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Meet: Artist Zaina Zahid
By Bizzie Frost
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 30 - 01 - 2009

Zaina Zahid, who is exhibiting her paintings for the first time in a solo exhibition at the Saudi Art Gallery, demonstrated her enthusiasm for drawing and painting at a very early age. “I've always loved colors. My first memories of using them were when I was two. I was always tempted to cover any fresh, clean wall with my drawings and my poor parents' house was covered in them! Every time they'd repaint the house, I remember the pain of withholding myself from coloring over the fresh coats of paint. I always got rid of my temptation by giving into it – I was afraid of suppressing my urge to draw on the wall – I'm sure it was some kind of disorder! I always felt awful for my parents' sake, but there were priorities!”
From this last comment, it is also apparent that in addition to have a talent for art, Zahid also has a great sense of humor. Now almost 30 years old, Zahid struggles with a problem that most women would envy: she looks much younger than she is. “It is fine if people think I am in my twenties, but I am sometimes mistaken for being a teenager – and that is insulting!” she says laughing.
She grew up in Jeddah, but after a few years at the Jeddah Private School, she left at the age of 12 for boarding school in Surrey, UK. After two years there, she returned to the Menara School in Jeddah to study for her GCSE & “A” levels and then was off abroad again, this time to Switzerland. Her father encouraged her to study art, but she found life difficult at her school in Geneva: “I was the only foreigner in that school and the second of two girls in the class and everybody was introverted. I was used to different types of people in one class and if nobody makes a move in that class of introverts, nobody is going to talk to anyone. It was hard to learn to depend on myself to make that connection for the first time in my life. I also found that the students tended to do as they were told; they didn't ask questions and there was a huge gap between the student and the teacher.” In her spare time, Zahid worked as a chef's assistant and learnt all about working long, tough hours. “She was as mad as the wind! She was known as Madam Bulldozer because that is how she behaved!”
Now fluent in French as well as English, she abandoned her art studies and the chef and went on to study English Literature at the American University in London where she enjoyed the broader range of other subjects as well as continuing with her art in lessons once a week. “It wasn't really a learning process though – it wasn't something that I hadn't done myself before, but it was a place and a time that I could designate to myself.”
With color playing such an important role in her life, I wondered how she had found the colors in Europe, and also in Britain, a country frequently associated with a gloomy greyness. “When I was in Switzerland, my favorite season was the Fall because everything was red and orange and yellow, and the canopy of trees … I couldn't believe it. It was breathtaking – I mean, it literally stopped my breath. It was very therapeutic, very healing and changed me as a person. In Britain, I can't say which season I like more, but even the air is colored. If people think it is grey, they are not looking at the color. If you leave the city and you look at the air, it is blue; it is a very soft, healing blue and it transports you and I call it “smokable” because I also like to look at colored glass and I look at it against the light. I just breathe in that color and I just keep breathing it in – I call it “smoking color” – inhaling colors.”
In her work, Zahid is inspired by architecture. “I love the way the shapes change as you move around. When you look at a structure, it looks a certain way when you are standing still, but when you are moving, it is like music, it keeps changing.”
She particularly admires the impressionist and romantic artists, and generally all the classic painters. “But I don't like Picasso! And Van Gogh's paintings don't speak to me either. There are fantasy artists these days who are really good, especially James Gurney. He did a book called ‘Dinotopia'; I love the way he works with colors, and imagination and fantasy. In this exhibition, I have tried to be realistic, but toward the end, it turned into semi-fantasy.”
Having seen her painting of a girl wearing a veil and looking down from a balcony, I wondered if she used symbolism in her work. “No, that is not symbolic,” she said. She explained that the painting is simply a snapshot of a historic moment of the story about Quais and Layla, also known as Layla and Madjnun – it is one of the great love story legends that appears in both Persian and Arab literature. Quais wrote many poems about Layla, although the legend is all the more intriguing because the actual author of the poems remains a mystery. Both eventually die of despair and broken hearts. “My painting is called ‘The Absence of Quais'.”
Zahid is convinced that colors have the power to heal. “I think that it is very natural and it is so obvious, but nobody notices. I mean, take the sky as an example. It is blue. And the trees are green. Why do people feel good when they are out there looking at these things? They are healing colors and give you such positive energy. When I look at colored glass against the light, I feel loads of different things in different parts of my body. If I feel hurt and broken, for example, if I look through a rose colored glass, it makes me feel better.” Perhaps the allegory of seeing the world through “rose colored glasses” is not a myth after all!
Because of her own childish passion for drawing on walls, Zahid has great sympathy for graffiti artists. “When I first saw graffiti in Switzerland, I knew that they weren't guilty because I knew that they weren't trying to be destructive. I can understand the overwhelming desire to put something onto a blank wall! And they do such a good job, it is colorful and some of it is beautiful.”
It is ambitious for a virtually untrained artist to launch her work for the first time in a solo exhibition. Zahid works with oil paint, and has 24 paintings in the exhibition which is entitled “Days of Old”. It opens at the Saudi Art Center on 1st February and runs until 7th February. The Saudi Art Center is located behind Chamelle, near the Riyad Bank, in Arafat Street. Zahid's paintings are for sale.

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