Interviewed by Farrah Fray
Zainab Al Radhi is an artist and writer born in Saudi Arabia. In 2017, she published her first book, “لأنك مجرة” (“For you are a galaxy”); a collection of poetic letters narrating a journey of self-discovery in the form of letters to those who have influenced her throughout her adolescence. Inspired by a variety of creatives, of whom women form the majority, Zainab’s words confide in the secrets, desires, and whims of day to day life, forming reflexive memoirs which vividly document the struggles of youth. As part of “In the Middle of it All”, Zainab shares a piece of her work from “لأنك مجرة”. Titled “A Letter to Frida Kahlo”, it illustrates a resignation of reality in the form of a coming of age, drawing upon Kahlo’s biography as a means of understanding her identity as a female. With the release of “In the Middle of it All”, we chat with Zainab about her artistic journey, her inspirations, and the importance of female voices in art. Along with this interview, we've teamed up with Sarah Ahmed, an artist part of the Banat Collective community, to illustrate her interpretations and capture the essence of Zainab Al Radhi's book, “لأنك مجرة”, with quotes directly from the book.
Zainab Al Radhi is part of Banat Collective's first collaborative publication, 'In the Middle of it All'. Available to purchase through our online shop.
One of your oldest memories is of drawing and writing. What started your journey with art?
Like many of the 90s kids, my favorite tv channel was Spacetoon. I was fascinated by the power of story telling, and the impact of illustration. I remember waking up early in the mornings only to watch the cartoon drawing show by the talented cartoonist, and following his steps on my sketchbook. I watched every show from every planet the Spacetoon universe had. And I also remember posing the shows and copying my favorite scenes, which created the connection between me, the characters, the art, and the original artist. The entire process was magical to me, as art still brings me back to that kid within me, and let me be the story teller I always admired.
Along with writing, you’re also passionate about art and drawing in particular. How does that inform the creative process behind your writing?
When I write in Arabic, I see the letters dancing, and flowing on the paper in sync with the music being played or my flow of energy. I see words as a drawing that grows to make you feel something within, to challenge a norm, and question a belief system. When I write, I sense a movement, and I see color. Words appear dressed in warm colors, and cold hues. That’s why I like including a painted piece of art with my words, to give the reader a chance to see what I see.
You also translate, often into or from Arabic. How do you think language is influencing the way we perceive things?
Language is powerful. Every word has its own frequency that holds so much along within. It is challenging to translate, especially when I try to keep an authentic feel to what was written in the first place. The best way I can describe my way of translating is that I don’t translate the literal words, but the intent behind them.
You’re clearly influenced by women and idols throughout time. Who is your biggest female influence?
In my mini book of letters collection, I wrote to two important women in my life: Frida Kahlo, and Eve. I think that every women that sparks a question in my life is worth mentioning. I appreciate being challenged, and I admire women like Eve, who I only heard stories about but never met, for challenging my thoughts, and letting me question life just by the fact of her existence.
Your piece, titled “A Letter to Frida Kahlo”, is inspired by someone who sought to assimilate philosophies from the ancient and modern cultures of both East and West into an overarching world view. How does this relate to your work in general?
Both the East and the West had shapes my personality, my awareness, and my views on life. I stopped seeing them as a separate entities anymore.. as they are part of who I am.. as there is a bigger picture I view through the different realms and universes. What Frida did is creating a bridge to fill in a gap, and I am here to cross it, and start filling in a bigger gap.
Do you think there’s enough representation of Arab artists, particularly female artists in western art circles?
In todays time and age, I think that diversity is ruling and women are stepping up their game into getting to places they deserve to be at. I like to think more about the Arab artists in the Arab world than worry so much about their presence in the west. I grew up looking up to Western artist because Arabs did not have an exposure even within the Arab world. I see local exposure and support as a priority.. going somewhere else is a follow-up to an amazing journey.
Do you think discussions of the female experience are sidelined in the art world? If so, why?
I’m surrounded by women centric art. It is maybe because I always put on the effort to find female artists, female shows, female focused exhibits, and dancing concerts, so I might be bias here. But women are out there, and doing amazing things for the world to see. Only yesterday, I attended a Spring Dance concert at a university theatre with a message of feminism. That concert was powerful. It amazes me what women can do with their bodies to get the message across. It was breathtaking.
Tell us more about your book “لأنك مجرّة” (For You Are a Galaxy). How does the book move through a journey of self-discovery?
When I moved to the U.S. I was a teenager, alone in a land I had never been to before, surrounded by people that spoke a different language, and shared a different culture. I felt lost for a long time and tried to fit in, only to discover that I was not going to be able to expect people to accept me, and know me if I do not know who I am. I started questioning myself, my beliefs, my habits, and the words that come out of my mouth unconditionally. It was frightening to see beyond the curtains, and getting myself out of my comfort zone. I was afraid because all I’ve learned through out the years was not me, but a collective of what my community created. I needed to see myself, the real me, naked, within. I needed to share that with someone and not worry about being judged, or hurting them. I had so many questions, and so I started writing a collection of letters that transformed into a mini book describing my chaos, enlightenment, and desire to see more.
You wrote your book when you moved to America from Saudi Arabia to study. How did your experiences as a Middle Eastern female in the US shape the choice of people you wrote your letters to?
When I chose the recipients of the letters, I focused on two things, 1. Them being dead. 2. They would understand the chaos I am pouring on paper because it relates to their life story. Most of the topics I talked about in these letters were things I have never thought about in Saudi Arabia. But by living alone and struggling to find my real identity as an individual, I had to leave that bubble. I stopped writing years ago, but America made me start writing again, because I started questioning again.
Similarly to your book, exhibitions such as Perpetual Movement, held this year in London, explore the thoughts, experiences and memories that come with moving from one place to another. How important do you think it is for such voices to be included?
It is important to hear each others perspectives. Each of us is living there own journey whether they are moving to another continent, or staying home. The power of story telling is more than our minds can ever comprehend, and inside each of us there is a story telling waiting for a moment to share that light with the world. And I am hear to listen.
“In the Middle of it All” also explores this time period in our lives, shedding light on different women's experiences. What do you think unites us all about coming of age?
What unites us all about coming of age is the flow of the journey. The entrance of a world of mystery, that no matter what our parents, teachers or friends tell us, it is going to be different. It’s a time where our feminine energy reaches a higher frequency, and we can bring on life. This universe has a feminine energy, nurturing. Women are the universe, and coming of age is just the first step for them to reclaim that energy once more.
Besides your wonderful piece, “A Letter to Frida Kahlo”, what can we expect from you in 2018?
At the end of 2017, I was introduced to the universe of collage art in an attempt to try something new for the first time, and I found a passion I never knew it existed. So this year, I am exploring that realm, as I am working on a collage art collection showcasing women from the past, and this modern age. Also, my piece, “Standing Tall” is going to be showcased in the Adaptability Exhibition, Jeddah, this coming March. I chose digital collage as a medium, as it gives me a chance to describe the chaos, beauty, and magic shown in my dreams. This medium gives both the viewer and I an opportunity to see beyond the curtains, and let one self free..