Guzel Zakir, an Uyghur artist hailing from Almaty, South Kazakhstan, presents a unique solo exhibition titled ‘Monobrow’ at Matti Sirvio Art Gallery, drawing attention to an ancient cultural symbol of fertility that has been a great source of inspiration to the artist
The title of the exhibition and the exhibits on the entrance promise an element of intrigue at Matti Sirvio Art Gallery, in Jawharat al Shatti, where a solo exhibition by a visiting artist from Kazakhstan opened last evening. The theme deals with a unique aspect of facial beauty that is familiar in the Arab world, with cultural roots that run deep!
The exhibition, curated by Hungarian designer and artist Anetta Szabo, was inaugurated under the auspices of H E Najmedin Muhametali, Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of the Republic of Kazakhstan. It will continue till December 19.
“I always draw a monobrow on the images of my paintings. This is the most recognisable element of visual language. In Almaty (in south Kazakhstan), people call me ‘Diva Monobrow’, and I like it. The monobrow symbol is of special importance to me and is part of a personal story. Although it is a beautiful, unique part of my culture, I felt I needed to reject it due to certain trauma in my childhood,” says Guzel who later learnt that her monobrow was an important cultural code that revealed the answers to questions about her identity,
She further said, “Today, it has become a significant resource and inspiration for my art. The monobrow – fused eyebrows – date back to an ancient symbol of fertility. They embody the ideal notion of a woman.”
She pointed out, just as the cow has symbolised fertility and abundance – the horns resemble the crescent moon and its milk, the Milky Way – so also, the crescent shape moon, the monobrow, marked on the forehead of the female became an important central feature for eastern women.
Outgrown eyebrows became quite popular and gained high status in society. Even today, thick outgrown eyebrows are viewed as a sign of womanhood. In Uyghur culture, the traditional honour for fertility still holds strong today as we continue to ‘sacredly’ join our brows with dye, Guzel explains, adding, “It is common for Turkic women to have eyebrow dyeing ceremonies, parties or secret gatherings.
“The ladies in my family still embrace this ancient practice. My mother would squeeze out the juice of ‘osma’ (woad plants) with her hands and make a paint brush from cotton and broom sticks. She would then sit my sisters and me down and join our brows with the dye. It would be almost impossible to wash off the green dye. I would often get mocked by my friends for this,” she said, also wondering whether inspiration for painting did come to her through this act.
Though she never liked her monobrow, she later realised that it was part of her culture, and understood its significance. “The more I researched this ancient practice, the more I learned about my history, my people, my family and ultimately, myself. A journey of self love and acceptance emerged… My monobrow is a story of internal decolonisation.
“May be today, the monobrow is seen as stigma, but for me, it is like an ancient silken thread linking me to my ethnic and cultural identity. The exhibition ‘Monobrow’ is about the significance of fused eyebrows in the culture of Uyghur women.”
Dialogue through art
On display are 12 paintings, one series of a ceramic composition, and a set of prints. In Oman on a short stay of three weeks, Guzel has been very impressed by the villages scenes, people, and the unique landscapes. She loved the topography – the sand, and the many different rock formations that create a great platform for artists.
“In my art, I focus on dialogue between women in art and dialogue through art. The value of women – encouraging women through art and evolving them into my art projects. Monobrow is an important symbol for me. From this topic, my journey of art began. I have exhibited on this topic in Almaty, Istanbul, and plan to continue my research and work on this topic in the future. It connects people, and has greatly affected my becoming an artist.”
About beauty in the Arab world, she noted that there is beauty that is concealed. “Many Arab women have a monobrow, therefore, I feel connected with them instantly, as I consider it an aspect of beauty in its own special way. I feel my story could be their story – there are strong connections.”
Language of women
Curator of the exhibition, Anetta Szabo said, “Besides her cultural background and the local culture, Guzel’s paintings touch human issues, concerns, and values that connect to all of us, regardless of culture. Paintings like ‘Pure’, ‘Judges’, ‘Sacrificial’… refer to our human existence.
“Knowing about Guzel’s highly professional background – having exhibited in Istanbul, Almaty, several solo exhibitions – during these last weeks I had this incredible privilege of following her work from the first day till the last nail on the wall. I am amazed by how her art and her life is so woven together, her genuine love for people, her care for their joys and sorrows is revealed in her works. The way she values people in her art was proven in her everyday life in Oman through these weeks, and now continues in the exhibition.”
About the paintings on display – half of which were inspired during her residency in Oman and half from her earlier work in Kazakhstan – Anetta said, “She has painted paintings inspired by Oman, besides sharing her own story and culture. Many of her subjects closely relate to Arab women – stories of middle-eastern women. Guzel speaks the language of women here, without knowing Arabic.”
Of the works on display, Anetta considers ‘Sacrificial’, ‘Becoming the Same’ and, ‘Hidden beauties’ the strongest pieces. “’Sacrificial’ because of the strong expression on the concept of sacrificial act (that might be disappearing in a world, where people tend to love themselves more…) I value this topic greatly, and Guzel has expressed this secret value in a beautiful way. ‘Hidden Beauties’ because of her own story behind it. And ‘Becoming the Same’ because of the strong, creative visual expression,” she asserted.
Acknowledging Guzel’s inner change of acceptance and love for her culture as strong aspects of her personality, she said, “I love the flow of Guzel’s life and her art. She has gone through transformation where she was encouraged by several people, and now she has the strength to encourage other women through her art and walk boldly in her calling as a visual artist.”