My Way of Revolution: Art as an Antidote to Numbing

This is a big deal for me. It is the first time I am writing to explore myself as an artist, despite having been one for some time. Over the past couple of years, I have sold my work in private shows however the truth is that I couldn’t call myself an artist because I didn’t have any reference of anyone like me who was one.

I am a Lebanese-Senegalese black woman. I grew up in Senegal. In my world, artists are all men and almost all white. The rare exceptions are educated in the Western canon. Growing up, I had no model for what I could achieve in the art world as a black woman, so I was afraid to imagine myself as one.

Though I never called myself an artist, I did make art. Tons of it. I drew anime fan fiction as a child. I was obsessed with goth pop art as a teenager. I fell in love with graphic design and typography as an adult. All the choices I have ever made have led me to art.

Art is my way of revolution: it allows me to claim space for my pain in the universe. I paint to explore how anxiety, depression and trauma affect identity and shape our relationship to freedom. I am fascinated by the 'cry for help' and all the ways in which it manifests in the human body when not externalised. I use art to resist the idea that numbing —whether translated into silence, addiction or consumerism— is an antidote to sadness, pain and suffering

To elucidate the sources of my inspiration and understand why I am pursuing a craft that isn't considered worthwhile where I am from, I have to talk about my family and about one member in particular, my grandmother. 

Painting is my way of revolution, my road to salvation, my pilgrimage. Becoming a painter is the bravest, wisest, most beautiful choice I have ever made. 

I believe I was born into a family of artists who were never allowed to be artists. My father supervises construction sites, my mother is a line manager for an insurance company, and their parents were teachers (on my mother's side) and merchants (on my father's side). However, understanding them as repressed artists, albeit more burdened than served by their creativity, is the only way I can make sense of my polarised childhood —whimsical and full of wonder, yet troubled. 

Our home was full of colour. The main entrance walls were covered in old Asterix and Disney comics that my father and his brother painted. My grandmother made the wildest choices of upholstery patterns and changed them to reflect new seasons in the house. Every meal my mother made had an incredible visual composition, and the outfits she picked out for all of us had an unmatched flair. 

But there was darkness too. My father was two different people in one: half the time full of joy, and the other half so sad he couldn't even walk. His brother was a drug addict. Their father had a quiet presence which could be replaced by burning rage suddenly and unexpectedly. 

If I am an artist today, it is because my grandmother taught me that suffering doesn't have to be a death sentence, that it can breed beauty, wisdom and growth.

I could tell my mother resented how men could show their pain in a society that wouldn’t allow her to do the same. Instead, the pain she buried deep inside herself manifested as obsessive cleaning. Nothing was ever orderly or neat enough for her. The same kind of repression was behind my grandmother’s depression. She was forced to build her life around holding everyone and everything together. Until she broke. 

My mother and my grandmother loved me fiercely, but disagreed on how I should be raised. My mother wanted me to be raised in the traditional Senegalese way of muñ —which translates into “patiently and quietly suffering one’s fate”. Stoicism is the highest of virtues for women in Senegal, and as I have come to understand for women in general.

My grandmother however had a different idea for me. She knew first hand that quietly suffering one’s fate meant numbing oneself to the point of dissolution. She wanted me to learn to stand up for myself -  to say ‘no’, to say ‘stop’, to say ‘this is what I want’. Finally, her way prevailed and she ended up raising me up and accompanying me until her death in 2012. I don’t even remember which day it was. I just know that I am only beginning to grieve her. 

My grandmother was strong, a rebel —the worst thing a woman in her community could be. At the height of her power, she had short hair, wore pants, ran her own business and rarely cooked for her family. She had a brisk walk and could focus for hours on a task of her own choosing —privileges only afforded to men. She had a voice. Men found her beautiful but unbearably powerful.

Growing up, I had no model for what I could achieve in the art world as a black woman, so I was afraid to imagine myself as one.

She didn’t care about people’s opinion, however, as the years went by, her reputation caught up to her and she was blamed for the misfortunes of her children and husband, whom she was ultimately responsible for and had failed to take care of. Society eventually broke her into submission. I saw her mourn her freedom and her power as she descended into a deep, dark depression which robbed her of the will to fight for her life.    

If I am an artist today, it is because my grandmother taught me that suffering doesn't have to be a death sentence, that it can breed beauty, wisdom and growth. In a global culture that promotes extreme forms of coping such as stoicism or the pursuit of elation, my artistic practice has evolved to reject numbing of any kind and offer a glimpse into my suffering.

