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  • Nia Alexander Campbell

Freedom of the Paintbrush!

What You’ll Find in This Post

  • What imagery & themes are generally against the rules

  • Censorship when it comes to written work

  • Censorship when it comes to movies & photography

  • My experience with censorship as an arts student

  • A specific problem I ran into with my creative process

  • A story about Qatar's growing comfort with "provocative" art


A closeup of me painting in my studio at VCUQ

It’s no secret that censorship is simply the way things roll in Qatar when it comes to written works, visuals, and public displays (like protests). As an American, I grew up in a country that was mildly obsessed with the concept of freedom of expression. It was my norm and I was very comfortable with it (despite its occasional pitfalls), which is why I was a teeny bit concerned about what life would be like in a country where that wasn’t the norm. Also remember that I was a visual artist and a writer; freedom of expression was my conceptual foundation for every creative piece I had ever made, and because I was making all my pieces in the U.S. for a U.S. audience, I never had to think twice about whether the art I was creating was “against the rules”.

To add, I was in my last semester of undergrad art school, which meant it was time for me to crank out a senior thesis. In theory, a senior thesis is supposed to be a culmination of everything you have learned, a collection of artworks that speak about a subject you’re passionate about through use of all the technical and conceptual training you’ve had over the last 3 ½ years. Well, technically I was good to go, but conceptually everything I had learned had been within the context of America’s “you can express anything” norm. Now, suddenly, I had to contend with some conceptual limitations; I had to adapt to a whole new way of art-making within the span of four months.

Wondering how that worked out? Let me tell you.

What’s against the rules?

In the studio, wondering whether or not I’m allowed to paint the thing I’m currently painting.

Generally speaking, the things that are against the rules when it comes to public displays are things that are considered haram in Islam or things that express notable dislike toward the Qatari government. Some quick examples include:

  • Nudity

  • Sex

  • Unmarried romantic actions

  • LGBT+ topics

  • Recreational drug use

  • Alcohol

  • Negative comments about the royal family

  • Highlighting the bad stuff going down in Qatar (like migrant workers, mall fires, or drunk exchange students throwing up in the residence hall lobby)

  • Slanders about Islam

  • Anything that loudly supports any of Qatar’s not-so-friendly neighbors

Also keep in mind that Qatar can see everything that goes down on the internet; it’s the reason why you can go to a website one day only to have it be blocked a month later. I never experienced the sudden blocking of a website, but I did notice that Google search results were sometimes different than they were when I Googled the same mildly haram topics in the U.S. There’s also that time where I was reading an article about cultural appropriation and they featured a celebrity’s Instagram photo; the photo just so happened to be ass-tastic (but not too graphic because it passed Instagram standards) and as a result, the image was blurred out along with a vague message that essentially said, “this image won’t be loading, sorry”. Meanwhile, other halal images on the site loaded perfectly fine.

Written work

You don’t have to worry about suddenly being arrested if you write something haram on your blog site with an average traffic of 4 viewers per month. However, if you have a substantial following—be it a casual blog or legitimate media outlet—your work runs the risk of being blocked (on the internet) or censored (in print) if anything you write is too “out there” for Qatari standards. This seems like a good time to bring up what happened to Doha News. Just click the link, it’s a very comprehensive and easy read.

There were also a few instances in 2018 where articles in The New York Times were censored because they mentioned LGBT+ community in a positive light (and by “positive”, I really mean the articles expressed empathy and honest reflections on the struggles the community has had to endure throughout recent history). Here’s a link to a brief NYT article about the censorship of certain NYT articles in Qatar. Note, though, that 2018 didn’t mark the first instance of this happening, and probably not the last one; it’s just what was going on around the time I was in Qatar.

Also, because I feel the need to point it out, Qatar has its own news outlet, a little entity called Al Jazeera. Ring any internationally accredited bells? I’m not here to critique AJ—after all, the rest of the internet seems to have that covered (go do a quick Google search, you’ll see what I mean)—I just wanted to bring them up because I had absolutely no idea that Al Jazeera was a Qatari-born news outlet, and that my dorm was just 16 minutes down the street from their headquarters. Here’s a link to their timeline on the AJ site.

