Studio  April 19, 2022  Sarah Bochicchio

Portraitist Nujoom Al-Ghanem on Inspiration in the Individual

Image by Anas Alkassem for the Khaleeji Art Museum.

Nujoom Al-Ghanem, view of the Cathedral of Faces.

Nujoom Al-Ghanem is, unquestionably, one of the pioneering artists of the UAE. She began her career as a poet and journalist, and she has since moved into multiple other mediums; she has published numerous collections, directed several films, and has represented the UAE at the Venice Biennale. As Art & Object interviewed Al-Ghanem about her participation in Museum in the Sky, it became clear that what connects the various facets of her career is an unabiding interest in people, their stories, and the experiences that make us individuals. Her works—whether through film, language, or painting—are portraits that put us face-to-face with her subjects.  
SB: You began your career as a poet and have now worked in numerous other fields, including filmmaking, media, and painting. Could you tell me about your journey towards painting and the visual arts? For you, how does your creative process change as you are working in different mediums?
NA: In poetry you create images by using words. In visual arts, you also create images, but by using different materials such as paint, clay, cement, glass, and other mixed media. While the approach is different, the conceptual process remains the same. Painting and visual arts have been present in my life since I was young. It’s a skill that I strengthened by studying art as a minor when I was at University. Painting and creating other visual art has also helped me continue to produce works when I wasn’t able to produce others, such as poetry and filmmaking. Sometimes, I used to do both. My little daughter teases me when she sees me painting by saying “What are you procrastinating?”

Image by Anas Alkassem for the Khaleeji Art Museum.

Nujoom Al-Ghanem, Gazing.

SB: I know one of the focal points of your work is how society is constantly changing, with a deep focus on the “now.” Is there a particular area of change that you’re currently thinking about?
NA: Since I come from a literary background and worked for a long time as a journalist during my early professional career, I am always fascinated by people. I usually find myself questioning phenomena such as urban developments which push people out of their homes, displacement resulting from political, economical, or social instabilities, or personal traumas that leave individuals facing or suffering from chronic feelings of fear, anxiety, insecurity, or other psychological symptoms. In all these various cases, I like to focus on the personal and emotional experiences of individuals.
SB: In a similar vein, in much of your artwork, you have focused on the human face, capturing different expressions from repeated exploration of the form. Does this tie into that focus?
NA: It is the human face that reflects different emotions that I find quite interesting. Although I began to make individual portraits earlier in the nineties, I never looked at them from an inclusive perspective. It was only in 2016 when I started painting more and more faces that I realized that the multiplied number of them had formed a whole body of work. This is when I began to develop a narrative for the whole project. It is a conceptual idea that is also related to the way that the portraits were supposed to be displayed. I wanted them to appear in their totality in one space, filling all four walls from top-to-bottom, so visitors could experience their expressions and gazes from all directions.

I wanted them to feel that they are watched by all of those painted eyes. When the pandemic hit, I found another layer relating to the concept of the work—it could resonate with people more when everyone was forced to socially distance. I thought it would only be in that given space, where they would be displayed, that individuals could be face-to-face with all of these faces. I called that room the Cathedral of Faces and it had 1000 faces. It became part of a whole exhibition that took place at Maraya Art Center in Sharjah in the year 2021.


Image by Anas Alkassem for the Khaleeji Art Museum.

Nujoom Al-Ghanem, The Prince.

SB: You have already had such an amazing career, and I wondered if, during the pandemic, you spent time reflecting on your trajectory? Or perhaps if you have any advice, especially to women, who may be earlier on in their careers?
NA: During the pandemic, I was busy creating art for my exhibition. I needed all that time in quarantine to finalize the different parts and sections of my project. My working style is to continue working whether or not I have a deadline, whether or not I have a commission, and whether or not I’m in the mood to create. We all need to motivate ourselves and find excitement in what we do, rather than wait for opportunities to come. By working, you’re indirectly creating opportunities for yourself. These are some insights that I would like to share with emerging artists, as well as those who think they are not motivated enough.  
SB: How did you get involved with Khaleeji Art Museum and Museum in the Sky? And which works will you be sharing with the Museum in the Sky?
NA: I was approached by Sharifah Alhinai, the co-founder of this remarkable initiative to take part in it. I felt that it would be amazing to show part of what we do as artists in the UAE to Emirates Airlines travelers. I have shared one artwork from the early days of my career and a small section from the “Cathedral of Faces”.
SB: What is next for you? Are there any projects you would like our readers to look out for? Is there anything else you would like to add?
NA: I just finished writing a poetry book, which will hopefully be published this year. I’m also working on a new series using cement and other mixed media.

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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