by ANNA McNAY
Maha Malluh (b1959) lives and works in Saudi Arabia and her art is infused with the culture that surrounds her. Her assemblages of discarded items, found in junk shops and flea markets, present objects imbued with cultural meaning and embedded histories. “My inspiration,” she says, “comes from my country, a land of contrasting images and ideas. Good art forces you to pause, to contemplate and think harder about your surroundings.”
Currently one of the 14 artists in the Saatchi Gallery’s first all-women exhibition, Champagne Life, Malluh has covered one of the gallery’s walls with an assortment of burnt aluminium cooking pots, traditionally used throughout the Arab world. The title of the series to which the work belongs – Food for Thought – Al-Muallaqat – makes reference to the pre-Islamic, sixth-century Suspended Odes or Hanging Poems, traditionally hung in Mecca.
Malluh spoke to Studio International about the potency of such objects as transmitters of cultural meaning, her views on gender, and the significance of women-only exhibitions.
Anna McNay: Tell me a bit about your background. Where did you grow up, and were you involved with art from a young age?
Maha Malluh: I was born and raised in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I have been drawing and painting since my early childhood and I was encouraged by all of my family.
AMc: Did you study art? Was that a choice that your family approved of?
MM: I am a self-taught artist. I have taken many courses in various artistic techniques and I studied art history in the US for two years. I have a certificate in photography and design. My BA was in English literature from King Saud University in Riyadh. Learning is a continuous process. I don’t think it ever ends with a formal education. I am still exploring and learning whatever helps me to express myself.
AMc: The work you have on show in Champagne Life at the Saatchi Gallery, from the series Food for Thought – Al-Muallaqat, comprises a wall installation of aluminium cooking pots, used traditionally throughout the Arab world. The title Al-Muallaqat links the installation to pre-Islamic sixth-century Suspended Odes or Hanging Poems, traditionally hung in Mecca. Can you tell me a little about these traditions and what inspired you to combine them in such a way?
MM: I have been interested in material culture for a very long time. I collect objects, in which I find aesthetic beauty, from everywhere I go. I once came across a large number of pots with burnt bottoms. After collecting them and hanging them on my studio wall – just as has been done in the gallery space – I became fascinated with the scratches, marks and thick layer of burnt grease that was enveloping these pots.
At the same time, I was conducting research for another project after a trip to the desert. There I learned that there are many historical sites around Riyadh mentioned in the poems and that these places are actually located around my father’s hometown near Riyadh, where I live. So, reading about the al-Muallaqat and looking at these hanging pots makes me think how precious the stories are that these pots tell me – in the same way as the hanging poems in Mecca, which tell us stories about pre-Islamic Arabia.
AMc: Is it typical of your work to reference your cultural heritage?
MM: Mostly, yes.
AMc: Do you attach a narrative to your work?
MM: Again, most of the time, yes.
AMc: Is it important for viewers to know what the work represents?
MM: Not necessarily.
AMc: You usually work with found objects that you collect at junk stores and flea markets. What is it about these objects that makes you want to work with them? Do you see them as your paint, in a way?
MM: When an object can no longer operate as was originally intended, a new function through “adaptive reuse” may be the only way to preserve the heritage of its significance, as in the installation Food for Thought – Al-Muallaqat. I like to work with objects that are going to disappear from our life, in order to preserve our identity and our cultural memory. Also, I don’t see the point in creating new objects while we have a lot of waste around us. Since the discovery of oil, and with large amounts of disposable income, people have become trained by market forces to buy things because of their brand image. This has led me to think how brand names have helped to create a “throwaway” culture in Saudi Arabia and in the world. What was once trivial may become powerful again.
AMc: You have, in the past, worked with a variety of media: drawing, painting, photography – and even the photogram. Are you driven by the desire to experiment with new means of expression, or does the subject matter dictate the medium?
MM: Normally, the subject matter dictates the medium. I am always keen to experiment with different media.
AMc: Are there any central themes that run through your oeuvre as a whole?
MM: I am interested in the systems of value awarded to material objects in our contemporary age and in the narratives that objects tell of our quotidian but valuable lives.
AMc: Do you feel that being a woman makes it harder for you to be successful as an artist?
MM: No, I really don’t feel that. A lot of research has actually been shown where women can use their wiles to achieve their goals in the workplace. I think the main idea for me is for my art to remain strong, for it to challenge, inspire and provoke thought and dialogue. My gender is immaterial at this point.
AMc: What does it mean to you to be included in an exhibition of just female artists? Do you think it is important for such exhibitions to take place?
MM: I think the timing of this exhibition is good and it is a necessary step. It is a good exhibition primarily because there have been many group exhibitions with a considerably low selection of art by female artists. Having a women-only show puts women firmly on the cultural agenda. I hope that this will be the beginning of a larger cultural effort around the world to make male and female cultural participation equal, based not simply on gender but on artistic and creative merit.
On another note, I feel that this exhibition, held in London, is so relevant to women all over the world. Occasionally, in the media, women from certain regions are targeted as victims of male patriarchy within their cultures. Such an exhibition makes it clear that women have shared experiences, both negative and positive, and that such celebrations or cries take on metamorphosed forms in artistic endeavours all over the world.
• Maha Malluh is showing Untitled (Food for Thought series) (2015) in Champagne Life at the Saatchi Gallery, London, until 9 March 2016.