Ah, and here’s a fun fact: If you’re ever reading an article—or even a response to a question in an online forum—and you see “PBUH.” in small text after a mentioning of the Prophet Muhammad, it stands for “peace be upon him”.

Alright, one last thing: Here’s a link to a 2017 Freedom House article about where Qatar ranked on the “freedom of press” scale. I saved it for last because looking at the graphs and reading the blurbs makes Qatar sound really severe when it comes to censorship (especially compared to the U.S.) and I didn’t want to scare you. However, the article makes some honest points about Qatar’s relationship with the press, and it’s fair to say that journalists can have a hard time there depending on what they’re reporting on.

Visual art

Pemba Plants the Tainted Seeds, work in progress

Movies and TV

Interestingly, a kiss in Black Panther was censored, but I’m not sure if it was censored because it was a kiss or because it was an unmarried kiss. Then when it comes to movies pertaining to LGBT+ topics or Israel, they aren’t going to show in cinemas at all (including Wonder Woman, because it starred Gal Gadot). However, Netflix in Qatar and other streaming services (like HBO) are just as R-rated as what you’d find in the U.S., complete with nudity, graphic sex, drug use, and most of what I mentioned earlier under my “general rules” list. I say “most” though because there’s some stuff on Netflix, for example, that I feel was omitted not because of the legal-right-to-stream-here law that makes Netflix in every country different, but because of their themes. A lot of documentaries about sex and LGBT+ topics, for example, were no longer available on Qatari Netflix despite the fact these the same topics showed up in many of the fictional works that still stream on the platform.

Interesting, no?

I know that whole paragraph was about entertainment from the perspective of the audience and not necessarily filmmaking as an art form, but I feel like many of the same rules still apply. It all depends on what you’re filming, how your displaying it, and who you’re showing it to that determines what your art is allowed to look like, you know?


Just remember not to photograph government buildings or oil refineries. You’ll know it’s a government building if it’s huge and mildly sprawling (like a palace) or if it looks like a military compound. And oil refineries look . . . odd. No, really, they are an odd site, like mini cities lying amongst miles of sand, dust, and flatness. You’ll know it when you see it.

I, however, didn’t know it when I first saw it. I hadn’t the slightest clue what an oil refinery looked like, so when I saw an interesting architectural structure in the desert off in the distance, my natural instinct was to photograph it. As soon as I lifted my camera, though, my friend in the driver’s seat said, “NO, DON’T DO THAT!” and I freaked out, dropping my phone as I rushed to duck down in the car. On another occasion, I photographed a very large pile of construction dirt and—once again—my friend exclaimed, “NO, THAT’S THE COMPOUND!” and I shouted. As it turned out, immediately next to the dirt pile was a building complete with barbed wire and a watchtower, clearly a compound. So, in situations like this, just remember to look both ways before snapping a pic.

Fine Art & Design

Pemba Plants the Tainted Seeds, work in progress. Is this figure nude? Not exactly. But they aren’t clothed either.

Before I get into the details, keep in mind that the entirety of my art-making experience while in Qatar was in uni and making art as an undergrad in uni is inherently different than making art in “the real world” as people like to call it. The rules, expectations, and resources are different specifically because we’re in school. That in mind, next I’ll run down a bit of what I experienced.

VCUQ still taught the same Western curriculum as VCU-Richmond, minus the nude models (a minor blessing because I’ve seen enough dick piercings on unfamiliar old men to last a lifetime). That said, when it comes to haram imagery—anything featuring the things from my general list—I don’t think there’s a rule that says, “this sort of art can never happen at VCUQ ever”. I think it’s more like a social cautiousness; it’s better for the university to not feature or promote anything haram in their students’ artwork or curriculum because there’s a high likelihood that the material will offend a lot of people.

