“Initially, they started out of frustration,” says Kuki Jijo of his unique series of artworks or ‘manipulated censorships’, as he calls them. “Post-university I came back to Kuwait and felt heavily censored. I was very aware of how much I had changed or developed mentally while I was away, but wasn’t aware of how much it would affect my daily life.” The now 38-year-old artist’s sentiment will be shared by many young Arabs who have straddled two worlds through their formative years. A clash of cultures and questioning of identity is clear in this artist’s mixed-media work, and indeed his ethnically ambiguous moniker.
Art can start a conversation, it can rally a crowd, it can be used to incite change… But I’m not sure how ready the Gulf region is for that kind of change.
Beginning his childhood in London, Kuki Jijo (born Tareq Sultan) moved to his native Kuwait in the late 80s, only to return to the British capital again during the Gulf War in the 90s. He would later earn a university degree in the US before returning to Kuwait in 2005 where he began his career in graphic design. “So I’ve always felt a little torn between several worlds,” he explains. “My large Arab family ranges from the super-liberal to the ultra-conservative, so growing up was always filled with diverse opinions and faces of love - both conditional and unconditional. With one uncle we would learn about whiskey and with another we would learn about the Pillars of Islam.”
Often taking existing pictures, from pornography to glossy print ads, and adding layers of hand-painted modifications, Kuki Jijo’s pieces manage to portray a very different story to the original images. In some pieces, the figures of sexy Sports Illustrated models are censored out in black paint with a simple line drawing of a more modest lady etched on top. In others, it’s the physiques of gay porn actors that are blotted out, sometimes destined to remain a suggestive dark smudge on the page, other times embellished with beards and traditional prayer garb. Yet, in every piece, the original images manage to remain clear for the viewer; hidden in plain sight. This form of ‘manipulated censorship’ makes Kuki Jijo’s work alluring, almost hypnotic, as the mind subconsciously flips back and forth between what it knows is in the original image, and what is actually layered over it in the final piece.
I was given the option of them confiscating my things or just ripping out those pages, allowing me to keep what’s left of my inscribed thoughts and visual memories.
The censorship seen in Kuki Jijo’s work might come off vaguely familiar to others who have grown up in the Gulf; many remember seeing album art crudely scribbled out with permanent marker or glossy magazines with full pages torn out. This sort of hostile black-out is something the artist experienced first-hand. “When I first shipped back all the things I had collected in the several years of living abroad, along with all the art I had made in university, I went through a traumatic experience collecting my things from the post office,” he remembers. “They went through my items, and started to berate me for thinking I could bring these images into Kuwait… These men went through my journals, my notebooks, ripping out pages upon pages of sketches and figure studies. I was given the option of them confiscating my things or just ripping out those pages, allowing me to keep what’s left of my inscribed thoughts and visual memories. In total, they destroyed four large paintings, two large charcoal drawings, one large print and countless pages from journals, books and notebooks.”
It was this painful experience – alongside the realisation that self-censorship was sadly to become a part of his life in the Middle East – that came to inspire Kuki Jijo’s signature collages. “I was ready to start living a more authentic, queer life and came out to my parents, siblings and close family members at the time. But found it much harder to be authentic with everyone else in my life and began to hide and guard aspects of myself to people that knew me as child, as well as the general public. As I was facing different issues in Kuwait, such as the customs incident, I found it safer to be more censored.”
Like most people in the Middle East that identify as LGBTQ, Kuki Jijo is wary of the socio-political hate that surrounds his very existence. “I feel it starts with misogyny that people have decided to weave into a religious or cultural attribute,” he says. “Women, feminine males, and trans people across the board have genuine physical safety concerns. Art can start a conversation, it can rally a crowd, it can be used to incite change… But I’m not sure how ready the Gulf region is for that kind of change.”
I was ready to start living a more authentic, queer life and came out to my parents, siblings and close family members at the time. But found it much harder to be authentic with everyone else in my life and began to hide and guard aspects of myself to people that knew me as child, as well as the general public
A lot of the characters – especially the males – that populate Kuki Jijo’s work seem to be crying. “In my head, these characters are are all the same character, reincarnations in a sense, or shape shifting. A symbol of an on-going battle between cultures. A face of war…” he says, when asked about the tear drops. “Over the past 15 years I have seen a significant advancement in both the openness and the acceptance of the sexual identity spectrum in Kuwait and other countries in the Middle East. People are still being harassed and its never safe being trans here, but you do see the younger, university aged people approaching these topics differently. It gives me hope for the future generations… if we don’t kill each other first.”
Check out more of Kuki Jijo’s work here.