Textiles artist and designer Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings was brought up in Sudan and the Middle East before settling in the UK. Her work is a unique fusion of eastern and western influences, with strong influences of organic forms and Arabic styles.
In 2015 she was selected by the British Council, in partnership with Shape Arts, for a residency in Qatar, and was commissioned to create work for the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. Then, in 2017 she was awarded a research and development grant by Unlimited, a programme delivered by Shape Arts and Artsadmin to raise the profile of disabled artists.
The following year, Mudawi-Rowlings was commissioned by Artichoke to work with local communities in Brighton to create a banner that would signify the city’s ethos and send out a message of equality to mark the centenary of women’s right to vote in the UK. Then in 2019, she received the runner-up prize for the Arab British Centre Award for Culture (individual award).
Deaf since the age of four, Mudawi-Rowlings is a strong advocate for better representation of deaf and disabled artists in leadership roles within the arts. Here she discusses what changes need to be made, how arts organisations can do better, and how the coronavirus pandemic presents a time for change and opportunity.
What more can arts organisations do to engage with disability?
It is so important to bring in more diversity, and that includes people from deaf and disabled backgrounds, and particular those from an ethnic background. This would be an important move to achieving equity across arts organisations.
This is something I feel quite passionately about. We are in the 21st century now and I still see disparity and glass ceilings for deaf and disabled artists who are operating at practitioner level. It is quite hard for them to get any further due to societal and institutional barriers.
On a practical level, what can arts organisations do?
We need better representation across arts organisations from within. We need leadership from within that represents disabled and deaf people so that you have someone with lived experience steering the process. They are the ones who know what to look out for, who have lived experience of obstacles and issues faced, and who know the right questions to ask. This would make organisations more open and accessible to engage with.
If you see yourself represented within the organisation they will inevitably be more appealing and you feel like they have a better understanding of who you are. Deaf leadership is crucial to that, in terms of levelling up representation: we may be a noisy minority at times but have almost no power or influence!
The movement of Black Lives Matter is huge and has laid things bare that it really is time for change. There are customary ways of doing things and certain traditions to heed however too much of what we experience is not only outdated but works against minorities – often in subtle ways. We need a refresh and a shake up. What we are living through now is a rare opportunity for change – we need to seize it.
I’ve recently been on the Culture Reset Programme which has also inspired my desire to change to be meaningful and lasting. You need to bring people with you if you want the change as well. My passion is to see more deaf and disabled leadership within organisations at a higher level. Because otherwise people from those communities will never have that representation otherwise.
It’s currently a case of people making decisions about you, rather than people from that community guiding and leading those decisions. That’s a big issue that I often find, that there is a lack of cultural capital and knowledge within higher levels of management in big organisations. Whilst people try their best and do well, if you don’t have that expertise from within that can very much have an impact on how things are presented to people. That’s really key.
That kind of change would reframe everything. I’ve been working in the sector for over 30 years, which is a long time. I graduated over 25 years ago and have faced so many rejections, had so many different jobs and roles. My deaf counterparts have so much to offer, but just through systemic and institutional barriers they find it very hard to get their foot in the door. So much so that many of them have actually given up. From my generation there aren’t many of us still standing.
That’s why it is so important to have strong empowered leaders out there, so that future generations can see representations of themselves in these organisations. They need to aspire to it and feel they can also achieve it. This is what is so crucial about having positive role models and deaf leaders in board rooms and on a higher level.
You have a wide ranging practice. How important is collaboration to your process?
As a deaf artist I look for opportunities to work in an integrated approach. I strive for equality in my work, working in teams and bringing people together. I enjoy this as a challenge, but inherently you find barriers in this process. I relish finding them, and then removing them. For me, this helps creativity to work in flow.
Within that process of working through the barriers you learn a lot as well. It is learning through experience rather than structured learning, providing an opportunity for people from lots of different backgrounds to come together and learn from one another that is part of my work.
As an artist I also ensure I work with hearing artists and people who are non-deaf and I like the process of trying to understand how to work together, even though we have a different cultural centre point and language. We think about the art first – we are artists first and foremost, and are not defined by other elements of our personalities or backgrounds. We are artists who are coming together who happen to have a different culture and language. I find this really exciting and it really motivates me in my work.
I do a range of things, with the work tending to be themed around my life experience. I actually had hearing until the age of four, so I have some experience of hearing sound and a sensory imprint of what it is like to be in the hearing world. After that I lost my hearing and became profoundly deaf.
Intersectionality comes through quite a lot, and fusions of media too. I like to integrate music within my practice, and I have also worked with glass artists. I like to work with artists with other areas of expertise and integrate them into a textile practice.
The technical practice that is involved in my work, I use a range of processes such as screen printing, silk dying, and my recent project ‘The Wheel Of Life’ for which I commissioned a metal work artist who created a large zoetrope, which is a metal construction that implemented elements of textiles such as silk and dyes. It was essentially an allegory of my life, as with zoetropes you don’t really know what is inside, so I quite like that as a metaphor for myself. You make an assumption of what you see on the outside, which is an Afro-Arab deaf woman, but you actually don’t really know what’s going on in the inside. I also integrated music into that installation that drew on my Arabic heritage, so we incorporated a composition that accompanied the movement of the zoetrope.
