. We like to be colourful, and I’m trying to depict such colourfulness in my work.”

So says Moroccan artist Wadia Boutaba, speaking over Skype.

Born in the UK to Moroccan parents from the northern province of Nador, Boutaba developed an interest in fine art at a young age. She earned a foundation degree in art and design. After completing a degree in textile design from the University of Derby, specialising in woven fabrics, she pursued a career in fashion retail management. It was a few years later while she was expecting her first child that Boutaba – now a married woman – decided to mould fine art into a vocation. Since then, she has exhibited in Wiltshire, Trowbridge – her town, and the home of the largest Moroccan community in the UK outside London – as well as in London and Singapore. Her work was also acquired by the Ayyam Gallery Young Collectors Auctions in Dubai. In her paintings, Boutaba celebrates the vibrant culture of her ancestral home, focusing on Moroccan women and taking pride in their unique blend of strength and fragility.  By challenging preconceived notions of women as downtrodden or oppressed, she shows up Orientalist misconceptions of the Arab world as a whole. “You can only paint what you know,” she says.

“I’m a Moroccan Muslim woman born in the UK. While I’ve now come to an age where I am at peace with that identity, growing up was not as easy. There was this duality where you come back from school, close the door and find that the traditions you hold on to, starting with the food you eat, and reaching to how you perceive yourself as a woman, are dictated by your Moroccan roots. So in that sense, growing up with such duality can be very difficult.”

Yet learning and speaking Arabic, Boutaba was able to harmonise the two sides of her identity – something that was aided further by annual visits to Morocco with her family. On those visits, she says, “we’d always go to the market, buy cassettes and dance to our music. In Morocco you hear some music everywhere, and it was always a source of inspiration for me.” In her 2009 collection of paintings etitled “Early Works Exploring Childhood Memories”, snippets of this view of Morocco appear: everyday conversations, children holding musical instruments and women embracing children. Here as elsewhere vibrant colours are Boutaba’s hallmark.

As an artist she also brings up Moroccan immigrants who, she says, “are not talked about so much in art and in media. We don’t hear much about what happens to those who migrate. How do they keep their traditions and language alive? How do they hold on to and continue to remember their history?” The audacity of women who left Morocco for the UK in the 1960s and 1970s impresses her. “The UK was very different than how it is now. The challenges that they must have faced are huge.” The act of leaving challenges the typical stereotype of Arab women lacking strength or will. Boutaba’s reference point is her own family.

“My parents worked in a factory along with many other Moroccans. They were also supporting families back home. And it was very difficult,” she explains. “My mother did not speak the language, knew nothing about the lifestyle but she also tried to hold on to her identity and bring up her children to be loyal to their heritage.”

This focus is part of Boutaba’s life-long exploration of her identity. In her 2012 collection, “The Moroccan Feast”, she paints women’s professions in and outside the household. She says the collection was “inspired by the Arab woman’s role, with its richness in colour and layered identity, which I wanted to both explore and celebrate. I used such vibrant colours to show that she’s happy and patient. Her role resembles a Moroccan feast.  She’s a wife, mother, daughter, sister and friend all at once.”

The Moroccan woman in the countryside as a guardian of heritage fascinates her: “She wakes up at dawn and carries out the traditional practices that were performed by our grandfathers hundreds and hundreds of years ago. I wanted to show her loyalty to such traditions and how she holds the unit of a home together...”

It is a reflection of how Boutaba’s art is an attempt to hold together her own identity. In her 2013 collection, Boutaba focuses on tribal women and their facial tattoos, which traditionally signified passage into adulthood. The tattoo “resembled a rebirth, and was a celebration of that change,” she explains. “This is interesting because I grew up being told I could never have a tattoo, while it turns out my grandmother had one. Now I am challenging the idea.”

And yet Boutaba refuses to classify herself as a feminist, settling for “strong woman who challenges understandings of women’s role in eastern societies”. On the one hand there is the western media, in which Muslim women are portrayed as downtrodden, uneducated and controlled by men, but on the other hand there is her experience, in which their power and will are paramount, so “we’re dealing with two very different perceptions of these same women”. Boutaba sees her art as a way of bridging the gap: “The west asks about my work’s portrayal of women and what is unfolding in the region. There is also an existing fear of Muslims. And I’m trying to change that through my work.”

But there is plenty of critique of Moroccan society, for all that. In one painting, two different feet are juxtaposed. The lighter one, decorated with henna, is that of the white-skinned bride. The dark foot, plain, belongs to the husband. “She’s a lighter skin because we’ve always been told it’s a synonym of beauty,” Boutaba comments. “The painting explores wedding culture and how within our cultures we can be quite racist. There’s also a nail under the groom’s foot to depict the huge responsibility now awaiting him. How is he, while battling poverty and unemployment, going to keep this bride?”

Boutaba has been influenced by the political change sweeping the Arab world. In a collection of paintings on paper, she alternates between a monochromatic palette and a colourful one to convey the raw emotion of the Arab Spring.

“I did those during 2012-2013. There was a lot of death and loss in the Middle East then. I tried to use a different medium, namely paper, and employed dull colours because it was a sombre time. It was heartbreaking knowing that many friends in the Middle East were losing family members, and it was especially aggravated by the raw and unedited social media images that were being circulated.”

In another collection of 2012, similarly motivated, Boutaba manages to convey the same sense of urgency with her usual palette. In some paintings, the subjects’ mouths are covered to symbolise voicelessness. While making these paintings, Boutaba was thinking of “these people that are suffering and how voiceless they are despite their wailing and screaming, especially as it took a while for such events to receive any media attention”.

Boutaba’s own position as a woman and a mother intensified the poignancy. “No one brings their child to the world thinking that they’re going to go into war,” she says, “or experience martyrdom. How can I sit here and watch the news then talk about something that has nothing to do with what happens in Syria or Lebanon or Egypt?”

Boutaba hopes to resume her exploration of identity by integrating different mediums, like photography, into her repertoire. She thinks of her work as a dialogue she initiates with the audience, not only with the purpose of challenging their preconceptions but also to motivate budding artists.

“If my work can touch another person who is growing up in the same way as I did, producing art, expressing herself and doing what she loves to do, and encourage them to go for it, I’ll be very happy,” she says. “Although I think it’s sad that some of the young generation are running away from their identity, there is also a movement of people who incorporate contemporary fashions with a traditional twist. I find this fusion inspiring and refreshing. The world is changing, this is not necessarily a bad thing and I think we need to remain hopeful and work together to inspire change in a positive light. I like that there is a growing number of artists who are communicating their views. I like that there is a community where artists are no longer solitary in their practice but support, encourage and inspire each other.”

Information about Boutaba’s work is available on

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