Laila Muraywid, The sacred time, 2022. Courtesy Laila Muraywid

What we talk about when we talk about women: Laila Muraywid’s work

You may say that beauty is something you meet by chance when you look out the window just after dawn, and the noise of the city still belongs to another dimension. But maybe it’s not true, because women like to get up late after a sleepless night as expressive and alluring as a cigarette between the lips of an unscrupulous lover. Women like to have breakfast in bed with coffee and orange juice while looking at themselves in the mirror. The stinging light of late morning, and the inconsistency of things that happen far beyond habit and resignation. Nights and days of gestures and words that accumulate in the uncertainty of noisy choreographies and useless efforts. Don’t ask what time it is, and they will easily ignore you. A few hours of ragged sex erase appearances better than the longest of conversations could do, a coincidence of sympathy and perception that arises restlessly and blindingly between desire and pain. And it is a singular and desolate sight at the same time, a neglected intimacy achieved between the sheets, with the only partly innocent aim of breaking monotony.

This is just a small part of what you can feel after looking to Syrian photographer, painter and sculptress Laila Muraywid’s works, and this short essay is an attempt to analyze her complex artistic expressiveness dedicated to women. Born in Damascus in 1956, she is one of the most interesting members of the still nascent feminist wing of contemporary Syrian art.

Laila Muraywid, Please don't forget, 2008. Courtesy Laila Muraywid - Green Art Gallery, Dubai
Laila Muraywid, Please don’t forget, 2008. Courtesy Laila Muraywid – Green Art Gallery, Dubai


Facing and challenging taboos is part of Laila Muraywid’s engagement. An inner strength emerges from her works, in an attempt to make female identity emerge from the inferior level where males’ mentality had put it: because this is the problem: still in 2023, there is a male chauvinistic society that believes women can only play supporting roles in life. For them, only two possibilities: a wife or a prostitute. On the contrary, in Muraywid’s vision there is a wide range of possibilities, not just “black or white”: in the middle there are many shades of grey, and a woman has the right to live her own life, she has the right to her own dreams, she has the right to be fully respected.

Muraywid’s work is imbued with poetry, too: the black/white combination she uses for most of her works provides a metaphorical and physical intimacy, and through this she goes deeper in women’s feelings, she built the relationship between women and their social environment.

In her early photographic works, dating back to 2006-8, she took a slight inspiration from European orientalist paintings of XIX Century, as you can see in Blood Deeper than Shadows exhibition (Dubai, Green Art gallery, 2009). Women portrayed by Muraywid release an authentic sensuality, emerging from bodies that show (or hide) themselves in their truth, and not to offer themselves to male concupiscence; they are proud of their breasts, pubes and pregnant bellies just because they are signs of their femininity.


But then, in just one year, her work gains an impressive conceptual deepness. Beyond the body, the mask too becomes an important symbol in Muraywid’s work; the mask conceals while revealing, so that the face (and the body) become desirable, but at the same time is inaccessible, because of the distance that the mask creates. In this way women can keep their secrets (related to their bodies and their lives). Muraywid’s concentrates her inquiry on the idea that every woman is much more than just her body. And even when the artist depicts them lying down, these female bodies stand up like statues of classical antiquity, affirming a physical and moral presence, telling stories of real life that can be intuited just looking at the nude skin, the hands, the traces of blood.

In the exhibition All Masks Have Faces (that took place in Paris in October-November 2010, at Galerie Imane Farès), the title recalls that the mask is an imposition that imprisons a face and a mind; on that occasion the artist exhibited a series of black and white photographs and prints where the truth of the body suggests that the secrets hidden by the mask may not even correspond to the stereotypes created by the chauvinist male mentality, and that women are free to live their body as they prefer.

These photos are a celebration of real life, not as a document but in a slightly distorted way, according to the “perspective realism” theorized by Italian director Massimo Castri. You may say that these photos are part of a pièce of theatre taken from real life, dressed in a way that reveals the infernal machine hidden under the appearances of the comedy. There is a certain ferocious, bitter irony in the faces and in the bodies of these women, and probably this is the real mask more than the one created by the artist with organza or other textiles. The body is just a biological element that hosts a personality, a mind, a collection of dreams, ideas, projects; in an interview given to Wafa Roz, Head of Research of Dalloul Art Foundation, Muraywid states that to talk about her work is really to talk about women and their body, but from the inside, and to try to give this outside form an inside feeling. Because a woman is free to choose not to be necessarily beautiful, or in any case she is free to be beautiful according to standards which differ from those imposed by the male chauvinist mentality. What is beauty? Who has the right to uniquely establish what is beautiful and what is not?

