As we sit at Humboldthain S-bahn station – the spot in Berlin most precious to Mariam Haji – my questions come and go like the trains themselves. At her young age, the Bahraini artist has accomplished more than many do in a lifetime. With art degrees from Scotland and Australia and great praise for her current work in this year's Venice Biennale, she is moving full speed ahead in her career. There are still some questions though that are difficult, if not dangerous, to answer. What does it mean to be a woman artist from the Middle East? It was when Haji as a teenager first saw satellite TV, that an image of her role began to become clear, "My mental head space was invaded; Western media changed my culture, my tradition. I saw women rights groups and the thought of I can do what they can do? – I wanted this."
The Long Road
It’s accepted for women to be artists in Bahrain—as long as the art is abstract and complacent. The topics that Haiji wanted to cover, however, were not as acceptable. Her works saw her dealing with her body; gender issues mixed with cultural identity. Her award-winning series of work, Killing The Muse, won Haiji Bahrain’s National Fine Art Award. A monumental achievement, surely, but one that left the artist in a difficult situation. "I received persecution for winning from the local community of artists, both male and female. It was a difficult position to be in." She admits the road to find herself has been long, dangerous and narrow, with art being her choice of vehicle. With crucial help from curator and friend Melissa Enders-Bhatia and other influential women, that road has become a little smoother.
"I’ve hardly expressed myself with truth the way I want to. I’ve been careful," Haji tells me, "But I am in Berlin, and Berlin has stride." It’s true, we move to places to have more freedom to expand our possibilities of life. For Haji, it’s not only to express what she wants to say but just to have the option to express herself. "Finding truth and honoring one's self, that’s why I’m here. I don’t want piss people off, I want to be true to Mariam."
To Mariam Haji, her latest work is the truest testament to herself. Originally, she planned to re-paint Henri Regnault's The Horses of Achilles as the final piece in her trilogy, with her trying to subdue the wild horses. Yet soon enough she realized this would've been exactly what the art world wanted her to do. She explains to me, "I’m a Middle Eastern woman, painting myself wrestling these horses so provocatively. Screaming feminist power would have been a trap."
In the end, sitting and sketching at Humboldthain station, she came to the conclusion: The Victory, an eight meter long drawing on paper. It displays stampeding horses, ever surrounding her like her culture, with mares on each side – one being trampled by a stallion and the other being protected. Haji takes center stage in the stampede, cloaked and humbly riding a donkey. "I sought glory for myself but my victory was the realization that glory is not me riding an Arabian stallion. The glory is me on a donkey. That is my integrity."
This work is her most personal statement, a statement that is currently on display at the Bahrain pavilion in the prestigious Venice Biennale. This is Bahrain’s first time participating in the Olympics of the art world, making Haji not only one of three artists this year, but one of the first female artists in Bahrain’s history. Mariam struggles like us all, with her identity, her rights and her sins. She readily admits that if she were a man she wouldn't be an artist. "I would have a family to feed, to provide for." As she leaves Humboldthain station, I ask her my final questions:
APs: Is there anything else you would want to be?
Mariam Haji: Well…as a woman I have thought about being a man so I could have a penis; I want to know what it’s like to pee standing up! I am happy with myself. To be is an action. I would like to be able to have the freedom to speak in the way I really want to – without fear.
APs: What is it that unites us no matter what? How are our struggles the same?
MH: We all have a heart, we grieve, sometimes we don’t have love or money. We are all the same – maybe the only difference is the rhythm and poetry that connects it. I don’t know everything and still my heart searches. For all I know, it could take forever.
Article: Tristan Boisvert