Zahra Marwan’s dreamy watercolors celebrate the colors and textures of desert and sea – the two landscapes that have informed her work and her life.
“I’m deeply fond of the sea, and grew up in two different desert climates,” Marwan says. She was born in Kuwait, but her family was considered stateless. They suffered open discrimination because of it, and her parents decided to immigrate to the U.S. when she was seven years old. In New Mexico, she grew to love a new kind of desert–a landlocked one with a deep reverence for that land.
Her watercolors now reflect both regions: “New Mexico’s mesa is full of color,” Marwan says, “and I use the medium I often work with to depict that.”
Marwan wrote and illustrated her first picture book–Where Butterflies Fill the Sky–exploring the beauty of Kuwait and the confusion and displacement she experienced when her family left the country for the U.S. Her book will be published on March 29 by Bloomsbury, and is “full of images of home.”
“It was beautiful trying to balance the text and image,” Marwan says. “The illustrated spreads can’t reflect the words too literally or it becomes redundant, yet they have to be clear for children to understand and to help them learn to read and grow. My editor and art director gave me a lot of room to keep the dreamlike feel to some of my illustrations, and I worked in flat compositions similar to the Persian miniature style.”
Marwan’s upcoming show at Hecho Gallery is an expansion of the book. The paintings featured are new works, and some are illustrations that Marwan created for the picture book but weren’t used, including her original cover illustration. They explore similar cultural themes, scenes of home and a Kuwaiti aesthetic.
“I like thinking about the particularities of my culture that I love and sometimes dread. The birds that walk freely, the communal culture of being together and doing nothing.”
In the show, because the paintings were not created primarily for children, her subject matter has also expanded beyond the book’s boundaries. Marwan’s paintings include elements “like the argila water pipe that many old women like to smoke.” Many of Marwan’s paintings revolve around women, who, she says, “are often dismissed and generalized both here and there.”
“I’ve taken pleasure in recreating the beautiful colors of Persian carpets. I’d say the overall mood is the comfort of home and the people we love.”