Fida Alhussan: In Search of New Selfhood
"Art is reconciliation with the self," says Fida Alhussan, an avid Saudi female pop artist who offers food for thought and believes in the power of art and the individual artist in altering society. "When society starts to value art, that’s when we know it has progressed and transformed into a peaceful society rather than a violent one." "That’s a good omen, especially in our community—an Arab, Najdi community," she says buoyantly.
In a conscious attempt to redefine the Saudi identity, Fida Alhussan incorporates human emotions as the main subject in her art. Her work is created using mixed media. It is the marriage of two worlds—the old and the new; the fusion of contrasting cultures; the product of traditional media such as acrylic paints and water colors and digital media.
The question then arises, why pop art? Alhussan is obsessed with an alliterative pair; “now” and “new.” “It’s contemporary; it’s new; it documents this era. What makes it special is that it is constantly changing. It takes a new shape every time. It’s like a living being that grows and changes,” she offers. Alhussan’s style has developed over the years; her art evolved into something new and spanned a range of forms. “Many doors have opened on their own. My art transformed into advertisements, book covers and now, into an art director.” As for the indispensable tool that she cannot live without, she further adds, “Technology; it’s what my art is founded on.”
The inspiration that Fida Alhussan pulls from is people, society and the colors of life rather than actual artists. When we asked her whether she sees herself in her art, it appears that a sense of oneness indeed exists between the artist and her work, as she explains, “My art expresses me more than it expresses art itself. A lot. The colors and the emotions describe me. Each painting embodies an emotion; that’s where I come in vividly.”
Looking at Alhussan’s work, we see the female element being dominant with western, veiled women who seem to possess a modernist, avant-garde or even “hipster” aesthetic and merge into a cultural diversity that somehow converts into an organic whole. Many of the women are in alluring colors and outlandish garments. “You are strong and powerful with all of your colors,” says Alhussan firmly. “I want to represent women as able. Women in Arab societies are confined, but I work with non-Arab models to prove that you, women, are all the same. You have the same ambitions; same thoughts; same aspirations. Your headscarf does not prevent or diminish your freedom. You don’t have to be blonde or possess European features to be accepted by others.” Referring to her first work showing a veiled female NASA astronaut, she continues, “You can even reach the moon with your headscarf on.” When asked about her prominent choice of bald colors and whether they symbolize anything, Alhussan says, “Most colors come with emotions. I don’t plan which colors I will mix together; the end result is always a surprise to me. If I use yellow, I realize by the end that I have used ten more colors.”
In a moment of candor, Alhussan reflects on the conventions she wishes to shatter through art as she explains the influence she aspires to exert on people. “I want people to show their personalities and be themselves. I wish we could abandon the masks we wear to impress people and be accepted by them. I feel that this is too prevalent in our society; people want to be accepted and they abide by the rules, but there are no rules in the universe.”
So as to converge the elements of identity into art, Alhassan touches upon the presence of an artistic community in Saudi Arabia, “It is present. It exists. But it reproduces and doesn’t validate its identity. In order to impress, it is either extremely traditional and borrows from the past, or is extremely modern and stripped of its identity. These are two issues we face as artist,” she adds.
Alhussan explained in a previous interview that she shifted from social reform to self-reform. When we asked her about how the latter can serve as a driving force in society, she expanded notions of self-reform by attending to emotions. She is not concerned with having a “main message.” She elaborates, “I don’t think society needs one. We can’t, for instance, say ‘No to drugs!’ We must address the problem in the individual. If a child misbehaves at school, we don’t address the problems of the school; we address the problems of the child. The idea is that if we work with our inner sensations, we will succeed. If we attempt to solve a major problem without addressing the foundation—the individual, then it’s all in vain.”
A foray of the artist into the projection of her audience’s inner retrospective insight, Alhassan enjoys freedom of interpretation. She doesn’t like paraphrasing her work, as she explains, “I want people to stand in front of my paintings and test their feelings. Each person tells a different story from their own perspective. This makes me happy. It is more than enough for me that people experience a different emotion and don’t simply pass it by then leave it behind.”
In response to whether it vexes Alhussan if western eyes perceive her work as a form of activism, she asserts, “I don’t consider myself an activist. I don’t care. I don’t feel as though I’m suppressed so I’d solve the problems of women. If someone wants to go outside, they’re free to do so and they can do that in any country. Some people are suppressed in free countries because they accepted suppression; that can happen anywhere. I feel that this is an issue that we’re tired of.” In a relevant context, Alhussan elaborates upon whether “Saudi female artists” is but a mere fading phenomenon. “We are a new society of course, and as a desert nation, everything is new to us—a modernity. We believe that everything is a phenomenon; a simple idea that is doomed to end. However, I have been making art for approximately 12 years, but I can’t judge. Only time will tell whether it is a phenomenon or not.”
With regard to whether Alhassan received any negative responses from her audience, she asserts, “For sure. The majority was positive, but some tend to think that I am fighting women or leading them to liberty. This isn’t taboo as much as it scares people. They feel as though that’d be adverse; they have those suspicions. I do face this group of people who are fighting me.”
Alhussan brings into focus her coming out of hiding, and therein lies her triumph. “I never imagined I would be here today. I am always scared. I feel that my work isn’t categorized and I don’t see other artist with the same genre of art. It doesn’t exist here. Only last year did I consider showing my work to the public; people’s reaction made me so happy and was opposite to my expectations. This whole time, I diminished the community which I exposed my work to. I made art only for myself and my family.” As for where she sees herself in five years, she emphasizes, “I live for the moment. I don’t think about plans. I enjoy what I have now.”
We further asked Alhussan about her next project, and she further offers, “My next project is a photography project, but it also tells the story of an Arab girl. The story speaks of emotions and is not about the girl as an Arab or a Muslim whatsoever. It describes how she’s in a constant struggle; always trying to impress; always behaving in a way so as to be liked and accepted. I personally have this problem, and I sympathize with all girls. I feel that they are prisoners.” She adds, “People have the freedom to come and see and decide what is happening.” We then inquired, “Do you have an artwork you are most proud of?” “This last project of mine. I am always happy with my latest work. You can’t judge until it’s out there. I’m always like this; I like whatever is new. See if you have a new bag and it’s your favorite?” she exclaims while laughing.
Lastly, Alhussan advises aspiring Saudi artists to find their identity and their individuality and not just follow what is popular. “To be liked by others, be yourself; be present. Just be present. What’s popular is over. You’re the ones that are new.”