Zahra Marwan brings watercolors, whimsy to her art - Albuquerque Journal

Zahra Marwan brings watercolors, whimsy to her art

Illustrator Zahra Marwan examines her drawings in her studio at the Harwood Art Center. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

Editor’s note: The Journal continues the once-a-month series “From the Studio” with Kathaleen Roberts, as she takes an up-close look at an artist.

The watercolor washes and precise lines echo fairy tales tinged with the wry touch of the New Yorker.

Illustrator Zahra Marwan pens images ripe with memories of her Kuwaiti desert homeland crossed with the New Mexico terrain she has grown to love.

This year the artist published her first children’s book “Where Butterflies Fill the Sky” (2022, Bloomsbury Children’s Books.) It’s the story of her immigration.

Marwan named her website “Two Desert Illustrations” because she keeps one foot in the ocean desert (Kuwait) and the other in the mountain desert (New Mexico.)

She works amid the scuffed linoleum floors of Albuquerque’s Harwood Art Center, painting and drawing in an old school room, the sink spidered with watercolor trails.

“I started seeing her work and loved her whole approach,” 516 ARTS director Suzanne Sbarge said. “Her family history is so wild. It’s such a tumultuous survival tale and so politically relevant. She translates that into very whimsical stories.”

Mosque onion domes rise over ocean waves in one painting; the Santuario de Chimayó nestles within the Sangre de Cristos in another.

In her book, Painted Lady butterflies flutter over Kuwait, while multicolored balloons hover over the Rio Grande.

“Where Butterflies Fill the Sky: A Story of Immigration, Family, and Finding Home” by Zahra Marwan.

The story germinated while she was visiting her sick mother in Kuwait. Memories of her family’s migration when she was 7 years old wove throughout her consciousness.

“It wasn’t very clear to me why we were leaving,” she said. In America, “I didn’t understand why no one was speaking Arabic. I would wait outside for the bus to take me home.”

The family chose New Mexico because Marwan’s uncle had been stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base. They felt they had to leave because the Kuwait government viewed them as “stateless.”

The concept of official citizenship was once foreign in Kuwait. Bedouin tribes wandered freely. The citizenship requirements were unclear. Marwan’s father never got the message. By the time he learned he should register, it was too late. And since Kuwaiti law decrees that citizenship is passed down through the father’s side, Marwan and her siblings were deemed stateless, too.

As Iraqis fled Saddam Hussein’s rule in the 1980s and settled in Kuwait, discriminatory laws surfaced. Soon stateless people were considered illegal. They couldn’t marry, they couldn’t leave the country and their only career options were low-wage jobs or the army.

A phone call with her mother (who returned to Kuwait) reminded Marwan of the war with Iraq. The conversation triggered memories of stories her parents told of the invasion.

Illustrations from “Where Butterflies Fill the Sky: A Story of Immigration, Family, and Finding Home” by Zahra Marwan. (Courtesy of Zahra Marwan)

“They were going to get me milk,” Marwan said. “There was an uprising in the neighborhood. The Iraqis asked them to get out of the car, which meant they were going to be imprisoned or killed.

“She said that to remind me I might have been an orphan.”

Inexplicably, the soldiers let her parents go.

“I’m lucky I don’t remember the war,” she said.

Back in her studio, Marwan’s brush sculpts shadows in the clothing of a child holding a bouquet of red balloons. She says the drawing is a celebration.

Marwan became an American citizen at 16. She graduated from Rio Rancho High School. She was admitted to the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, but her parents balked at the price tag.

“When my parents saw it cost 30 grand, my parents were like, ‘Have fun at UNM,’ ” she said, breaking into a cascade of giggles.

She wanted to major in art here, but an art professor discouraged her, peppering her with political questions about controversial subjects like the Taliban.

“I avoided the art building for about a year afterward,” she said.

Instead, she finished her degree in foreign languages, including French, Italian and some Japanese.

But regular lessons at the National Institute of Flamenco rekindled her passion for putting brush to paper. She created the organization’s 30th anniversary poster.

Marwan drew the dancers in common situations: taking the train, trembling with stage fright.

“I like to create the traditional flat imagery like the Persian miniatures,” she said. “I like to create how it feels rather than the representationalism – sort of magical realism.”

NIF founder/teacher Eva Encinias watched Marwan bloom from a shy introvert into an artist through flamenco.

“She was a student of mine at the university,” Encinias said. “She loved the process and the discipline. I had no idea at the time what a beautiful artist she was.”

“They were sketches and sort of caricatures of the different people in our group,” she said. “She had a wonderful way of embodying the temperament of these people in her drawings.”

When she started, Marwan sold her work for as little as $15 at the Albuquerque Growers’ Market.

Her imagery soars with figures flying between the rooftops á la Marc Chagall and couples dancing in the streets. Flowers bloom, trees sprout, birds take flight and carousels spin across her creations.

Marwan sees many similarities between her birthplace and New Mexico.

“Both New Mexico and Kuwait feel so at home to me,” she said. “The way people have such open hearts. They’re generous, even if they don’t have much.”

She stands ready to blossom; “Zahra” is Arabic for flower.

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