Spaces of Identity and Exclusion: Ebtisam Abdul Aziz


Mary Maston, Contributor

“I’m accepting the structure, but I couldn’t fit in it. I had to break it.”- Ebtisam Abdul Aziz

The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington commenced its first culture and arts symposium on the evening of July 11 featuring an exhibit by Emirati artist, Ebtisam Abdul Aziz. A mathematician by degree, it may seem odd that she has become one of the leading figures in the Contemporary Art scene in the Middle East, but her ability to “combine the scientific with the arbitrary” and utilize geometry and mathematics has enabled her to navigate dichotomies and spaces both on the canvas and her performance art.

The evolution of her art began when she realized she could not be contained to the confines of painting landscapes and portraits. She made a home for herself in Contemporary Art because it was a medium better suited to her self-expression. It enabled to marry her appreciation of beauty with her love of mathematics.

Abdul Aziz began exploring this genre by painting untitled, colorful geometric patterns. During the exhibition tour Maya Allison, chief curator at New York University Abu Dhabi, asked her if the art had any particular meaning, to which the artist replied, “I will let the audience interpret these for themselves.”


As she became more comfortable inserting her personal narrative into her art, she drew “Autobiography 2016, Domino”, which is a reflection of her moving to the D.C. area from Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Abdul Aziz noted that the black and white dominos represented the linear, numeral thinking in the United States, especially in terms of urban design in comparison to her home city.


Although paintings from her early experimentation in Contemporary Art are both aesthetically pleasing and striking, her true calling has been manifested through her performance art.

The two most striking pieces of the exhibit were her most recent performance art. One, a video of her writing “Muslim” on a glass board as the word “terrorist”, taken from sound bites from the news and politicians, played in the background. The film serves to assert her identity as a visible Muslim woman, she wears a hijab, while dealing with the creation of a false identity that Western Society has created for her “terrorist”, a means of exclusion.

A parallel articulation of her identity is found in “Unashamed”, in which she wears a black body suit against a black backdrop writes the word across her body, multiple times, across her body. When asked about the significance of this performance, Abdul Aziz stated, “… It is me unashamed of using my body for a performance. Many people think me, being a Muslim, Arab woman doing this is haram, but it’s halal.”


Ebtisam Abdul Aziz is currently working at the DC Arts Studio. Her work can be viewed on her personal website,


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Mary Marston is an American University alumna who is interested in public international law, civil society organizing, and the arts.

Instagram: @marymarston and Twitter: @mary_marston

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