Letters of love Zoulikha Bouabdellah talks to Ahmad Minkara about women, words and worldwide tolerance

Letters of love Zoulikha Bouabdellah talks to Ahmad Minkara about women, words and worldwide tolerance



While there are many ways of affirming a modern woman’s presence in a piece of art, few do so with such attitude and accuracy as a high-heeled pair of shoes.

But are they a little incongruent when placed on a prayer mat as part of an installation?

The French-Algerian artist Zoulikha Bouabdellah thinks not. “The beauty of any religion is that it should give us the tolerance to live side by side and treat each other with respect,” she says.

A Muslim woman herself, Bouabdellah strongly believes women represent a “crucial pillar” of Islam, and this conviction is relayed in her art. “Islam liberated woman from the Jahilyya slavery and from being buried alive,” she says. “Note that the shoes are not on top of the rug, they are in the middle.”



Her work, which has ranged from installation and video to mixed media and drawing, has struck a chord with Muslim women worldwide. Bouabdellah recounts how a veiled woman came up to her in the Tangiers and complimented her on the powerful message conveyed in her work. “That message is simply that Islam is not sexist!” she reiterates.

Born in Moscow in 1977 to Algerian parents, Bouabdellah was surrounded by artistic influences, both at home and at school. Her mother held the post of director of the National Museum of Fine Art in Algeria, where she grew up, she explains, while her father was a movie director.

In her early years, she attended national Algerian school, where Arab culture, language and identity were high on the agenda. Then, in 1993, she moved to France, enrolling at the École Nationale Supérieure d'Arts de Paris-Cergy, from where she graduated in 2002.

The institution proved to be pivotal in her development, exposing her to highly alternative forms of contemporary art. However, the earlier Arabic influences stayed with her and today play a pivotal part in her work, especially the letters of the alphabet, which are crafted using a variety of media, including paper, acrylic, aluminium, neon and wood.



“I find the Arabic letters a great way to do visual art,” Bouabdellah says. “Arabic letters are not just linguistic symbols, they are a powerful artistic visual, with a strong aesthetic component. I envisage the vertical symbols, like the aleph, as masculine, while the round symbols, including ta marbouta, I think of as feminine.”

A particular favourite inspiration in more recent years is the word love which, written in Arabic, she believes, reminds us of the beauty of the region’s art and, also, its rich, cultural and romantic legacy. “Throughout history Arab men wrote poetry to express their love and awe for woman,” she says.



One of the highlights of Bouabdellah’s work is her depiction of the verses from Umm Koulthoum – a song which has the liberation of woman at its core. “It was mostly Egyptian men of that period who interpreted the strong feminist message of Umm Koulthoum’s song,” she points out.

Her current project is La Sensibilite’ Feminine project which, she explains, involves exploring the complex relationship between men and women and their inter-dependency. “Women need men and vice versa,” she says.



The Dakar Biennale in Senegal, curated by art critic Simon Njami, proved to be the launchpad for Bouabdellah’s career. Since then, her career has gone from strength to strength, with work featured in exhibitions and other biennales worldwide. Her most recent exhibitions include the Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists at the Savannah College of Art and Design Museum, which is where we met.

It occurs to me as we talk that while Bouabdellah is clear in the message she wants to convey in her work, there is room for more than one interpretation. My own take on the high-heeled shoes placed on the prayer mat is that they jar with the humility and modesty so integral to Islam and highlight the obsession of some modern Muslim women with luxury brands.

An irony, perhaps, when Bouabdellah is fighting women’s corner, but one that also shows the ability her work has to prompt important conversation.

Zoulikha Bouabdellah in collaboration with Mathias COULLAUD Gallery in Paris.
January the 7th 2016 for the first exhibition SEXISME with Elodie Antoine, Cindy Sherman and Kiki Smith.

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