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Artist Shaok Sabah Tahir’s Emotional Strokes

On the back wall of Shaok Sabah Tahir’s studio is a huge portrait of a fully bandaged face. Although it could easily be perceived as a sinister image, given its subject matter, it has been painted at such an angle so as to give the impression that the figure is dancing and, personally, it reminds me of the movement of a Sufi dervish. “This is why I prefer people to give me their impressions of my paintings before I offer an explanation,” says Tahir. “When I was painting this I was depicting someone with suppressed feelings and hidden emotions. That is why you can’t see the expressions and why you can’t tell if it is a man or a woman – ­because it is something that can affect us all as humans.” A look at the other paintings in her studio shows that this is the only common denominator in all her works. Tahir paints abstract canvases and figures, and there is a whole series of spiritual pieces featuring mosques and Arabic calligraphy, but in each one there is a sense of strong emotion and this is what allows the viewer to connect. “I do put part of myself into my paintings,” she explains. “For that reason it can take a lot out of me, but it is my life, I couldn’t live without my art.” Tahir is an Iraqi-British artist who has lived in Dubai for nine years. She was born in Baghdad, grew up in Algeria and Bulgaria and was living in London by the time she was 10. Not knowing a word of English, Tahir, who was an avid reader, taught herself English by going through each word of her beloved Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy novels in Bulgarian and comparing them to the English versions. “I read the dictionary first and then moved on to Point Horror novels because they were easier,” she remembers. The jovial artist, now 35, went on to study photography, art and design and finally education, becoming a design and technology teacher in London and then, by 2005, when she moved to Dubai, she was teaching at Deira International School. During this time, she was always working on something of her own. “I have to be making something,” she says. “I feel whole when I am painting and even if I am not painting, I start fixing things such as the tiles of the bathroom, painting the windows or just drawing. For me it is therapeutic and the older I get, the more I find myself needing to do it every day.” At home in Dubai, there is a spare bedroom dedicated to her studio; it is Tahir’s personal sanctuary. “I don’t have a particular style, I paint what I feel,” she says. “If I am feeling particularly spiritual I will go towards the more Islamic paintings but if I’m more political then I paint in that frame of mind. Most of what I paint comes from my ­imagination.” Tahir’s artworks are composed from many unexpected materials as well as paint. She uses eggshells and ropes to give texture to the paintings and she has also mastered the art of mosaic. On the walls of her home, over the doorways and decorating mirrors and other objects are carefully laid mosaics that reveal another part of her practice. “Sometimes I prefer the methodical nature of mosaics. It takes less out of me than the paintings.” Tahir sometimes sells her works at local markets or in art sales and gives many away as gifts to friends and family. “However, I am not that encouraged by sales here,” she says. “I don’t think people appreciate handmade things here as much as in the UK.” Tahir will be returning to London this summer to take a new job there but says her time in Dubai has taught her a lot. “The time I spent in Dubai has been an invaluable experience for me. I was able to grow artistically and professionally. The art scene, the architecture, the culture all have influenced my thinking and hence my art. I will be always grateful for this opportunity.”

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