Shape artist Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings tells us about her 2-week residency at the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

The residency in Doha, Qatar, was a really positive experience, which stretched my vision, and inspired and challenged me to develop my creative practice in new ways.

There were three of us based at the Msheireb Arts Centre – artists Juan delGado, Safiya Al Bahlani and myself. Our work began at 8:00am and finished at 9:00pm each day, and we found the centre a great environment to focus on creating intriguing new pieces. The establishment was originally a girls’ school, but is now an art studio. Despite this transformation, the institution has really preserved the character of the building, with a room preserved as a classroom and museum. They also have a beautiful garden, which had a calming influence on me and helped me to develop ideas for the project.

Khalifa Ahmed Al-Obaidly - a well-known Qatari artist, photographer and curator was based at the centre, and he made sure we had everything we needed. The staff were also lovely and made us feel very welcome, introducing us to Karak – a traditional Qatari tea with delicious date biscuits!

The support we received from the British Council was excellent, and they arranged visits to a variety of interesting places such as museums and modern art galleries, with the intention of inspiring us. There are 80,000 objects on display at Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), and we were asked to choose three pieces as reference points in the creation of our new artworks. I found it really hard to choose only three from such a massive selection, but in the end I incorporated two elements that touched me emotionally and which linked to my design process.

The second surge of inspiration came from the geometric pattern seen on the doors of the MIA and throughout Qatar. Through this design I could feel the connection to an ancient history. This gave me the idea to incorporate devore printing into my work – a form of printing which quickly adds lace type effects – to add depth and layers. My first burst of inspiration came while overlooking the city from the fountains at the MIA. I felt some words come to me – “freedom” and “to be”. I signed these words in the form of poems to my interpreter, who translated them into English, and which were then translated into Arabic by Waseem Kotoub, who is head of Arts and Creativity at the British Council. Next I worked with a professional calligrapher to develop the concept, before dyeing 10 pieces of fabric – a combination of silk and velvet – in preparation for screen printing.

During the remainder of my time there I focused on my designs, but didn’t actually start printing until I returned to the UK. I didn’t feel the equipment in Qatar was right for my designs, and knew I could produce higher quality pieces in the UK. Normally it would take me roughly a month to finish a piece, but for this project the timeframe was very condensed. It was a huge challenge to complete my exhibition piece, which took three weeks from start to finish, but I was pleased with the end result.

The British council requested that I also make bookmarks and handkerchiefs for the Definitely Able conference, which was held in conjunction with the exhibition. This was new territory for me, but I found the challenge exciting. I developed four designs for the bookmarks, of which 250 of each were printed, and two designs for the handkerchiefs, of which 100 of each were printed. Rather than screen print the handkerchiefs myself I sent them to a digital designer. This meant there was a slight colour discrepancy between my initial design and the final handkerchiefs, but they still looked very good. All the way through this process, including the residency period, I had fantastic support from the other artists out there - from Juan and Safiya, as well as Rachel Gadsden and Jason Wilshire-MIlls - and this mutual support continued even after we returned to the UK.

The exhibition at the MIA lasted for four days (16 - 20 March 2015). It originally seemed unlikely that the MIA would be able to show our work, as it is usually only permitted to hold permanent exhibitions, but amazingly they were able to do so, as well as present the Definitely Able conference! The MIA is the most famous museum in the Middle East, so it was an incredible privilege to have our work viewed by such a wide and international audience.

The conference and exhibition were amazing, and it was a brilliant opportunity for networking and making connections for the future. I would really like to thank the British Council, Sasol and Shape Arts for giving me this opportunity. It was a fantastic experience to meet so many talented artists and leaders who share a passion for getting our work out there, no matter what barriers stand in our way. 

Image (left to right):  Safiya Al Bahlani, Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings, Juan delGado.

Omeima was also shortlisted for Shape's Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary Award 2014-15, which you can find all about here. If you would like to see more of Omeima's work, visit her website

Banner Image: Doha, and Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings (top left) image credits: British Council
Other images in body text: photos by the artist