But, because the “nothing haram” rule was more of a suggestion than a definitive rule, there were always ways to get your artwork shown and critiqued. I’m not telling you to buck the system; “provocative” art has different consequences in Qatar than in the U.S. I’m just saying that as an artist you’ve got the awesome ability to get creative and problem solve, especially as a student. Though you may not be able to draw the nude figure in the way you envisioned, there are 100 different ways to create a nude figure that will allow you to hang it on a gallery wall. And when it comes to getting critiqued, I heard that showing “haram artwork” during a classroom critique is fine as long as your teacher and classmates are fine with it, but it’s still a little tricky . . . after all, the last thing you want is for the dean and their esteemed (and very conservative) guest to walk in on your haram critique.

Even still, you can always bring in your personal work and have a private one-on-one critique with a professor and maybe a few students. Again, this isn’t a secret critique—no one is breaking any rules—it’s just that some things are better done in private so as to not run the risk of causing any very public problems that will create headaches for all those involved.

The Trials of Glooskap and Malsum, work in progress

I also noticed a lot of art at pieces at VCUQ that weren’t necessarily voicing an opinion about a specific haram issue, just calling attention to it. Collaging local newspaper clippings to make a point or curating a display of halal imagery in order to highlight a specific idea were the sorts of projects I saw that simply asked the audience to consider what it on display (without directly challenging an idea head-one). Speculative design was also very popular at VCUQ; it’s a sort of thought process that essentially considers how a current problem will effect/exist in the future, and in response the artist creates pieces surrounding that future scenario. With art theologies like that, the sky really is the limit despite the censorship.

I feel compelled to mention something one of my art teachers told me, though, about an incident that happened nearly two decades ago in Qatar. See, there was an artist, a teacher, who was teaching a class about Greek mythology and art. This class wasn't being taught as VCUQ, or even Education City, it was somewhere else in Doha. Well, the teacher kept bringing up the ancient Greek creation story and, apparently, it didn't go over well because it clashed with the creation beliefs in Islam and the teacher ultimately got in trouble.

As I mentioned, though, this was a long time ago and, frankly, I feel like some information has been left out. Who was she teaching? Where was she teaching? What were the language barriers like? Things like that can really set the stage for an issue blowing out of proportion like this. However, my teacher thought to tell me this story because my thesis collection featured two ancient creation stories from two different cultures. She didn't think I'd run into any problems with my audience, but she did want me to be aware of what happened in the beforetimes, you know?

Ah, but the content of my artwork wasn't my biggest problem. Nope, it was something else that really threw me off . . .

The problem I ran into

The Trials of Glooskap and Malsum, work in progress

Remember when I said that as an artist problem solving is one of our strong suits? That we’ll always be able to find creative ways around censorship that don’t break any of the rules, but is still honest to our art practice? Well, as true as that is, it’s still easier said than done. Problem solving takes time and a lot of reworking of ideas, which is where I ran into a problem. Normally, seniors start fine tuning their art practice in the first semester of their senior year, like planting seeds for what their thesis could look like during their final semester. I, however, was graduating a year early, which meant the normal pacing of the development of my art practice had been more succinct than normal (and the quality of instruction I received those first two years was often subpar, but that’s a different conversation). I was only just beginning to find my artistic footing the semester I was graduating, and though that’s okay in the grand scheme of life, it’s a bit problematic when you have to pump out a fully realized collection of artworks in just a little over 100 days. To add, I was in the middle of adapting to a new country, new city, new school, new friends, new apartment, new everything. Simply put, there was a lot going on and just a little bit of time to wrap my mind around it all.

That said, while planning my thesis, I had an idea for a piece. I sketched this idea as I saw it in my head, and it featured a partially nude Mother Earth sort of figure. I tried to censor it in the quick & dirty way, by just have her form hidden behind some other object (like a tunic or a waterfall) and I was seriously unhappy with it. Alright, let’s pause for a minute:

For those of you reading this who may not be artists, let me give you an example of all the stress something seemingly so simple as putting a shirt on a figure can bring. You have to ask yourself questions like, What does this shirt say about this figure? About the female/male form? What color is the shirt and what does that represent? What does it represent to this audience vs. that audience? What kind of shirt is it? What does the style of shirt bring to mind? Time period? Location? Religion? What are the implications of dress? How are the folds falling? Is it stiff with starch, do they flow magically, or is everything wrinkled? What does that say about the figure? About privilege, appearance, social expectations? How is the shirt drawn or painted, how does it catch light? Is it a focal point of the piece? Is it a distraction visually? Is it a distraction conceptually? What has the narrative developed into as a result of this article of clothing?

