Interview with Artist Zahra Al-Mahdi (Zouz the Bird)
Known mostly for her anatomical drawings – think da Vinci or Egon Schiele – and by her nickname Zouz the Bird, Zahra Al-Mahdi is a self-taught Kuwaiti artist and among a growing body of local artists changing the face of art and culture in Kuwait. “There’s no definition for myself – sometimes I feel that I’m seven years old, sometimes seventy. Goals should not be associated with age. My view of myself is always shifting,”
Zahra is a self taught artist. “When you study English Literature, you learn about philosophy, economy and sociology and get acquainted with all aspects of life, which helps an artist to communicate with others through art,” she reasoned.
Good art is dynamic. It tells you new things every time you come back to see it. In reality, not all arts reach the stage of immortality. Sometimes, the artist makes a work of art to serve a particular issue in a certain time and space. “Once the artwork comes to light, public interpretation moves primarily alongside the artist’s statement,” Zahra said. “Sometimes, artists paint for the plain pleasure of art and beauty. In fact, everybody can write or paint something meaningless or with a message. So how does it communicate? This goes back to the viewers. The artist will convey the message, whether intended or not.”
We Are All Borrowed
Speaking of meanings, language is an ever-changing tool of communication. In Zahra’s first graphic novel ‘We Are All Borrowed’, she shows that our language, apparel and lifestyle are all borrowed, but we insist on finding origins and nobility. “My book is an overview of the fact that words are not possessed by anyone – we just speak them. One word stands for many things – not only in its form and context, but by the tone of voice. When I say that I went to a doctor, the first thing that pops into your head is that he is a man,” Zahra explained. “My character tries to ride out of this spectrum and ends up physically restrained after a series of bitter situations,” she added. We Are All Borrowed is written in both English and Arabic. Some pages are puzzling and some revolting, while some are laced with a tinge of dark comedy over the muddled conditions in Kuwait, which makes it not suitable for children.
Frustration is key to inspiration
“I get inspired by frustration, contradictions and things that are far from logic and wisdom, and I harness art to serve society. I can’t wait for the upcoming cultural season in winter to volunteer to create murals and graffiti. Earlier this year, I had a chance to collaborate with the Abolish 153 campaign, which demands abolition of Article 153 from the Kuwaiti penal code that justifies ‘honor killings’ of women by their male relatives if they’re found engaged in sexual acts. My work depicts women as child-making machines with a blank price tag,” Zahra said. The campaign held its exhibition in the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait with participation by artists from various Arab countries.
The eye of Einstein and Foucault
The surroundings of the artist complement the things she imagines. “I draw on the photos I take of things around me to make people visualize what is going on in my mind. My Instagram account @zouzthebird has many such examples. To me, this is hardly a practice to improve my creative thinking skill, so I view things from the perspective of Einstein and Foucault. Creativity is not merely sensational – it’s a practice and you have to be disciplined in a way,” noted Zahra. Zahra is currently working on her second book and a series of exhibitions, in addition to her first YouTube animation series. “It will take me a great deal of time to write this book. However, it’s going to be part of my ongoing reflection related to a series of artworks,” she revealed.