Probing Social Pressures With Textiles and Ice Cream

In celebration of Emirati Women’s Day on August 28, the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington, DC collaborated with UAE-based Dirwaza Curatorial Lab, a cultural incubator founded by Emirati curator Munira Al Sayegh, to put together an exhibition highlighting female artists based in the UAE. The exhibition, “While the Coffee Grounds Settle: Stories from Women in the UAE,” explores how the maglis, or living room, serves as a space of empowerment, dialogue, and exchange for women in the country. In reference to the widely practiced tradition of reading Turkish coffee grounds together after they have settled at the bottom of the cup, the artwork in this show touches on themes of community, social pressures and norms, tradition, and adornment.

“While the Coffee Grounds Settle” is a multimedia exhibition featuring sculptures, audio and video pieces, paintings, embroidery, and photography. Though the show examines how women come together in the intimate social space of the majlis, it more broadly aims to introduce audiences in the United States to the history of the Emirati art scene and the range of local artistic practice. The artists presented span generations and styles, from the renowned vividly colored paintings of Najat Makki and Fatma Lootah, two women that represent the older generation of Emirati artists, to the more intimate scenes captured by emerging artists Fatema Al Fardan and Khawla Almarzooqi. The exhibition has been accompanied by a calendar of programs, including an artist panel, primary and secondary school workshops, and an intimate fireside chat. Presented as part of the UAE Embassy’s Culture & Outreach program, and following the UAE’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival participation earlier in the summer, “While the Coffee Grounds Settle” provides further opportunities for US-based audiences to engage with artists and artwork that represent the diversity of the Emirati creative and cultural scene.

AGSIW spoke to conceptual artist Maitha Hamdan, whose video performance piece “Precautions” (2021) is featured in “While the Coffee Grounds Settle,” to learn more about her use of irony, textiles, and ice cream to probe societal expectations of women in the UAE.

Artist Maitha Hamdan (credit: Omar Mohammed Rasheed)

AGSIW: Tell us a bit about yourself. What interests you as an artist?

Maitha: I’m an Emirati artist who was born and raised in Ajman, a city that is considered conservative and is the smallest emirate in the UAE. I call myself a multidisciplinary artist – I use different mediums to express messages or ideas. I found that I have a common foundation to my artwork, and that is textiles. In each work of art, you might find either me wearing certain textiles, expressing ideas through textiles, painting on textiles, or even photographing through textiles. With this, I really thought of digging deep and learning the meaning and history of textiles, especially the traditional textiles that we have in the UAE.

AGSIW: What sparked your interest in textiles and fabric?

Maitha: I have found myself very curious about textiles throughout my life. So, I simply opened a business and became a fashion designer, because I thought that this was the only way to know more about textiles. I ran a fashion business called Decencia, from 2013-17, and I was expressing each collection as an art project with a story, a setting, tributes to some people in history, and messages of women’s empowerment. And yet, I felt that people were treating me as a businesswoman. They did not treat the pieces that I created as art pieces. My shift to art began in 2018, when I participated in the Sikka Art Fair, a yearly event in the UAE, using textiles. This is where I began to really express myself as an actual artist, not as a businesswoman, and realized that I could express myself through a lot of mediums.

When I later joined the Salama bint Hamdan Emerging Artists Fellowship, I really began to dig deep, ask more questions, and create performances that allowed me to deliver my messages at a stronger or higher level. Whenever I had studio visits, I felt that my audiences related more to my performances than to the artwork or textiles on display.

“Maitha Hamdan in 10 Days series visuals” (credit: Maitha Hamdan)
Maitha Hamdan in “10 Days” series visuals (credit: Maitha Hamdan)

AGSIW: What were some of the things that inspired you in creating these videos? Were there certain themes that drove your work?

Maitha: It’s all about women. I always express a woman’s point of view, what we have as social restrictions and social boundaries, and how we were raised, especially from a religious point of view. I’ve always felt that we haven’t been taught religion in a holistic way, and this is what made me really think more critically. You don’t usually have a lot of women who ask critical questions, especially when it comes to religion or social restrictions. It happens everywhere, but in our region it happens more. So, this is what inspires me: the restrictions, the things that we don’t – we cannot – have. And then I wonder why we cannot have them. History also inspires me a lot, especially knowing more about women’s history. I’ve always thought that history was written through a man’s point of view only, and you don’t find a lot of women who write and document history. So, why not me? I do this by starting to represent and document what is happening now, at least through my point of view.