Prior to this I did a project called River Runs Through working with glass artist Mike Barrett to integrate different glass techniques into textile practice, such as hot and fused glass. This was a very large scale installation that represented different eras of my life, each shown through different techniques using textiles and glass.
I have also worked with deaf musicians, including Ruth Montgomery, who is a deaf flutist musician. Contrary to popular belief there are a lot of deaf musicians out there, and I have collaborated often with a deaf violinist, flutist and percussionist. They do exist, and people might not know that is the case! The way I approach this is to translate the physical form into a musical form, so I get a sense of the work and then work with a musician who reinterprets and reimagines the work in a musical mode. It is really engaging and something I have been developing over the last four years in my installations.
I’m just looking at a new commission called Threads, which basically deals with life at the current moment; it’s a chronology, along with Arab themes. I use an oud player who is from the Arab world. Another element is we are incorporating a deaf poet, or ‘visual vernacular artist’ to give a poetic, sign language interpretation of the installation.
Visual Vernacular is based on a visual language, so sign language, but more poetic and performance based, bringing elements of gesture and mime. It is highly rich and visual and beautiful to watch, flowing like a dance form, but it’s also language and contains content as well. It’s a very creative way of expressing stories and poems in sign language, using that as your basic structure.
Do you think collaboration has become even more important due to the coronavirus pandemic?
I think collaboration is such a rich way of working as it broadens the skills you have access to. Getting a range of perspectives on the work is also a great way of crossing those cultural bridges, because often I’m working with people who haven’t worked with a deaf artist and sign language before, which inherently presents challenges that you have to get through. Through the working process you build a relationship and rapport, and you learn from one another through a positive experience.
So collaboration has many positive outcomes beyond just creating art. It creates connections between different communities, which is a massive strength. Not only are you creating art, but you are bringing people together.
How has the pandemic impacted your plans for this year?
Many have been postponed. I’m currently on the Clore Fellowship Leadership Programme as part of the most recent cohort and we have had an extension with most of the work being postponed to next year. I’m also on the Culture Reset Programme, so everything is being done remotely. I feel I have adapted well, possibly because as a deaf artist I was used to using remote communication because deaf people use video a lot.
I had some international plans which have either been cancelled or postponed. I was due to go to three countries in the middle east, which has moved to 2021, but many of the meetings I had booked with practitioners in other countries have still taken place via Zoom. So really it hasn’t been a cancellation of a project, but rather a change in how it has been delivered and how the research has been done.
There are obviously lots of negatives about the current situation, but I also think there are positives. As I said before, it is a time for change and opportunity.
What other projects are you currently working on?
I was successful in getting a commission through Unlimited Funding to develop a project around the recent passing of my father; I have been able to collate from family members a video archive of his life in various leadership roles. He had many roles, including as judge and diplomat. I am reflecting on his life and my own journey in leadership, that coincides with his death during COVID and my extended time on the Clore Fellowship. I am currently arranging for the many clips and interviews to be translated from Arabic into English and BSL, so that I am able to take a journey alongside him. My father loved music and I will incorporate his love of music, our culture and my own sign language into a final piece that includes poetry and Visual Vernacular (BSL integrated poetry, story-telling and mime) to create a digital memoir of his life and mine.
I have also acquired extra Arts Council emergency funding to allow me to continue my leadership development and expand networks, that enables me to grow my connections, interview and reflect on other artistic leaders; to inform my own leadership and direction.
Following on from a project that I completed in 2018 titled Processions. This project was where local Brighton and Hove women, both deaf and hearing, got together to co-create a banner which was used on the final day, as part of the procession. I was invited to take over the Artichoke Trust Instagram account for the day on Monday 17 August 2020, as part of a month long promotional event, where they selected 4 artists who took part in the project and are featured in the book, to showcase our work each having a Monday each week of the month. This is the promotional lead up to the launch of the book ‘PROCESSIONS – Suffragettes 100 years’, which is out on 1 September 2020.
The takeover day tells a story of my work and involvement in the ‘Woman Making History – Processions’ project and continues my philosophy around integration, which is an integral part of my overall work and drive and a thread that is found in much of the creative work that I generate.
What positives have you taken out of the current situation?
It’s actually a brilliant time for introspection, making new connections through internet-hosted meetings and thinking about how we can reimagine the future. It sounds strange, but in some ways I have gratitude for where we are at right now. It has caused a huge stop in the previous order, has helped many people to reset and review and I think that is a positive thing at the moment. People are starting to take stock of what is important.
Black Lives Matter is an ongoing debate which has raised many issues for many people in different groups in terms of barriers, access and their lives in general. Everything has been pushed to the surface and I think that’s a really valuable thing.
I’m a resilient person and one of the things that has always carried me through life is challenging inequality and injustice has to be addressed. Treating people unfairly because they are different isn’t right – we all know by instinct as well as education – and it has to stop. People need to understand and if necessary reach beyond the pace they were at before, to engineer the change that’s needed. Making an effort – a genuine effort – on any scale to do better is important.
I think any opportunity that allows people to learn from one another is fantastic. It is time for a shake up.
1. Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings, Zoetrope
2. Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings
3. Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings, The Wheel of life zoetrope