Harnessing the aesthetic qualities dictated by an unexpected creative tool, artist Maitha Demithan discusses process, photography, Cubism, and the importance of conversation in her work.
Some artists use paintbrushes; you use a scanner. How did your relationship with this unlikely tool begin?
I first started using the scanner in 2009. I had a deadline and my camera was broken, so I played with the scanner and ended up loving it. Working with it is similar for me to painting and drawing, but of course it’s faster than painting and drawing. Beforehand I did a lot of drawing, painting, and photography, and the scanner was somehow in the middle of all of these mediums for me.
What were the first pieces you made with it like?
I made two self-portraits at first. I just stood on the scanner and scanned myself. Later on, I started working with my nephews and my nieces because they’re always with me at home. I don’t usually work with strangers because of the process. It would be uncomfortable; it’s an intimate process.
What is the process?
I take many scans for each piece. It’s more like painting a person than it is like photographing someone. When you paint someone, it takes time, and there’s a conversation that happens between the painter and the sitter. It’s the same with my process. When I’m scanning someone, it takes time—I sit with them, we talk; slowly things start to come up.
Does the conversation between you and the sitter affect how the final piece looks?
Definitely! For example, the person might say a sentence to me while we’re together, and maybe that sentence will end up being the concept for the whole piece.
Every artist has a relationship with their process and a relationship to their finished pieces. Sometimes they’re similar, sometimes they’re very different. You mentioned earlier that it’s the process that excites you the most.
The process is always different, depending on the person. And every portrait is different; everyone has something special about them. What I do, I’m deconstructing a person with the scanner and then reconstructing them in the computer. It’s about taking something complete apart and then putting it back together again in a way that’s different from what it was. This process is very exciting to me.
You bring together so many images into what looks like a single scan in the end. There is a lot that is hidden in the final piece.
I believe that this process is true to the way we actually see. Truer than a photo. Because in a photo there is just one focal point—it’s one click and halas. When you see a photo, it’s showing not even one second; it’s a very short amount of time that’s been captured. I’m taking more time, scanning different pieces of the body, showing you different angles just like what your eye shows you. In reality your eyes never stop moving. This was the aim of Cubism, of Georges Braque: to show different points of view, to keep the eye moving. So in a sense that’s what I’m trying to do.
Your subjects appear to be…
Yes, floating, but also sleeping, and in some cases they look dead.
Yes … I’ve had that a lot. [Laughter.]
Is this something you’re thinking about while you’re working? Is this intentional?
No, that just happens. The scanner is dangerous for the eyes, so I tell the person I’m scanning to keep their eyes closed. So all of the subjects have their eyes closed in the end. But also this is because of the way a scanner works. You have to stay very still while the scan is happening. This contributes to the way the subjects appear; the images end up being very still.
So the process dictates this aspect of the content.
Yes. But I let it be. I don’t try to change it.
Your most recent piece was a commission from Tawazum in Abu Dhabi for the UAE’s first martyrs. Tell me about the idea for this piece.
In the newspapers here, there were lots of photos of H.E. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed going to the martyrs’ homes and consoling their children. They were always showing him with a child as if he was their father. That is what we believe. That these children may have lost their fathers, but the Sheikh is also a father to them. So I had this idea of showing him as a father with all of the martyrs’ children around him. I used seven children to represent the seven emirates. I also scanned the army uniform and collaged it on their shoulder, on their body, just small references to show that this will always stay with them. I collaged the Sheikh’s face from scans of four different people out of necessity, because I couldn’t reach him. And now I think my work will go in that direction, creating portraits of people I cannot reach or who do not exist.
You have exhibited your work at Tashkeel in Dubai, and in galleries all over the world. What do you remember about your first show?
It was a bit like my wedding! [Laughter.] I can’t really remember what happened. It was stressful. There were a lot of people, big crowds, people cornering me and asking me questions; that’s what I remember. Like I said, what I enjoy the most is the process—that’s what I love.
What inspires you?
Sometimes I’m inspired if there’s a story behind a piece of cloth, like if it’s inherited or an heirloom. Sometimes someone inspires me. I don’t know, I guess it depends. But it usually comes from my surroundings.
I have this red piece of cloth, an embroidered textile that belonged to H.E. Sheikha Latifa the director of Tashkeel. It was passed from her mother to my mother as a gift, and my mother gave it to me. So I scanned that textile and created a piece based on it.
You do not show your face in photographs or in your work, but you have created self-portraits. How do you insert yourself into the work?
