On a chilly morning in Kuwait, I enter the Contemporary Art Platform gallery (CAP) for my private viewing with artist Amira Behbehani, to view her current retrospect show, “A Fifteen-Year Journey: The Art of Amira Behbehani.” The petite, Kuwait-based artist with long dark hair pulled back in a half up-do, evokes an edgy sartorial aesthetic in a dove gray knit sweater, relaxed slacks, and sturdy combat boots. She begins the tour by motioning towards a black and white weaved canvas: “This is a print of one my uncle’s sculptures that’s exhibited in Iran. I dismantled it by cutting the print into strips and weaving it; this is my interpretation of his work,” she explains. “The reason why this piece is at the beginning of the show is because I dedicated this exhibition to [my uncle]. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have wanted become a painter,” Behbehani says.
Born to an Iranian father and Kuwaiti mother, the self-taught artist started her career as a painter in 2001, after she got her first job at her uncle’s company in 1992. The renowned Kuwaiti artist and gallerist Jawad Boushahri is also the chairman of conglomerate Boushahri Group. While working under the advertising agency division, Behbehani picked up graphic design, digital photography, and fine art reproduction printing, before embarking on her own.
Curated by Simindokht Dehghani, the owner and director of Ag Galerie in Tehran, Behbehani’s retrospect on her fifteen-year career as an artist touches on three themes. The first tells the story of her childhood memories and the people that inspired her along the way. The second reflects on the master artists that she references in her work and discovered by coincidence. Finally, the third showcases a body of work with pieces that are wildly different in technique and presentation, yet cohesive as a collective.
As we make our way to the center of the room, a large-scale canvas featuring silhouettes of women dressed in abayas lies straight ahead. “This painting here, The Exhibit, is what started this whole exhibition,” Behbehani remarks. Explaining how the piece took two years of work to complete, she notes that the canvas used is tent fabric that she had in her studio for seven years. In 2014, Behbehani took pictures of herself wearing an abaya in various compositions. After printing the pictures she outlined the silhouettes on the canvas, giving the women different bodies and facial expressions – except for one, perched on a stool. “That one is me,” she admits before pointing at the three-legged wooden stool placed adjacent to the painting. “And this chair is the one in the painting designed by Kawther Al Saffar,” she adds. Al Saffar is the niece of Thuraya Al-Baqsami, one of Kuwait’s prominent female artists.
While the women in abayas are in the foreground of the painting, the idea to create the background didn’t crystalize until Behbehani went through one of her books on Henri Matisse, where she came across an image of the artist during his time in Morocco. Drawn onto the terrace, she outlined the image on the canvas, after which the idea of highlighting elements by master artists slowly started to take shape. “I started including objects by masters into the painting. That’s Matisse’s chair and vase, the French window is from Picasso, and you can see Francis Bacon’s pope portrait,” she adds. Becoming a homage to the works of legendary artists, her work changed once more when Behbehani stepped back and refocused her attention on the women. “I realized that none of the women are looking back at the artists. The masters are looking at them. That’s when I decided that these women are the exhibit,” she states.
Behbehani is often described as the artist that keeps changing. She explains: “That’s basically my personality. I don’t like repetition. I like my work to be different every time. It makes me feel inspired and ever evolving.” Indeed, lined across the walls of the gallery space are a myriad of pieces created with various techniques. Two works in ink and pastel on paper are inspired by Jean Dubuffet, reminiscent of her childhood summers spent at her aunt’s house in Shiraz. Meanwhile, an intricate ink drawing on paper featuring abaya silhouettes recalls memories of attending gatherings with her grandmother, created in a single continuous line. “I was always attached to the line,” Behbehani muses. “All my paintings start with lines in charcoal. Then the acrylics, watercolors, and oils come in.”
Referencing her appeal to geometric forms, Behbehani imagined a bird’s eye view painting of her aunt’s Shiraz home. Characterized for its intense colors, the image features a woman cradling a child while walking down a pathway. “This is one of my most recent pieces,” Behbehani elaborates. “It’s from a picture that was taken in the ‘80s. Some of my previous works featured a lot of cubical, triangular, and circular forms. I later realized that Paul Klee did the same.”
As a tribute to her late aunt, a portrait was created in a dark palette of when she was a newlywed in the ‘60s. In contrast, another portrait of hers was done in a light palette, which conjures references to Austrian painter Egon Schiele. The piece is more meaningful than it may at first seem: “I had the urge to stop here,” Behbehani shares. “I just felt like [the work] was completed.”
A Fifteen-Year Journey: The Art of Amira Behbehani is ongoing until the December 21, 2016 at the Contemporary Art Platform, Kuwait. Opening portrait photographed by Sueraya Shaheen.