Yusra Ahmed shares the artistic journey that took her from her war-torn birthplace to the exhibition halls of Bahrain.
In the year of 1994, civil war plagued Yemen and a young couple from Aden were studying in Moscow and faced with a difficult choice. Deciding not to return to their stricken homeland, they migrated to Bahrain. And so, in 1996, Yusra and her husband Ahmed Omar arrived in Bahrain hoping for a better life for themselves and their four-year-old son.
The island felt strange to Yusra and, with no-one she could trust with her son, she decided to be a stay at home mum. She says: “My son was the only ray of solace in a dark and alien place, but with the coming years I was blessed with three more beautiful children. And between all the peaks and valleys of an immigrant life I always had an unstable relationship with art.”
From her early days in Russia, Yusra had always had a fascination with the subject, but says she could never be satisfied with the stringent theory and methodology of realism. She says: “Realism is beautiful if your goal is to mimic nature, like painting a basket of fruit. But its rigid rules and order give no real room for self-expression. It was about technique, and I thirsted for release.
“I felt art had to be more than just getting the strokes just right, the shadows at the right angle or the perspective accurate. I was aimlessly looking for something that could open the floodgates of my emotions.”
So, she began to doodle in her sketchbooks and, over the years, produced elongated figures, grotesque amalgamations and compositions that were as confused and lost as she was. That was when she realised art could form a photograph of her psyche, and the artistic process, her therapy.
She also recognised a certain distaste for brushes, preferring hard tools that could be scraped against the paper, such as pastels or charcoal. She adds: “I liked to get messy with my fingers and press my feelings onto my work.”
With her children grown up and more time on her hands, from 2007 she began to seek art passionately on the island. From books to workshops to meeting different women, she engaged with the artistic community. She fashioned her own tools out of wood and used plastic cards to express her restless moods. She also mastered the delicate medium of acrylic inks, which covered the pieces in her recent first solo show, Brushless, at Mashq Art Space.
She says: “A woman is often fragmented in her identity; she plays many roles and resembles many different things to different people. Whether I am an immigrant, a wife or a mother, the question that haunted me is, what remains without all these roles? That quiet despair is what I have been yearning to communicate. My quest, through art, was not to be able to produce the perfect painting, but to find a deep gratification in the process of its production. Art can not only recycle the nature around us, but the conditions within us.
“In my first solo exhibition, all the paintings used acrylic inks, which have a magical transparency, and were painted under the influence of music. The exhibition represented a kaleidoscopic journey from my early years of estrangement to the recent years of epiphany.”
Her boundless love and dedication to her family has made its mark on her husband, who is now an associate director at MSCEB, and on Omar, that little boy, who is now 23 and pursuing his Master of Architecture in Malaysia and also happens to be a poet.