When you peek into the closet of a young woman, mostly you’d find posters, mementos and pictures of besties. It’s a life stage that ends with maturity. But Kuwaiti artist and photographer Maha Al-Asaker was an exception. She would stick a list of goals with estimated dates for accomplishing them. She knew just what she wanted, planned constantly to discover the limits of her capabilities and ended up working in New York.
The photographer’s journey of self-discovery and understanding is heartily reflected in her art. Lately, Maha checked off one of her goals – an art documentary project about Kuwaiti women in their bedrooms.
Maha suffered from the difficulty of letting go the memory of her father’s tragic death in 2006 in a car accident. She struggled to find a way to express her feelings of grief, until one of her friends suggested her to carry a camera and take pictures. “I didn’t have a professional camera then. But I felt that pictures can tell something about me…express what’s within me. I didn’t want others to tell me who I was – I chose to rely on myself in solving my problems,”Maha told Kuwait Times.
Good photographers are not those who sell the most, but those who get appreciated by the public for what they like to do and not what they are asked to execute. When photographers rise to this level of professionalism to determine their path, they become artists. Maha’s work is controversial, and sometimes bold. She defies the Kuwaiti social template in order to present her ideas. Her work needed plenty of creative thinking space away from limitations, so she headed to New York.
“Leave your artistic ego in Kuwait before going to NY if you’re planning to live in that location. You must start from scratch – the competition is intense and the criteria they’re looking for are high,”Maha said. “For instance, if you desire to work as a fashion photographer, you must first work as an assistant to one. You also need to build many relations inside and outside your domain of work, because no matter how good your CV is, it’s not going to guarantee a job!” she added.
Although she’s financially independent, she wouldn’t resign from her job in Kuwait to chase her dreams without parental consent. “I belong to the Al-Asaker family, and they are a conservative folk. However, my family respects my personal decisions. I’m blessed with a great mother who gave me wings to fly even though she would worry about me and miss me. I try to calmly resist the emotional blackmail emanating from their hearts to return home. I have to first make sure that my decision of coming back is mindful,” Maha explained.
It’s been a year since she began the implementation of her photographic art project “Women of Kuwait”, which was recently published in Vogue Arabia. She was able to obtain the trust and approval of a few Kuwaiti women to model in front of her Hasselblad camera in their bedrooms. “Natural ambient light has been an indispensable pillar in this project. It’s crucial for any vintage camera.
Notwithstanding, the most difficult challenge for me – after getting those Kuwaiti women to agree – was to portray them in a non-abrasive manner. House sanctity is highly exalted in Kuwait. Neither strangers nor relatives are welcome to enter the most intimate and private room of the house, despite the friendliness and generosity at the doorway,” Maha told Kuwait Times.
“For this reason, this ongoing project aims to embrace the differences in the lives of women of Kuwait and weaken the social barrier between us and other women of the world. On a personal level, every time I photograph one of them and listen to her story, I invisibly continue my quest in the hunt for self-discovery secrets, wondering who I am and what I would’ve become if I was born somewhere else,” she said.
Maha is planning to visit Kuwait this year to work on her project. Asked whether she desires to live in America for good, she replied: I don’t know yet. I’m receptive to all possibilities. Either staying in NY or coming back for good should add to my photographic career, and not bring me back just for the sake of being back”.
One wonders what goal on her list she’s going to check off next!
For list of Exhibitions/Publications and more work by the artist, visit www.mahaalasaker.com