We’ve followed the progress of Fathima Mohiuddin for some time, initially because she had one of the most distinctive styles on Dubai’s urban art scene. She’s also articulate about her art and imaginative about its application; this piece, written for her blog, seemed to us to be both characteristic and perceptive – an account of why art matters, to this one individual for sure but maybe more generally too.
My grandparents were social workers. My grandfather had been orphaned by the time he was a teenager, having lost his parents to a mysterious disease and adopted into a wonderful family. He became a doctor and worked for the WHO for 40 years. My grandmother worked for the Family Planning Association of India. Pushing boundaries; educating people in poor villages about birth control, STDs and HIV. My mum was a teacher with three Masters degrees, a reputation for introducing young minds to life-changing literature and, by the end of her career, an esteemed consultant for the Ministry of Education in the UAE. I come from a line of people who lived with a social conscience and who strived to, in their own way, help other people.
The circumstances of my upbringing were quite different. I was an Indian kid born to modest earning parents who’d moved to Dubai looking for opportunity. My brother and I loved books. Static images filled with narrative quite foreign to the life we were living. We loved to draw. To be absorbed into a different place and imagine bizarre and wonderful things which, as a cartoonist now, he does every day.
I was the darker of the two. By fifteen I fell in love with Jackson Pollock, painting black images on my white bedroom walls and slamming doors. My parents fought for seven long years, my father left, they divorced, and my brother went off to university in Canada.
I was a confused and angry teenager, frustrated at my inability to handle my emotions and the changes around me. I was diagnosed with anxiety and struggled with cultural identity. I didn’t feel Indian. I resented the religion I was born into that shamed me for being left handed and showing my shoulders and knees. I didn’t see myself reflected in the western kids at school. I didn’t feel acceptable by anybody’s standards.
Drawing and painting gave me something that was mine. A place where the past, the future, and the circumstances of the present didn’t matter. Where it was okay to be angst-ridden and unusual because all the great artists had done it. A way to make something tangible from feeling overwhelmed. To regain control in a distressing situation and to channel that in to beautiful chaos. And I was good at it. It gave me something to feel good and proud about and to own in spite of everything else.
Over the years art has continued to save me. Through university I struggled with anxiety. I went from doctor to doctor, therapist to therapist, pill to pill. With wild notions of romance and living in the moment, I found myself in a hard spot one too many times. My art work grew more gestural and emotional as I created a 15-year whirlwind around myself. My grandparents passed. My parents both remarried. I got myself off medication and used art as an outlet to regain freedom and power. I went from relationship to relationship, moved from Toronto to London and then from London to Dubai, back to the place I’d been so displaced and fragmented in years ago. And lost once more, found myself back at the edge trapped in a four-year relationship and an eight-month marriage to an abusive sociopath.
But the chaotic relationship I’ve had with myself has been paralleled by a beautiful relationship with art that has grown stronger at each hiccup. It’s my constant. And it’s an antidote that comes from within me. When the angry teenager slammed the door, she escaped into a world of black and white strength where pain channeled into power and honest images of hurt. The years I stayed with my ex husband I didn’t paint from a place of power but weakness and lost ambition.
Three years ago this December I left that situation and turned to my constant for help. I have painted harder and stronger than ever in these three years. Through my work I have told stories of tragedy and romance. Of a broken heart and broken dreams as birds fall out of trees. And over three years those stories have turned from devastated to hopeful where birds are tragically romantic but ultimately brave and free. I have turned to art for meaning. For expression. To find my heart and humanity again. To be alive and free and innocent. To tell me things I can’t see about myself and find innate power.
And it’s that ‘effect’ I’ve fallen in love with. The way art mobilises humanity and reveals truths. The way it holds us still for a moment away from circumstance and at the same time gives us access to the things we’ve locked away in our subconscious for years and years.
Over the last few years I’ve taken various trips to work with kids in challenging situations as my grandparents did. Like underprivileged children in the mountains in India and wounded children from war zones in a hospital in Jordan. To share that ‘effect’ in the hope that it can do for them what it did for me, and somehow live a life that has some impact and relevance to a bigger picture like the two generations before me did.
The truth shall set you free, they say. It’s a cliché, yes. But art is truth. And it saves me every day.