You see all the questions that arose with just adding a shirt to a figure? Censorship in art isn’t as simple as editing out something unwanted in the blink of an eye and that’s where my problem came in. I didn’t have the time or mental energy to figure out a quality solution to my predicament, one I would be happy with as an artist. I wasn’t able to ask myself all these questions, work through the answers, and reevaluate possible solutions. As a result, the piece became overworked; it was too busy, the composition sucked, and it didn’t fit into the collection as a whole. I ultimately decided to cut the piece up . . . literally. I took scissors to that thing and stitched it back together.

If this sort of thing happens to you—if you are entering into a similar exchange program and you suspect your art may be a touch haram—this is what I recommend: Email one of your future teachers, attach images of your artwork, and ask if it would work in the environment you’re about to enter into. If they say that your artwork may be a little haram for the environment, start reflecting and thinking about things you can tweak about your pieces that will still work with the themes and materials you want to work with. Start this rethinking process early; the earlier you start thinking about it, the better your final results will be (even if you’re the kind of artist who has last minute eureka moments all the time).

Some of my pieces from Senior Showcase hanging in my studio.

At the end of it all, though, Senior Showcase was incredible and opening night was worth every hour I spent in preparation. Thing is, though it was exciting for me to see my work scatter hung on a freshly painted white gallery wall, it was even more satisfying to see the work from all the other seniors across every arts major, including the grad students. The entire ground floor was filled with artwork that was thoughtful, creative, and unique; the VCUQ BFA/MFA Senior Showcase 2018 was filled with talent and one of the best exhibitions I had ever seen. It was this exhibition that really sealed the deal for me when it came to applying to the school’s graduate program.

And… that’s it!

The “awkward proud mom” photo of me and my collection at Senior Showcase.

As an artist in Qatar, you will probably hear the story of the fetus in gestation sculpture. See, outside Sidra Hospital—which focuses on women and children’s health and is located right next to Education City—there’s a series of 14 bronze sculptures by Damien Hirst, featuring cross sections of uteruses and fetus growing inside them. The piece is called The Miraculous Journey and was commissioned by Sheikha Al-Mayassa—a member of the royal family and chairperson of Qatar Museums—in 2013. When the piece was presented, it received a lot of backlash about its inappropriateness and, as a result, the piece was covered up by white cloths (though the official reasoning for the piece being covered was due to “construction”). However, as Sheikha Al-Mayassa said, “There is a verse in the Quran about the miracle of birth. It is not against our culture or our religion.” Eventually, the cloths were removed, the piece was back to being front and center, and people eventually stopped talking about it. It’s still not a “normal” site—it’s still a conversation starter for a lot of reasons—but it’s not the issue it once was.

I bring it up, though, because Qatar is slowly but steadily becoming a freer space for art to exist; the country is a work in progress in a lot of ways, and art is simply one of them.

So, all in all, when it comes to censorship, don’t freak out about it. Even though there’s some stuff Qatar would prefer you not read, see, or create, they aren’t going to bust in and arrest you if they catch wind of you doing something haram. Instead, what will happen is that the people around you—like teachers or local security—will call you out on it and tell you to stop (though clear communication and politeness levels may vary). The only time you’re going to get a mass wave of hush-hush, “don’t do that”, Big Brother style extraction is if you are somehow very public and probably persistent about your haram behavior.

So that’s it! Don’t stress; just breathe and think before you act. Think about what you’re creating, why you’re creating it, who your audience is, and the environment you’re presenting it in. If you stick to that, you’ll be good to go.

Gosh, but I still feel like I’m leaving you hanging. Here! Here’s a gallery of some of the artwork I did in a jewelry class at VCUQ. My finished products are cool, and you can definitely see improvement, but if you really want to hear about the class, shoot me an email. I’ve got some stories to tell …


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