What I usually do is include a small element to tell the story of who the piece is about. So, for example, in the piece I made inspired by the piece of cloth, my niece is the person in it, and she’s holding a pendant in which there is a small image of Sheikha Latifa. In another piece, I placed a small pendant that another little girl is holding to represent me. The hands, I feel, are always very important in my work.
Tell me about that.
I have no idea why that is. Maybe it’s the gestures? But I have seen this in my work a lot. A focus on hands. It’s unconscious.
Do you have a favorite piece?
I love it when I’m working on any piece! So each one is my favorite while I’m working on it.
What do people think of your work in your community, in your family?
They don’t understand it. But my dad is very intrigued by it. This is his hand here. [Points to one of her images.] He had to see it to understand it. When I scanned the falcon—and he’s mad about falcons—I showed him the scans on the screen and how the detail comes out, and he was amazed. “Scan again here,” he said. There was something he wanted to see about one of the falcon’s feathers. So he started interacting with it, getting excited about it, even though he has no background in art. But everyone in my family knows I do this. I work at home mostly. But if it’s someone I can’t bring home, then I work in the studio. But it’s much more comfortable for me at home because I can do it whenever I want.
You stumbled onto this medium by chance. Does it have enough of a grasp on you that you think you’ll be engaged with it for a long time, or are you interested in exploring?
I don’t know. It’s my medium right now, but I think that I will explore installation work in the future. During Art Dubai, in the middle of the art fair I set up a box, and I had my scanner inside, and people would step in and I scanned them. I was documenting the show in a way. I really liked that experience.
In the end, these are all just tools. A scanner is like a paintbrush. What’s most important is what message you want to get across. You can use any tool, but the question is, what are you going to be making with it?
Are there any other people you know who are using this process?
The process is called scanography. People use scanners to take photos because of the high resolution and the shallow depth of field. Mostly it’s used to take photos of plants, things like that, but I don’t know anyone who uses it to the extent that I’m using it.
Sometimes I think I took it a bit too far. Fifty scans, 100 scans… Once I did it with water. I wanted to do a scan under water. So I used a big plastic bubble that kids use to play in and filled it with a little water and then scanned through it. It was shown in Art Dubai, and it’s now showing in Berlin.
Tell me about some of the international shows you’ve been in.
I’ve lost track of how many I’ve been in because I never go to them. I just send my work.
Would you like to go?
I’d like to go. But I cannot travel. It’s nice to show your work internationally, but I feel it would be nicer to hear the feedback, what people think of the work. I would like to know how different places react to my work—I would like to know about that. I’m missing that right now. I don’t know what they are saying. And I guess I wouldn’t want to speak to them; I would just like to hear what they had to say.
Are there any artists that you’re inspired by?
I often look at Frida Kahlo’s work. David Hawkey I love! There is a lot of Cubism in his work. Bill Viola. I love his video work. I would also like to do some video work one day. Maybe that will be my next medium? I’m so bored of hanging pictures! [Laughter.]
You’re just getting back to work after having two babies, during which time you stopped working completely.
I stopped, but I feel that I needed that. People were always saying, Maitha, take a break, take a break, and I just couldn’t. But after my kids were born, I was forced to take a break, and it made me reflect on my work, go back to sketching and writing; it was really good for me. Now I’m trying to involve my kids in my work. Don’t let them stop you! Make them a part of it. They can be an inspiration. Even the lack of time—that in itself is a good challenge. You have one hour—what will you do? Will you sleep or will you make work?
Do you feel like you are part of an arts community in the UAE?
I feel like I am a part of a little gang of artists; we often meet at exhibitions or at openings or in the studio spaces here in Tashkeel. I used to have a studio upstairs here in Tashkeel, and it was nice to work alongside someone else—they affect you without you knowing. But I feel Dubai needs more art education. And I feel that the commercial side of things is trying to take over here. Artists should be encouraged to make work even though they’re not going to exhibit or sell it. It takes time to develop, to figure out your own voice.
Are you interested in new technologies?
I’m always up to date with technology. I always download any apps I find exciting, recently ones about building your own robot or learning how to code. And of course I love social media, and I always like to see what’s new with image making—different cameras, different lenses… Maybe I’m a new-media artist? As in someone who likes trying new media. [Laughter.] In the end, these are all just tools. A scanner is like a paintbrush. What’s most important is what message you want to get across. You can use any tool, but the question is, what are you going to be making with it?
Are there any other artists in your family?
We are all artists! My sisters paint and draw; all of my nieces and nephews are creative.
Your family is from Dubai?
Yes, from the desert.
Were they involved with art in the past?
There was poetry in the desert.
Do you ever spend time there now?
Yes. Of course, we have to.
Why do you have to?
Going to open space. I don’t know… We just need to. It’s in our blood.