At the start of 2020, I had taken some time off work to travel when the world suddenly went into lockdown. I wanted to reset and recover from burnout by experiencing new places, but instead, I found myself between four walls with no job. Isolation then confronted me to my own self in an inescapable way. It was crippling. In the beginning, I couldn’t pick up a paint brush. I was afraid of where my art would lead me and whether I would be prepared to handle it. 

During this time, my grandmother would appear in my dreams with a familiar short bob and curls separated by a silk headwrap. She had acrylic stains on her hands and looked unbothered. She would sit down, cross legged, on a large tanned leather couch and stare at me in silence. She looked at me straight in the eyes, challenging me: “I have faced my fears, will you?” I knew I had to.

Linda Dounia Rebeiz, Everyone's home today (2020)Acrylic and ink on canvas, 50 x 60 cm.

Everyone's home today was the first artwork I created during lockdown —with utmost reluctance—, as an ode to freedom: the one the entire world was missing and craving in that moment, and also to the freedom within.

In this piece, freedom is represented through balloons, as a metaphor for the lightness of spirit that remains when fears are faced and lessons are learned. 

Linda Dounia Rebeiz, Permission to be man (2020)Acrylic, ink, paper collage on canvas, 60 x 80 cm.

After breaking the creative block with Everyone’s home today, I dove into an exploration of gender norms —which have often felt like a prison to me and whose paradigms I have always rejected as a consequence of my experience with sexual abuse as a child—, from which Permission to be man arose to portray the essential conversation between masculinity and femininity. 

This collage reflects on what shapes the male identity, creating an illusion of unstoppable freedom for men yet being so restrictive that it breeds violence. I examine men as prisoners of their manhood and the acts of violence it leads them to perpetrate.

Linda Dounia Rebeiz, Sitting Pretty (2020)Acrylic and ink on canvas, 70 x 90 cm.

When lockdown measures eased up at the end of 2020, I went for a “socially distant” coffee with an acquaintance that filled me with melancholy and which planted the seed for Sitting pretty, the second piece within my series on exploring gender norms.

The young woman I had met was beautiful beyond measure and hollow beyond repair. She was engrossed in what men thought of her and entirely consumed in making herself desirable to them. 

Sitting pretty helped me work through my frustration with a world that buries women so deep within themselves that they forget who they are. I used heavy and dark brush strokes for my grief, while suggesting some solace in the bright landscapes outside of the confines of masculinity. In this painting, a beheaded womanly form “sits pretty” in a toxic room, surrounded by the predatory gaze of men and a god that tells her to stay put and wait out her suffering.

Linda Dounia Rebeiz, Queen of Gram (2020). Acrylic and ink on canvas, 80 x 50 cm.

The third piece in my exploration of gender norms was Queen of the gram, in which I reflect on how social media affects our self worth and our idea of what femininity is. In this artwork we see an anxious looking woman adorned with a crown, a face full of make-up and a fancy hairdo, who is surrounded by a jaded audience waiting to see what she does next to please them. 

My relationship with social media ended as soon as I realised the effect it had on my psyche. In many ways, social media made isolation less gruesome, but in my case Instagram had become an addiction and an instrument of self battery —the lives of others always had something more interesting than my own.

More importantly, my self worth became commensurate with the number of likes I got on a photo. It is no surprise that the more skin I showed, the more make-up I wore, or the more sexually I presented myself, the more attention my posts got from both men and women. My body felt like a constant work in progress in which I didn’t feel safe anymore.

Linda Dounia Rebeiz, No more kings (2020)Acrylic and ink on canvas, 90 x 70 cm.

The fourth and last piece in my exploration of gender norms series, No more kings, is my most cherished work yet for it is my claim for space in a world built by white men to serve their own kind, and which often relied on the suffering of people like me, black women.

In this painting, I reject being seen as a tool for labor, a sacrificial body, an afterthought. I’ve engraved the names of every woman in my family on the piece to immortalise the print each of them has left in the world. I also reject the idea of philosopher kings. White men who seem to know best what humanity needs and who consider themselves knightley heroes, meant to save us all.

Through No more kings I reaffirm my own existence as a black woman. We exist, our ideas matter and our bodies deserve respect and their place in the world. 

My journey as a painter has been one of self-discovery and radical honesty with my feelings. I am filled with both fear and elation at what lies ahead on this grueling path.

Painting is my way of revolution, my road to salvation, my pilgrimage. Becoming a painter is the bravest, wisest, most beautiful choice I have ever made. 

If my practice can help me heal  today, it is because my grandmother taught me the value of emotional honesty. I hope I can pay this forward and that my work can inspire others to feel, freely and shamelessly.  

You can purchase Linda's works on Artzine.

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