Boobs. How do you feel about yours? They are a source of contention; a tool of sexuality; an avenue of shame. Women think theirs are too small or too saggy; the wrong shape or ridged with stretch marks; they don’t want to be judged by them but they do want them to be judged as perfect. They are told to cover them up, but reveal them occasionally – make sure they’re pushed up and perky when you do! They are considered erotic – they are banned on Instagram – but they are also a lifegiving source. In the Arab world, they are 3eib; they’re tied to scandal and impropriety. They are, in short a complicated subject, as are most women’s relationships with their own.
“The noise and visual garbage out there really affects women in how they perceive themselves,” says Malda Smadi, a UAE-based Syrian artist whose latest series, OMG Boobies! explores the notion of breasts and their perception in global and Arab culture. The series, colourful sculptures based on real women’s breasts, is intended to celebrate women’s bodies, and to create distance from the almost constant state of sexualizing boobs.
The amount of shame women feel towards their breasts is outstanding.
The 31-year-old artist is a relative newcomer to the art world, which she describes as “a parallel world of limitlessness” but is rapidly beginning to make an impact with her work, in particular her latest project which can easily be considered something of a racy anomaly in a largely conservative Middle East. Born in Damascus and raised in Dubai, she graduated in Visual Communication from the American University in Dubai and spent the majority of her career working as a graphic designer before, three years ago, she decided to break away and burrow her way back to the art she’d always felt was in her blood. “When I graduated, art was not an option as a career,” she says simply. “Then one evening [three years ago] I stepped into a gallery and came across this large painting and it felt like I had turned my back on someone and I couldn’t keep it up anymore. Everything that came afterwards was the reconciliation.”
I’d like to be able to normalise nudity, reclaim what is ours from a female perspective
She began to create – a divergent array of work that ranged from painting arresting portraits to sculpting chopped up steel fingers to an general exploration of nudity. All those elements eventually combined for her OMG Boobies! series, clay sculptures painted in myriad bright hues based on her own and her friends’ breasts.
By simply asking women to bare their breasts for me to sculpt them, I reached another level of understanding.
“I had always been drawn to sensuality, sexuality and the body in general,” she explains, “The relationships between all these areas together, but also the relationship with the world and its reflection and reaction towards these areas, with the evolution of our abstracted thoughts towards our physical appearance.” Of course, nudity and art have been intertwined since time immemorial, but in much the same way, nudity and taboo also have a cement-strong bond in the Arab world. But Smadi felt a pull to explore the nude form, and refused to allow a cage of convention prevent her from doing so. “There was a need to liberate myself from the confines of society, in a very cliched sense, by being able to partake in ‘nude art’ (referring to drawing, painting, sculpting nudity), and to publicise it,” she shares. “This wasn’t work that I wanted to keep hidden in my sketchbook. I wanted to be able to make it and show it, have a conversation about it, develop it, get critiqued, understand what the reactions were.”
For artists in the Arab world, it can be argued that the surest way to get noticed is to do something taboo. And yes, shock tactics are a tried and true – and some may argue, rather tired – method of getting attention anywhere in the world. The difference is though, now, there is little left to shock in the Western world where artists have been pushing boundaries for decades, whereas in the Arab world, where many things are still off limits, where a deluge of doors are still locked, anything that flouts convention can draw attention to you. But Smadi wasn’t trying to elicit reactions. “It was more of a liberating experience than a shock factor,” she explains.
This wasn’t work that I wanted to keep hidden in my sketchbook. I wanted to be able to make it and show it, have a conversation about it.
Her interpretation of the OMG Boobies! series was a way of opening up, an exploration of something that is natural, not a method of sparking controversy. Given however, the more restrained nature of the Arab world, sometimes the slightest things can spark controversy, and nudity is definitely on that shortlist. “I don’t really believe this type of nudity elicits backlash,” Smadi argues. “It’s not explicit, nor disrespectful – it’s still pertaining to some neutrality. And the art world is a little more progressive than other areas in general, so you expect to find the controversial work that is hidden under the prism of art. The Middle East is a complicated story, but we are slowly opening up.”
The Middle East is a complicated story, but we are slowly opening up
The project was also, as it turned out, an educational experience for the artist. “When it comes to nudity, focusing on the female gender in particular makes it even more complex.” After modelling some of the pieces after her own breasts, she began to ask friends “to bare their chests for me to sculpt their breasts and turn them into these art pieces.” She rapidly discovered that even though many of them agree, there was a reluctance, an aura of discontent around the two subjects the women were asked to reveal. “By simply asking women to bare their breasts for me to sculpt them, I reached another level of understanding,” says Smadi, “The amount of shame women feel towards their breasts is outstanding.”
And the shame women feel swings in two directions; being unattractive and being improper. “It was a little disheartening that many of them were embarrassed by how their breasts looked like,” the artist shares. These ranged from women who simply didn’t like their natural breasts, to mothers who had breastfed two or more children, to women who had lost a lot of weight, and women who has undergone reconstructive surgery. “In all cases, their opinions of their breasts were not only that they were unattractive, but that they were so bad they couldn’t share them with another female for an art piece!”
...breasts are seen as sexual organs so we need to censor them - when in fact, if we use that logic then we can say our skin in general is one big sex organ, so should we censor our arms or earlobes?
“And more so, the 3aib (disgrace) [that exists in the Middle East],” Smadi continues, “The years of learning to cover up, or that breasts are seen as sexual organs so we need to censor them - when in fact, if we use that logic then we can say our skin in general is one big sex organ, so should we censor our arms or earlobes?”
The project, unconventional and unapologetic, proved to be an almost therapeutic process, a way for women to reclaim ownership of their own bodies; bodies they’ve been shamed into being embarrassed about for their perceived flaws; shamed into covering for their perceived illicitness.
It speaks to a deeper intent on Smadi’s part as she begins to truly find her voice in her work, in terms of not only opening up a dialogue about sexuality but embracing what you’re born with.
“The series has become this statement for so many different issues concerning the female body, female sexuality, the body in general and feminism,” Smadi concludes, “I’d like to be able to normalise nudity, reclaim what is ours from a female perspective, and correct misconceptions.”
You can check out Malda Smadi’s website here or follow her on Instagram @maldasmadi