Illustration by Adele Bea Cipste. Image courtesy of Areej Kaoud

#5WomenArtists: Areej Kaoud and Anxiety and Humor

Areej Kaoud, a Palestinian artist raised in Montreal, explores psychological provation in her works by drawing on her interest in narratives. Read about her in the fourth article of the #5WomenArtists column.

May 2, 2020

This article is part of a temporary column in collaboration with The NYUAD Art Gallery featuring 5 Arab women artists who have exhibited their work in The Art Gallery's main space. #5WomenArtists is a worldwide campaign for art institutions to increase awareness of gender inequity in the art world and beyond.
How does one use anxiety for the purpose of art? The work of Areej Kaoud exemplifies just how. The Palestinan visual artist takes the state of disaster as the premise of her art and confronts her audience with emotions of anxiety, unpreparedness and humor.
“I want to trigger narratives around crisis,” Kaoud explained in an interview with the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery, “but I don’t want to dictate to the viewer what to imagine. They can imagine their own crisis.”
Brought up between Montreal, Canada and the UAE, Kaoud earned a Master of Fine Arts in Studio Practice from the Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in 2011 and a second Master of Fine Arts in Curating at Goldsmiths, University of London in 2013. While she specialized in silkscreening and sculpture as a young artist, her practice later evolved into conceptual art, without confining herself to any one medium. Today, Kaoud employs a multidisciplinary approach, combining writing, recording, performance art, data accumulation and installation, among other multimedia forms, to inform her practice.
If there is one common thread that weaves Kaoud’s diverse artistic projects together, it would be the psychological provocation her works insist upon its viewers. As part of Art Dubai’s 2016 Artist-in-Residence Program, Kaoud developed a performance piece titled “Brigade D’Urgence,” or “Emergency Brigade” in English, exploring how repetitive body gestures can conjure a psychological state of emergency. Dressed in emergency gear, her performers marched in unison, shining flashlights into the crowd. In 2019, The NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery commissioned Kaoud to create the installation piece, “Unknown Safety,” which took the security of space to challenge viewers’ sense of safety, or lack of same. Aptly described by The National as “Kaoud’s playground,” the installation, made of polystyrene, concrete, rubber and plastic, represented a landscape of both playfulness and risk. In this way, Kaoud’s work combines discomfort and tension with humor — a kind of perplexing mix of emotions that echoes her own creative process.
In an interview with the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery, she shared, “When I am anxious, I’m having moments of imagining the worst … at the same time, I have a silly set of thoughts that disrupt this anxiety.” Kaoud engages with this playfulness within herself and injects it into her practice, adding a unique texture to how viewers see, absorb and interact with her works.
Not only is Kaoud interested in engaging with her audience but also with her contemporaries. In March 2015, she initiated “CollaCurating” in collaboration with Tashkeel Dubai. CollaCurating was a series in which she worked individually with established artists to examine how installations can become spaces for visual and philosophical interplay. In the project’s first iteration, “CollaCurating: Sculptural Perspectives” (2015), Kaoud partnered with Saudi Arabian multimedia artist, Manal Al Dowayan. Shifting from what would conventionally be a verbal conversation between two artists, CollaCurating gave Kaoud and Al Dowayan a space to communicate through their artworks. Kaoud took pre-existing sculptures from her work such as an aluminum teapot lid, and Al Dowayan reflected a neon light from a previous piece of hers onto it, forming a visual exchange between the object and the neon light. In this way, Kaoud recontextualized her works among those of fellow artists and opened her practice to broader interpretations.
“My practice is mainly about things that concern me … basically addressing them or alleviating the concerns in some way,” said Kaoud. Anxiety seems to be a salient concern the artist tackles habitually. In 2017, Kaoud exhibited a large-scale written installation, titled “Anxiety is Present of the Present”, entailing 29 letter balloons filled with helium and binded to the ground with rocks and strings. Kaoud shows a kind of reflexivity when describing her work: “This piece focuses on anxiety as a measure of safety … and retains power in its fragility.”
Kaoud extended this idea to her 2018 multimedia installation, “Silent Sirens 1.0,” which attempts to soothe emergency-driven anxiety by using banal language as a safety provision. Once again, Kaoud turned to her personal experiences for inspiration: “I find myself recalling basic words that my mother would use in a stern but urgent manner to control a situation.”
With inaudible emergency LED signage and Arabic words projected onto panels, the installation, like many of Kaoud’s works, resembles a kind of visual dystopia. Today, it remains in the permanent collection of Tashkeel Dubai.
Earlier this year, Kaoud opened her first U.K. solo exhibition, “Mishmish” (Arabic for “apricot”). The show was cut short in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the theme of anxiety continues to be relevant, now more than ever. Beneath her painting of an apricot appears a text that craftily reworks the Arabic noun for the fruit from “mishmish” to “mish mashee,” which translates to “I am not leaving” or “it is not okay.” This “political play of words,” as Kaoud calls it, once again reinforces the power of humor in tackling difficult topics.
While Kaoud’s U.K. exhibition has closed physically, it has found its place online on indigo+madder's website. Krittika Sharma, curator at indigo+madder, shared with The National her rationale for inviting Kaoud’s work onto their platform: “Her exploration of living in a state of anxiety and using it as a tool for survival, which helps prepare for both known and unknown dangers, is very compelling."
Indeed, the enigma of Areej Kaoud’s work lies not only in her artistic calibre, but also in the deeply personal and iterative processes that her practice is grounded in.
Nandini Kochar is a Columnist. Email her at
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