Aruua Al-Salami is Emirati and identifies themselves as non-binary – someone who identifies outside the gender binary. Despite growing up in a sheltered and conservative environment in Sharjah, UAE, Aruua thankfully found new perspectives and self-acceptance through creating art. For many, growing up in Arab culture often means that the boundaries of freedom are predetermined, especially for women. More often than not, one is denied ones own sense of agency and ability to ‘question’ and so, as a result, psychological struggle with identity and acceptance of self within ones own culture and religion.
Gender politics is not something that is often explored within Arab culture and art, it is still taboo today. Nevertheless, Aruua provokes a clash of these new political ideas against the dogmas of her environment and asks whether these seemingly incompatible ideas of gender and culture can co-exist together. This after all, could be the victory in itself, the ability to ask a question and provoke a conversation. Feminism in its usage should not be understood as a movement to help only women, but also to open up the conversation for people who do not connect with being a ‘woman.’ Aruua achieves this by questioning femininity, gender and their own existence through their digital portraits of brightly colored and almost mythical creatures and strengthens the idea that a non-binary understanding of self is not only exclusive to Western communities. Aruua’s portraits perfectly showcase that people are colorful – in all senses of the word, in all places of the world.
Why do you think identity politics is important, and how is it important to you?
The UAE has an amazing variety of expats and immigrants of different nationalities and identities but I grew up in a bit of a sheltered conservative environment where I was only surrounded by other Emiratis, and for the majority of my life I’ve only been exposed to a single perspective and narrative. That’s resulted in me adopting a narrow-minded understanding of what I could choose to be and how I perceived myself and others during my adolescence.
Even when I first stumbled upon feminism during my late teenage years, despite the fact it did challenge a lot of things that I thought were set in stone (and my edgy teen self thrived on that) I was mainly introduced to the white american version of it and it’s only when I kept exploring and reading other peoples experiences that things were put in perspective. I feel that embracing the intersectionality of people’s strife and lives helped me grow as a person and opened my mind to truly embracing myself.
My understanding of identity politics; it is the discourse, discussion and politicking around issues that involves one's identity. I’ve seen people (menininininininists and terfs) take it out of context and turn it into an exaggerated joke of minorities wanting to guilt-trip people who are more privileged or in positions of power by using straw-man arguments. Personally, I see it as a forum of people wanting to spread awareness of their plight or share their experience and history in hopes to heighten the empathetic intelligence of their society to be recognized as equals, shed light on injustice and have their identities embraced and not marginalized or ostracized.
Do you think feminism is relevant in Arab culture?
Of course! Feminism revolves around an ideology that seeks to elevate the status of women and minorities and establish equity. Arab culture today is misogynistic, racist, homophobic, transphobic (the list goes on) and very stubborn about changing its views, a counter-culture is necessary to challenge it and establish progress.
I think implying that feminism is a Western conception and that the Arab world is too bad or too good for it is perhaps condescending, feminism is found wherever women demand change and emancipation, it doesn’t belong to a single culture.
You describe your portraits as a “three-dimensional depiction of an individual”, what do you mean by that?
I mean by that, that I try to add character to my portraits Also I wanted my work to seem smart (laughs) so I just wrote that, I find that I put more feelings than thought into my work to be honest, it’s more about the motions and actions of painting or drawing and landscaping the face of an individual than what it’s supposed to mean for me, I usually have a broad concept in mind like “existentialism” or “gender” but then I just work and hope it translates well. I have to compensate for that though, when people ask me about it I just cover up the fact that I don’t understand what I’m doing 100% with fancy words and the help of a thesaurus.
Who are the people you have chosen to paint/draw in your work?
It’s ’s usually either myself or people I know or random people I find on the internet that I find appealing, unless I have a specific objective in mind (for example: my series Tepals I used photos of people who challenge the idea of binary gender as references) I tend to project my own identity onto my drawings.
Tell me about the personal process involved in creating a final piece.
I first sketch out what I want to draw then I let it marinate for a while because I usually end up getting distracted, then I sit and work on a piece until it’s finished or until either my eyes or wrist hurts. The idea I have in mind when I start working on a painting is never the result that I leave with; it’s kind of exciting to see what direction each drawing takes me.
Tell me something you have learned about yourself in your journey of self-exploration through art?
I think I came to terms with being non-binary because of art. It helps me sort out my thoughts the same way your head kind of clears up when you take a shower, my thoughts just flow naturally, but it’s not that relaxing because there’s also the stress of wanting to produce something I’ll be happy with, it’s very meditative and stressful at the same time.
What are your thoughts on the idea of ‘femininity’?
Femininity is something that I’ve constantly tried to connect to and failed. People usually describe it as the opposite of masculinity and while in terms of presentation I can understand what it is, when I speak to people (like my mother for example) who identify as women they seem to have a connection with it that I haven’t been able to grasp (yet?) It’s not about a softness that negates strength but empowers it, it’s multifaceted; it’s not about being docile or seductive either but is often conditioned to be.
To me, it’s a form of expression that I wear like a dress that has been gifted to me but I can’t tell if I like it or hate so it just stays inside of my closet and I feel too bad to throw it out but not too good that I want to wear it as much as people would want me to.
Who or what inspires you?
I look up to a lot of different type of painters like: Amrita Sher-Gil, Jaffar Al Oraibi, Fatma Lootah, Erik Jones, Basquiat, and Vincent Van Gogh. I also draw inspiration from music, comics and people I know and/or know about.
What is it about BANAT that appeals to you?
Well, I read the word feminism and got hooked instantly, I think it’s very important to be able to establish spaces and platforms that discuss inter-sectional feminism because it carries issues that are often swept under the rug in our society, it also challenges views and values that have gone unquestioned for so long.
I think it takes a big person to establish such a platform and I applaud you for it!
interviewed by Sara Safwan