Born in 1982 in Tripoli, Libya, Arwa Abouon moved to Canada with her family when she was only one and a half years old. She graduated from the Concordia University in Montreal, where she studied Design Art and Photography.
Abouon underlines that her parents raised her and her brothers to be very proud of their Libyan roots. They taught the children Arabic, Islamic and Libyan/Amazigh culture. And though today she does not speak Arabic fluently – a fact that she regrets and blames herself for – Abouon describes her broken Arabic as the "ice-breaker" that brings a smile to people.
Today, it is obvious that Abouon stands in the middle of both worlds, while the geographical and cultural distance between the two countries embeds her work with unique values: explorations of identity, duality and spirituality.
At the 26th Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries, Abouon displays a diptych, two photographic works, representing one conceptual body and complementing each other in its thematic content. Titled 'Mirror Mirror / Allah Allah', the diptych brought Abouon the biennale's prize.
The work raises religious and gender identity issues. It references one’s perspective on the world and one’s self, but also the world’s perception of what defines us as individuals.
The diptych is a self portrait. It presents Abouon standing in front of a mirror. In one work, the artist is veiled and sees herself without a head cover in the mirror. In the second work, the opposite happens: the veiled face in the mirror is supposedly a reflection of an unveiled Abouon.
"I have composed a scenario where I attempt to exercise inner and outer spirituality equally – whether veiled or unveiled, what is most important is that I see myself through God; as one of his creations," Abouon comments on her work to Ahram Online.
She continues by quoting Prophet Muhammad, "Oh God, make my inner reality better than my outward appearance, and make my outward appearance good," as a truth that describes her journey as a creative artist and a human.
Arwa Abouon's work from Abouon Family series, 2004. The work represents the artist's family at the backdrop of a Canadian landscape. 20x24, digital print. (Photo courtesy of Arwa Abouon)
But as Abouon engages in what seems to be a timely dialogue about the veil and its meanings, she does not try to use the veil or religion as a politicised symbol.
"I can give the impression that I am perhaps commenting in a politicised way but in fact I do not intend to make political artworks because my knowledge in that realm is limited and I am not a good debater – I just think that religion has the power to heal an individual, true religious practice gives birth to moderate actions in all aspects of our lives and should create a more positive society member," Abouon explains.
We understand that the ultimate aim of Abouon is to sculpt a finer appreciation of Islamic culture by shifting the focus from political issues to a poetic celebration of the faith’s foundations.
While doing so, however, the artist reveals that the piece was inspired by the well-known Western fairytale Snow White and the infamous mirror that portrays her inner and outer beauty.
"I often suggest Western elements in my work and merge them or reorient them to my Muslim culture, a sort of re-appropriation of popular Western culture that I grew up being influenced by," Abouon explains.
It is very obvious that the work represents the artist's struggles living in the West with an Islamic upbringing. Abouon underlines that as she stands between the two cultures, she keeps asking herself questions related to her identity: "How do I want to represent myself in the world? Who am I veiled or unveiled? It is human nature to question and this is encouraged in the Islamic tradition."
The two portraits ultimately give birth to an answer and it is by showing the work to the public that Abouon hopes to initiate a dialogue. While looking at identity issues, the diptych also touches on the biennale's theme: The Will of Change.
"In order to heal a society we must first look into ourselves -- [we should become] the change we want to see," she comments.
"This mirror reflects what we show it and in order to prosper we must go back to simplicity and treat people’s difference of opinions respectfully and with an open mind."
Diptychs are among the preferred tools used by Abouon as they help her present two images that work together and become one.
"This [diptychs] can also relate back to my upbringing between two cultures and finding a balance with these influences. I think these dualities are more of a blessing than a crutch because I can understand different or sometimes even opposing factors more subjectively."
'Mirror Mirror / Allah Allah' is only a sample of Abouon's constant research into her identity where we can hear echoes of the Arab and Islamic traditions.
Having exhibited internationally to audiences of various cultures and religious backgrounds, Abouon has proved able to reach to the hearts of everyone, from Canada and USA through Europe and Asia, and Arab countries. Though often infused with a dose of spirituality, it is this gentle and creative representation of identity that allows believers and non-believers alike to appreciate the messages entrenched in the work. This is what makes Abouon's work very approachable and invites an interesting conversation about the self in a world filled with contrasts and contradictions.
"My entire extended family lives in Libya, a country which I visit frequently. I probably would not have been able to show this piece in Libya at this time for many reasons but mainly political. And so I commend my neighbouring country for giving me the opportunity to show it close to home," she concludes with a warm smile on her face.
As well as the Alexandria Biennale, she is currently showing work in Paris at L’Institut du Monde Arabe over the entire summer. She is also preparing for her second solo show at Sultan Galley in Kuwait next November.
Visit Arwa Abouon's website here
The 26th Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries opens on 10 June and runs until 6 July in the Museum of Fine Arts in Alexandria
Check the photo gallery from the Biennale here