Illustration by Adele Bea Cipste. Image courtesy of Ebtisam Abdulaziz

#5WomenArtists: Ebtisam Abdulaziz and the Search for Artistic Emancipation

A commentary on the Emirati artist and her interdisciplinary work with mathematics and art. Read about Ebtisam Abdulaziz in the fifth 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.
Ebtisam Abdulaziz's work urges the viewer to explore the political aspects of identity and culture by using her body as a medium for her work. Born and raised in Sharjah, she is a multi-disciplinary artist who traces the inspiration behind her unique style to her university education in the field of Science and Mathematics. Although encouraged by her parents to pursue this degree for its practicality, Abdulaziz credits her love for straight lines in her artwork to mathematics. Abdulaziz exhibited her work both regionally and internationally, including “But We Cannot See Them: Tracing a UAE Art Community 1988-2008” at the NYUAD Art Gallery in 2017, “It's Not You It's Me” at the Inaugural UAE Pavilion for the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009, “Women's Circle Series” at Sharjah Biennial 10 and Sharjah Biennial 7 for Sharjah’s Art Museum in 2011. In 2013, she was selected to join the Tashkeel Artist-in-Residence program.
The NYUAD Art Gallery exhibited Abdulaziz's work “Re-Mapping Al Fahidi” (2013) in its inaugural exhibition titled “On Site” in 2014. “Re-Mapping Al Fahidi” is a series of paintings that initially seem to show two areas of different sizes, painted in blue and yellow. Only upon lingering over the work, a viewer familiar with the Al Fahidi district of Dubai, formerly known as the Bastakiya district, will notice the figure-ground, optical illusion. The empty white spaces crystalize as the traditional Emirati architecture of Al Fahidi reduces the blue and yellow areas to the sky and the ground respectively. The emptiness becomes an object, poignantly questioning our relationship with presence and absence.
The desire to challenge the viewer’s first impression of an artwork emanates from all the pieces reflecting her artistic re-mapping. Abdulaziz’s other works include “Re-Mapping the Wall” in 2013, “Re-Mapping House 11” in 2013, “Re-Mapping the Office” in 2013, “Re-Mapping Africa” in 2013 and “Re-Mapping DC” in 2015. In the initial work, “Re-Mapping The Arab World” (2010-2013), she correlated letters of the country names with numbers, reconstructing the Middle Eastern political borders into abstract geometrical shapes. The height of the countries in the 3D installation reflected their statistical real number of the existing art spaces, art programs, and artists participating in regional art festivals. Thus, she emphasized the tragedy of art vanquishing under financial shortages of economic crises. All her work stands as proof of her underlying imperative that an artist needs to engage with the surrounding events.
In an interview with DeutscheBank’s ArtMag, Abdulaziz traced her origins as a professional to her childhood. “I was born an artist,” she said, reflecting on how she enjoyed painting and drawing with her father and siblings in her youth. Alongside her studies in mathematics, Abdulaziz pursued the arts through summer courses at the Emirates Fine Arts Society in Sharjah. Initially only involved in works on paper, Abdulaziz’s ideas soon grew beyond the canvas. Her background in mathematics and science allowed for a unique perspective on visualization and the structures of systems. Abdulaziz soon shifted all her focus from painting to conceptual art, diving into complex issues of culture and identity through her observations.
An innately curious individual, Abdulaziz links her fascination with the world around her directly to her work. The installation, “Number and Lifetime,” exhibited at the 7th Sharjah Biennial in 2005, is evidence of this curiosity. Consisting of two large photographs along with an archive of 27 folders carrying over 2,000 more photographs depicting hands, the installation offers almost no information about the subjects, listing only dates of birth. The material for the archive was collected over the course of two months during which Abdulaziz approached a variety of people on the streets of Sharjah, as well as in schools, offices and government institutions, in order to photograph their hands. Only including the date of birth of each subject beside their photographs, she aims to have the viewer fill in the blanks themselves.
“I wanted to show the mark of time, work and history on people’s hands, and create an archive that reflected the age and social differences of a portion of Sharjah’s population, highlighting in particular the differences between the old and the young, the healthy and the somewhat physically disabled, and people from higher social classes and the workmen who lead difficult lives and do extremely physical labor,” said Abdulaziz, in an interview with the Sharjah-based art magazine Nafas.
Indeed, she managed to capture a diverse slice of Sharjah’s population; the archive tells a compelling story of the old, young, calloused, manicured, dark- and light-skinned hands of the city. The installation offers us an innovative take on reading the lifestyles and social structures in any city. Even the visitors to the Biennial had their hands photographed by Abdulaziz to be added to her archive.
From these installations, we see that all of Abdulaziz’s experiences are of relevance to her art.
To quote the artist herself, a statement on her personal website reads, “My art is a true representation of how I feel as an Arab woman, as an artist, a friend, a daughter, and the multitude of various roles that I have accepted unequivocally or decisions that have been allocated to me, up until now.”
Beyond engaging with outward appearances, Abdulaziz explores the nature of her surroundings and how her individual personality interacts with it while inviting viewers to do the same through her work.
Basia Ciosk and Michael Leo are contributing writers. Email them at
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