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Remembering Libyan-Canadian Photographer Arwa Abouon and Her Art

Arwa Abouon photography

Arwa Abouon’s self-portrait. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Abouon family.

Arwa Abouon’s life sadly ended when she succumbed, at the age of 38, to an unexpected medical crisis in her home town of Montreal on June 9. Her family, friends, and countless contacts in the art world mourned the loss of not only an important artist, but also of a loving, smart, and lively woman. The legacy of the Canadian artist of Libyan-Amazigh heritage will, however, thankfully live on through her art which continues to exert its magnetic attraction on most of those who encounter it, whether in Eastern or Western Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, North America, or elsewhere. The power of Abouon’s work stems essentially from three intertwined elements: her deep understanding of the language of visuality, her ability to make life her main source of inspiration, and her grasp of the boundlessness of cross-cultural vision.

Arwa Abouon Family

Abouon Family, 2007, digital print, 40.6 x 50.8 cm. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Abouon family.

From very early on, Abouon became aware of the power of the visual realm. She often spoke about the countless hours she would spend as a child going through the family photo albums and how the images of Libyan landscapes and her Amazigh relatives appeared to her as an enchanted world. The young girl understood that the photographs, so different from her Quebecois environment, revealed her family’s roots. Her art continued this interest in genealogy and heritage, both literally and metaphorically, especially as it relates to the basic human existential question of “Who am I?” Abouon considered herself visually but not verbally literate, although she did also sometimes write as a means of self-expression. But her language was truly visuality, which she understood and experienced more intensely than most of us, including artists. She was fully conscious of how the non-verbal plays a much larger role than the verbal in human interactions and interpersonal communication as well as how the power of the visual rests in what it evokes beyond it. It is indeed the intense visual awareness imbuing Abouon’s art that provides psychological and emotional profundity to often seemingly simple images.

Arwa Abouon

Aqiqah Series: A Prayer then Something Sweet/A Prayer is Something Sweet, 2017, digital print, 3 x 101.6 x 101.6 cm. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Abouon family.

Untitled for example, depicts a couple in traditional Middle Eastern dress. The viewer sees very little of them. Shown from the shoulders down, only their hands and a hint of their feet appear. The overall whiteness of the photograph and the central position guide the eye to the couple’s holding hands. Clearly delineating love and relationship as the theme, the hands send spectators beyond the image’s borders into their own hearts. The video Dish-Dash Angels also reveals how Abouon employs the every day to navigate us into the unseen. Four white thobes hung to dry are blowing in the wind in a lush green landscape only to become living metaphors of a spiritual vision cum reality. As Abouon wrote, “These garments symbolize the committed presence of Angels and encourage the viewer to meditate on the notion that the divine manifests around us at all times.” Watching the short enticing video, Rumi’s words come to mind: “Purify your eyes and see the pure world. Your life will fill with radiant forms.”

Arwa Abouon

Silent Sight 1 (Allahu Akbar) and Silent Sight 6 (duaa), 2012, digital prints, 50,80 x 50,80 cm. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Abouon family.

Life was a magical, rich, and complex journey for Abouon. Her art documents the victories more than the upheavals of her journey. Her sensitive mise en scène of the poetics of every day is ever more crucial in a world in which humans feel their personal agency diminishing and tend to look outside themselves to find meaning. For the Canadian gem, family and familial love became leitmotifs of her oeuvre. These are sometimes expressed as fun as in the pieces showing her siblings or nephew eating popsicles or lollipops. They can also be inspired by an irreversible tragedy like the loss of her beloved father to cancer. The famous diptych I’m Sorry, I Forgive You increases exponentially in emotional power when the viewer learns that the couple depicted is Abouon’s parents when they were both already cognizant of the father’s fatal illness. The family-related pieces are among the most moving of Abouon’s body of work. That all family members are such great and willing actors reveals the reciprocity of feeling and their appreciation of her art.

Arwa Abouon

Generation Series, 2004, digital prints, 2 x 182.9 x 81.3 cm. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Abouon family.

Abouon trusted the waves of life and where it brought her, inwardly and outwardly. That her empathy extended beyond her family to all of humanity can be seen in a series produced to reflect on those who are visually impaired. Silent Sight exhibited at the Third Line Gallery in Dubai in 2012 encompasses moving photographs of her father with closed eyes and also artworks consisting of tactile messages in brail. Both carry spiritual connotations. Abouon effectively explored and expressed her Muslim spirituality through art-making that constituted her way of making sense of life and the world. In several images, her mother appears as her sheikha or spiritual teacher as in Generation Series: Mother and Daughter (2004) visually enacting the generational transmission of religious and cultural knowledge.

Arwa Abouon

Mirror, Mirror/Allah, Allah, 2010, digital print, 2 x 101.6 cm Reproduced with the kind permission of the Abouon family.

Having grown up in Canada in a Libyan Muslim household, Abouon fully embraced her bicultural identity. The double vision it proffered further enabled the global readability of her work. While Abouon explored Muslim spirituality from an individual perspective, her work possesses larger repercussions because it offers alternative visions of Muslims and Islam to those of many mainstream western media outlets. Cross-cultural translatability when it comes to representations of Islam is a rare occurrence requiring particular skills and authenticity. For example, the originally monumental photographic public work created for Culture Village Dubai, Al-Matar Rahma (3m x 2, 84 m), displays, across from a beautiful, blue sky, a woman performing all the positions of Muslim prayer. Because she is wearing a different color abaya in each one, the visibly Muslim woman also creates a rainbow, a universal symbol of beauty and hope that speaks to humans wherever we are from. The piece also offers a seldom-seen perspective by portraying Muslim spirituality as colorful and highlighting a woman-centric perspective. The title meaning “Rain Is Mercy” was inspired, as the artist once told me, by the idea that “after hard times, there is light,” a theme, she added, that “echoes throughout many different faiths.”‘ The Libyan-Canadian artist consciously promoted peace throughout her life and art.

Arwa Abouon

I’m Sorry/I Forgive You, 2012, digital print, 2 x 76.2 x 101.6 cm.
Reproduced with the kind permission of the Abouon family.

An adventurer by nature, Abouon explored many media, always in search of how to best translate her ideas and life experience into visual and/or physical form. Best known for her photography, she also engaged with the same intensity in drawing, printmaking, video, and three-dimensional works like lightboxes. Abouon will continue to be missed by many, but the encouraging messages of her art and life will live on and continue to be celebrated. After all, as she loved to say, she was one of the “free people,” which is the literal translation of Amazigh.

Rest in peace, dear Arwa.

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