Laila Muraywid, The sacred time, 2022. Courtesy Laila Muraywid
Laila Muraywid, The sacred time, 2022. Courtesy Laila Muraywid


Muraywid always wonders how to work with the body, how to access it; nudity is a key topic in her practice, but not in order to satisfy voyeurism: her approach to nudity is functional to represent the moral strength of women, nudity is the element that enforces the relationship with the body, a relationship is necessary to find your own place in society, outside of stereotypes. But the naked is harder than the nude to make it acceptable, because it is linked to the idea of sexuality, while the nude is acceptable because it is linked to the idea of metaphysics, to that idea of beauty created by Ancient Greek culture which encompasses the essence of things. The artist thinks that a naked body is beautiful as it is, but she finds important to put it against or in relation with something else, and that’s why she covers some parts of the bodies with soft materials like organza or silk. In this way, there is a dramatic contrast between woman’s nudity and her covered parts, but the mystery of the body remains intact, just like a miracle that you can see, but you can’t explain. To Muraywid, whether the body is naked or not it’s not important, because very often, due to males’ voyeurism, a female body is imagined as it was naked even if it is covered with dresses. So, Muraywid’s women (and their bodies, too) feel completely free because they simply don’t care about the others (males, in particular) looking at them; their bodies are free because these women have freed their inner selves. They are real women, not just beautiful women.


Muraywid’s artistic practice also includes resin sculpture, through which she creates bodies who are physically and metaphorically violated. If you consider Un doux cercueil de chair (2011), you are dealing with a paradoxical triumph of Venus that recalls the “triumph” of the Siren described by Curzio Malaparte in his novel La Pelle (The Skin); the latter is a symbol of Italian people torn apart by the war; surrounded by corals as a bloody necklace, it’s the exaltation of the innocence. On the other hand, wounded female body by Muraywid is a metaphor of the social, physical and political violence that in Syria, as unfortunately in many other countries, is still practiced against women today.

Another work like Under the shadow of the years (2010) celebrates women in a very similar atmosphere. It is a triptych that tells a story with a Caravaggio-like dramaticity. A very physical work, where you can breathe the aforementioned few hours of ragged sex that erase appearances better than the longest of conversations could have done, and the coincidence of understanding and perception that arises restlessly and blindingly between desire and pain. Because women are stronger than violence and death, and when you think you have physically conquered them with violence, in reality they remain unreachable: as courtesan Kamala explains to the young Siddhartha in Herman Hesse’s eponymous novel, you can’t really steal love from a woman who doesn’t want to give it. You may violate her body, but her soul remains intact, as well. And in this work you can see that this woman has been humiliated but not defeated.


In the last three years Muraywid started to use colors, and these works have marked the beginning of a new creative season made of complex pictorial compositions, permeated with a strong dynamism thanks to which each scene seems like a dance, and the inspiration from Picasso emerges clearly, combined with the one from Dalì, Chagall, prehistoric rock painting and Greek vase painting. What you can see in these works is a sort of cosmic dance in the immensity of nature, women are still protagonists: floating angels, dancing amazons, priestesses of primitive cults, contemporary women who enjoy life well aware of their responsibilities.

In these paintings, like La Joie (2022), The sacred time (2022), Dreaming of a perfumed world (2022), One hundred river deep (2022), woman appears the custodian of the natural force from which life arises, just like Giorgione’s female gypsy in La Tempesta (The Tempest) – her naked body, too, is partially covered – her dance is a gesture to control and “recharge” the Earth, is a physical and spiritual healing ritual that stresses how women are important in the natural balance.

Muraywid’s women are not just symbols, their bodies are made of flesh and sunrays; they are dancing in the light, just like many Iranian women are now doing in Tehran, Mashhad, Isfahan, and many other cities. In these works, woman is part of the natural harmony, she is on a level of equality with man and she participates in the transmission of principles and values; the role of woman as an educator is here expressed in an extraordinarily touching way, and it’s easy to recall traditional cultures of East Asia, in particular laji (oral poetry) by Ivatan people in the Philippines. And one of these poems, Like raindrops dripping, celebrates the importance of woman in the education of the new generations, side by side with man, in a perfect gender equality:

Like raindrops ripping through the cogon roof
continually fall the lofty lessons
taught me by my father and my mother:
shall I store them in the hollow of the bamboo,
or treasure them
in my guts, the vessel for
the wisdom passed on to me
by my father and my mother?

Here, the role of mother is the widest society can create, because it’s not limited within the family but extends to society: in fact, the maternal instinct expresses a generous sense of care (missing in the male mentality), an effort to create of sense of peace, stability and eternity.

Looking at these new works by Muraywid you may now say that beauty is something that springs from the depths of the ancient age, from the instinct of love, and that without women you would not have society nor civilization.

Written by Niccolò Lucarelli

Laila Muraywid, Un doux cercueil de chair, 2011. Courtesy Institut du Monde Arabe © Laila Muraywid
Laila Muraywid, Un doux cercueil de chair, 2011. Courtesy Institut du Monde Arabe © Laila Muraywid

About the Author:


holds a degree in International Studies but also has a background in the arts and academia. He works as an art and theater critic for esteemed publications such as Artribune and Exibart. His curatorial research is primarily dedicated to exploring the influence of socio-political subjects on artistic practices. He keenly examines how artists engage with and respond to these themes, resulting in thought-provoking exhibitions and projects. He has curated shows in Italy, Cezch Republic and Africa. He also works as a military historian for the Italian Army General Staff and has published some essays and books on World War I and II.

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