Kuwaiti artist Thuraya Al Baqsami brings influences from Russia and Africa to her creativity

An acclaimed Kuwaiti artist and writer Thuraya Al Baqsami has no problem admitting to success — something she says, came gradually over the last three decades from flying her country’s flag at every given opportunity.

With over 50 personal exhibitions, 70 collective exhibitions and symposiums and 9 books to her credit, Baqsami admits to success, but puts it down to trying very hard to live her dreams.

She began dabbling with art at the age of 10 and actually went into training at the College of Fine Arts in Cairo from where she moved to Russia as a young wife to acquire her masters degree in graphic book illustration and design from the Arts Institute of Surikov in Moscow.

“I was 22 years old and this was my first experience as a wife, a mother, an art student and with communism and intense cold weather,” she said.

But this experience has come in good stead because she is currently writing a book on her seven winters in Moscow in the Seventies. A novel she promises is full of masochistically funny anecdotes of her experiences.

“I started writing this novel five years ago and it is a work in progress … my art, writing a regular political column and writing and illustrating books for children sometimes gets in the way,” she said.

Inspired by tradition

After Russia, Baqsami spent years in Africa with her diplomat husband Mohammad. African folk art and traditions profoundly inspired her and the rich tradition of symbolism from both African and Arab culture is what inspires her art whether in paintings, lithographs or ceramics.

Baqsami’s passion however has always been, and still is, painting the women of the Arab world.
“I don’t have the ability to repeat a painting but the majority of my art is on Arab women and even my writing reflects the socio-political struggles that Arab women have to suffer.

“In this millennium it is a shame that women are consistently deprived of their rights and are being asked to follow the path of regression instead of progress.

“Forcing women to cover up, pushing them back into the kitchen even though they are highly educated, and sometimes smarter than most men is a crying shame.

“My paintings reflect the dilemma that Arab women have found themselves in. Their bodies are covered, so are their souls, and they are mute because they are too afraid to express themselves.

"In Kuwait, women have made so much progress in education, in medicine, in law and in the arts, and yet there are forces pulling them back,” she said.

In protest at not being granted her political rights Baqsami painted Where is my Right and the canvas hangs in the Museum of Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland.

Her husband Mohammad is strongly supportive of her need to “do what I want and what I like”. He manages her symposiums and exhibitions at tens of different countries every summer.

Mohammad was a POW during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the her pain and suffering and that of her three daughters is depicted in over 80 canvasses they painted together.

It is also displayed in a book The Cellar Candles, albeit with a constant thread of dark humour.

A dark period

The book was translated to English by the then ambassador to Kuwait, William Fullerton, and won Baqsami the first prize in literature from the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences in 1993.

“We were lucky, Mohammad returned home. Many others were not as lucky and the tragedy of the POWs continues, as not one of the registered missing came back alive. It is a dark period in our history,” she said.

With a penchant for laughing at even the most painful moments Baqsami jokes about everything and sometimes gives the impression that she is not serious, which is fact belies her talent for colouring everything a rich blue.

“I should have been a comedienne or an actress but then there is never any time to do everything in one life.

“Creative people in the Arab world have to do everything for themselves. There are no agents in our world that we can depend on for our marketing,” she said. “My husband does all that for love and it is really cheap”, she added with a laugh.

Baqsami considers herself a lucky Arab woman with a progressive family and a supportive husband who encourages her and their three daughters to pursue their dreams.

Their eldest, Ghadir, is a dentist in England, Fatima, a music composer, and Munira an art student in Japan, who is carving out her own niche in design.

“The best thing in life is to live your dreams,” she said.

“My biggest regret is being an employee for 18 years, but body and soul have to be kept together to function. Things are slowly changing and it feels good that the Kuwaiti Government is recognising the fact that the arts need support.”

Her fondest dream, now that she has tasted a little success, is to establish workshops for young Kuwaitis with an interest and talent in art and become an ambassador for Kuwaiti art.

“We have a rich heritage, so why not pass it to our young and show the world,” she said.