Calling artists passionate is clichéd, even though it is almost always very true. Amira Behbehani, however, can be defined by her compassion more than her drive to create art. Because beneath that compulsion to produce beautiful, moving and thought- provoking pieces, it all starts with her empathy and feelings towards people, animals, culture and everything in between.
Her latest exhibition is layered and complex. As with many of Amira’s exhibitions, she shies from sticking to a single medium to tell her story. Instead, she derives her coherence from seamlessly telling an interwoven story. An abstract form of a woman stands in the middle of every canvas regardless of what it is made from, or what was used to paint it.
Originally, she wanted the women to be relatively well known. Yet, she decided to tell the stories of women who were not necessarily famous, but rather have impactful histories and stories that are worth telling. The show was titled “The Eternal Ta’a” from the Arabic letter ta’a which denotes women and the feminine. Ironically, the initial paintings were created out of limitation. She had 10×30 canvases, and this meant that she had to stick to a narrow but tall design. After experimenting with oil and knife painting, the female forms presented themselves to her. The size restriction fueled Amira’s creativity and inspiration was born.
Amira chose amazing women to showcase, and her friend and collaborator Fareah al Saqqaf wrote the accompanying notes for each painting. It is a tribute, an ode, a form of defiance and in every way a celebration of women.
This is just like Amira’s involvement with Abolish 153. The artist is one of the co-founders of the movement and the organization. Their main goal is to, as the name says, abolish article 153 from the Kuwaiti Penal Code. The article, which reduces punishment for alleged “honor” killings to a laughable misdemeanor, a KD 14 fine and a maximum of 3 years of jail time for the murder of a mother, sister, daughter or wife.
Amira told me how the law is used as a loophole in so many cases of men physically abusing and murdering their female kin. The sadness and pain were evident on her face. She went on to recount stories of women who were attacked because they did not answer the phone or wanted to go out with friends. The article infantilizes women and robs them of their inherent, constitutional and religious rights. Ironically, it is not that lenient towards women who catch their husbands committing adultery. For women it remains a misdemeanor. There isn’t a law that criminalizes violence against women either.
The campaign has evolved into a fully-fledged movement, and has already managed to get five members of parliament on board. Their approach is peaceful and non-confrontational. The founders believe that promoting their ideas works best when it is done through cultural exchange. This is why Abolish 153 organizes an annual art exhibition on Kuwaiti women day on the 16th of May. Regional photographers, sculptures, painters and artists use their skills to portray women’s suffering.
Having just finished this year’s exhibit, Amira was very proud of what it has accomplished. In 2016 the campaign won the European Union’s Human Rights Chaillot Prize. This constantly gives Amira the drive she needs; even though the show can be exhausting, Amira loves doing it.
While the exhibit is one of the more visible portions of their work, Abolish 153 also hosts workshops, seminars, trainings and lectures to raise awareness on all issues of violence against women and children. Amira believes that educating women about their rights, legal, political and religious, is the first step in sustainable and long-lasting change.
While no shelters exist in Kuwait for abused women, they do manage to provide legal assistance, work placement, training and safety to women who reach out to them through their network of volunteers and advocates. And they will help anyone who needs it, regardless of country of origin. As Amira put it, this is about humanity and not where you come from. They are working on creating safe houses for women who are under the threat of violence. Until every woman is guaranteed a safe environment their work will not be done. But they are also pragmatic and are pushing for legislations that sanction all forms of violent practices.
Amira knows that the road ahead is long and will be difficult but is optimistic and knows that they have laid the framework for effective change. Maybe this is why every civil or social movement needs an artist at its helm. They can see beauty and hope in the darkest places. And then they can show the world how things could be.
As for the Eternal Ta’a, my favorite set included the embroidered framed linens. Intricate black and navy thread and beads stitched on black linen so delicate that it is sheer, creates a subtle multi-dimensional impression of clear female figures. The delicate fabric is pricked with the needle so many times to create change and effect paralleling what women need to do to create social change. The use of more than two colors that are almost indistinguishable from afar, yet different when you stand close, as well as the inclusion of the scattered and clustered beads, alludes to all the layers and strengths that stem from the different places of a woman’s character.