Contrary to common stereotypes, there was a time when bright colours reigned in the Arabian Peninsula, before the black abaya became fashionable. Self-taught Bahraini artist Leena Al Ayoobi takes us back to these roots in her paintings, portraying beautifully the vibrancy of Arabic culture and highlighting the diversity and individuality of Arab women that is all too often overlooked.
Leena was born and raised in Bahrain and is incredibly proud of her culture and her country’s heritage, which heavily influences her work. But she wasn’t always an artist. In fact, Leena studied business consulting and spent 14 years working as a consultant and auditor. It was only after the financial crash of 2008 that she began to realise it was “all just numbers”, and she decided to follow her passion.
Over the following years, Leena experimented with her artwork alongside her job and began to sell her paintings. She eventually left her full-time job to pursue her career as an artist, and she hasn’t looked back since. She has been displaying her work publicly in Bahrain and elsewhere in the GCC since 2014, and in 2016 she opened her store, Dar Al Fann, selling everything from canvases to cushions to iPhone covers printed with her paintings.
Leena’s unique style, which fuses bold colours, references to Bahraini heritage and overstated, Manga-style facial features brings her mostly female subjects to life, shattering the stereotype of black abaya-clad Arab women waiting to be emancipated.
Many of the women in her paintings can be seen wearing the brightly-coloured traditional Bahraini dress, which has more in common with the sari than the abaya. Leena also loves to paint with greens and blues like the colours of the sea, paying homage to her tiny island’s historical tradition of fishing and pearl diving.
The Manga influences in her work are particularly unusual, though not altogether surprising given that she – like many Bahraini children of her generation – grew up watching Japanese Anime. Anime, she says, had a huge influence on her childhood and has always inspired her art, particularly the work of acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki.
Leena is relatively liberal by Gulf standards. She wears bright, feminine clothes and does not cover her hair. Though some might think this unusual, this was once the norm in Bahrain.
A lot has changed in the region since 1979, when the rhetoric of the Islamic Revolution in Iran resonated with many of the more conservative voices in the Gulf. Regional regimes, in particular Saudi Arabia, responded by allowing their religious establishments and more conservative societal elements increased control over the development of their countries. Before 1979 it was not uncommon to see Bahraini women wearing miniskirts in public.
Leena expressed her optimism and excitement regarding women’s rights in the region, mentioning recent developments in Saudi Arabia such as the decision to allow women the right to drive. She sees a wave of change on the horizon, and is hopeful for the new Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who appears to be pushing a progressive agenda with regards to increasing freedoms for Saudi women.
Besides the fact that her work challenges common assumptions about Arab women, Leena herself is a perfect example of how not everything in the Gulf is as it seems. Leena is from a Shia family, while her husband is Sunni. Bahrain is often painted by the media as sharply divided along sectarian lines; While sectarianism has clearly played a role in the politics of the region, Leena shows that that there are educated, creative, open minded and progressive Bahrainis pushing back against dominant narratives and paving the way for a more tolerant future.
Her unique and vibrant work is a reflection of her personality and mindset. In a world where extremists on both sides of the political spectrum currently reign, Leena Al Ayoobi is a breath of fresh air.
If you enjoyed this, you might also like: