Studio  April 12, 2022  Sarah Bochicchio

Multi-Media Artist Maitha Abdalla on Her Surreal Storytelling

Courtesy of the artist.

Maitha Abdalla, detail of Between Daydreams and Nightmares.

Featuring anthropomorphic animals in pink tiled bathrooms, Maitha Abdalla’s oeuvre lives somewhere between the surreal world of dreams, the theatrical world of performance, and the very real cultural signifiers found within her daily life. 

Pulling imagery from the stories she grew up around, the young Emirati artist synthesizes nostalgia and social identity through her poignant performances, paintings, and mixed media works. The resulting artworks allow her to articulate the vernaculars of her childhood—and the way that language informs both traditions and daily life.

As Abdalla prepares to showcase her work through Museum in the Sky, we spoke with her about the works being presented, her path as an artist, and how storytelling allows her to explore notions of morality, mythology, and responsibility.

Image courtesy of the artist.

Mitha Abdalla, The Darkest Corner in My Room.

SB: Going back to the beginning, I wondered if you could tell me what made you want to become an artist? When did you start thinking of yourself as an artist?

MA: I was interested in penning a novel when I was younger but after failed attempts to publish one, I became immersed in art-house cinema, films by the likes of David Lynch and Sergei Parajanov in particular. This led me to screenplay writing and later, a focus on theatrical codes more broadly. I started to make characters from found objects, which I would coat in plaster and paint.

I made animals and anthropomorphic beings and transformed them into my own tableaux. I moved them around and used them to play out moments from my past or current concerns. This process helped me to regain control over my world. My art continues to be narrative, a diary of sorts.

SB: Your works often feature theatrical elements, including puppet-like or costumed figures that often feel surreal. At their center, the works become about storytelling—what draws you to narrative? And how do you find the balance between narrative and ambiguity?

MA: My art is an opportunity to make sense of the questions that come up in life, regarding society, structures, rules, and ideas about social constructs such as right/wrong, sin and purity among other preoccupations. My art might extend to various audiences but I communicate from an intimate and subjective space that’s why I often appear in my art as a performer and character. Each of my characters is a fragment of myself.

Image by Anas Al Kassem for Khaleeji Art Museum.

Maitha Abdalla.

SB: Could you tell me about the works you are sharing through Museum in the Sky?

MA: The work Between Daydreams and Nightmares is from the Scars by Daylight series. I presented this body of work in Dubai at Tabari Artspace Gallery and in London with Abu Dhabi Art’s group show Beyond: Emerging Artists at Cromwell Place. The body of work crossed varied mediums in order to interrogate the gravity and uncertainty of the in-between years of adolescence.

Tradition, transformation, and paradox are at the core of this work as the individual transitions from youth to adulthood; shifting in outer appearance, social status, and identity. I perceive this formative and liminal time in our life journey to be a dream-like moment where fantasy and reality conflate. Drawing from regional folktales, faith-based traditions, and mythologies, animals are a recurring symbol throughout my practice; most commonly the rooster.

Image courtesy of the artist.

Between Daydreams and Nightmares.

SB: Could you tell me more about the symbolism of the pig and the rooster? And how do those symbols intersect with the medium in which you work.

MA: I understand the rooster is a creature of purity that embodies forgiveness and innocence while the pig is its opposing force, understood to be sinful in Islam. In the context of my art, this duality represents the moment when one leaves childhood where they harbor no responsibility for their actions into adulthood—a place with newfound responsibility and autonomy.

Inspired by theater, fantasy, tradition, and ritual, there’s always a performative element in my art. Working across mediums, I produced several works on canvas, a series of photographs, and an installation for this exhibition. When painting I typically use my fingers, a process rooted in intimate expression and the transmission of her energy onto the canvas.

I draw from the likes of Francis Bacon, following his unabashed portrayal of the human condition and Paula Rego who captured corrupted folklore through her magical realist paintings. My scenes take place in intimate indoor settings where personal dreams and angsts might take action. The bathroom is the backdrop for my installations and photographs. It’s a space where cleansing and grooming rituals, as well as self-reflection, take place and where the idea of adolescent transformation is pronounced most heavily with the body laid bare before the mirror.

About the Author

Sarah Bochicchio

Sarah Bochicchio is a New York-based writer and researcher. She focuses on history, fashion, art, and gender—and where all of those things intersect.

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