“Precautions” (2022) by Maitha Hamdan

AGSIW: Tell us more about your video in the exhibition in Washington, DC.

Maitha: The idea came from a project that I undertook that involved writing notes about places from my childhood. I went to an ice cream shop that I used to go to with my mom and family when I was young. I started taking a lot of notes there about things I remembered, like my favorite ice cream flavor. Another thing I remembered was my mom telling me, “Do not eat from an ice cream cone, eat it from a cup because it is ‘eib,’” which means shameful or culturally unacceptable. I was eight years old; at that age we don’t usually ask why. We were taught to listen and not argue. But what amazed me is that this stayed in my head for over 20 years. And why is that? Why is it eib? It kept falling back to how we were taught as women, when we were children, that we have these social restrictions to protect ourselves. We have to behave in a certain way in order not to provoke the other gender, or God forbid we might trigger something that is sexual. We take the blame, but when you think about it, it’s just a simple act! Whether it’s eating ice cream or eating a banana or a lollipop or anything, it is often sexualized to women.

So, when I searched more, I found that there were articles in old Arabic magazines from the ’80s and ’90s in which they taught women how to eat an ice cream cone “decently.” Even if it’s in a cone, you have to eat it with a spoon – you can’t lick it directly. Or how to eat a banana by chopping it and eating it with a fork – “do not eat it directly.” This is the most decent way. It’s fascinating how we were taught how to eat as decent women, but what about men? Are they allowed to eat the banana directly, or the ice cream directly? And why are they not sexualized when they do that? In doing this performance, which is me trying to be rebellious, yet listening to the social restrictions that we have – being a “good girl” and a “bad girl” at the same time – I show what will happen: a disgusting mess. Trying to eat it through a veil is me trying to behave and yet enjoy a simple act.

AGSIW: Could you elaborate on the symbolism of the veil and its color in your performance?

Maitha: Yes, whenever I create a work of art, I usually relate more vibrant colors, and me choosing pink is just a slap to people who think that pink is a feminine color, which it’s not. It’s not even a feminine color when you search in history. But giving them what they want – even choosing this color – is the whole performative aspect of me behaving and being the most “feminine” girl. Choosing the veil was not because I am an Arab or because it’s something that only Arab women do. But wearing the veil was, for me, about the social restrictions, where I cannot eat through a veil, and even if I can, it would be so hard to do and would make a mess.

AGSIW: How do you feel that your work relates to the other artwork in “While the Coffee Grounds Settle”?

Maitha: As Munira explained to visitors during a tour, the exhibition is about women, how strong and opinionated they are, and how they speak their minds. For me, I had a lot of silencing throughout my life and thinking of how strong my grandmother, great-grandmother, and aunties were and how they would speak their minds reminded me of what Munira said. I was hoping that my artwork would speak what I have in my mind, and that’s why I’m so happy that I participated with women who weren’t shy to talk about different issues that we are facing as women instead of having this fear of feeling vulnerable.

I hope that I gave a good impression of how women are, because there are ugly stereotypes of women in the region – that they are oppressed, that they don’t talk, and that they are not allowed to do a lot of things. I wanted to show that we as women can do anything. The feedback and questions that I am receiving from the American audience, of the stereotypes they have and how they understand women in the region and especially in the United Arab Emirates, is really eye opening. This inspires me to do more international exhibitions.

“Textile workshop at Dr.  Charles R Drew Elementary School in Washington DC (credit: UAE Embassy in Washington DC)
Textile workshop at Dr. Charles R Drew Elementary School in Washington, DC (credit: Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Washington, DC)

AGSIW: How did your audiences react to your work?

Maitha: I had different reactions in the UAE compared to what is happening here in Washington, DC. I noticed that in the Arab region, viewers didn’t express their reactions a lot, but in DC they were really expressive. There was no social filter, so they would say every single thing they thought, whether they thought it’s disgusting, or sad, or if they thought that what I’m doing is a political move due to the events happening in the Middle East and the Islamic world. The feedback that I got has been amazing. As long as I am getting feedback, I consider myself a successful artist. It doesn’t matter if it’s bad feedback or good feedback, or if people feel disgusted by the work, I feel like a successful artist if my work is provoking emotions and provoking something in the viewer.