Sometimes childhood collections lay dormant until thrown away at an older age. But, Amena Al-Yousef saved her childhood rock collection until it found a new, unique and colorful purpose – as pigment. It started from treasured childhood moments, recalls the artist. “My dad, my sister and I, we used to go to the desert and the sea on short trips. And whenever we were there, we would collect fossils and stones and take them to my aunt, a geologist, because we were very curious,” Al-Yousef says. “We would ask her what is this and what is that, and sometimes we would take these stones for her as a gift.” Al-Yousef grew up to become an artist and her rock collection would soon play a key role in the direction and nature of her work that would inadvertently showcase the colorful nature of her native land – Qatar.
Research led her to a valuable resource, a book from the 1840s about the process of pigment manufacture written by a bioscientist – The Manufacture of Mineral and Lake Pigments by Dr. Josef Bersch. She found her childhood rock collection, followed the recipes from the book and began experimenting. “I opened the box and I picked out a couple of stones, and I started making pigments out of those,” she remembers. “After I made my first pigment, I thought, okay, this is extremely interesting and I started making more and more.” From rocks she moved on to extracting pigments from roots and plants, “anything that would stain,” in pursuit of brighter and brighter color. Now, miniature mounds of colorful fine dust sit neatly on her work station like piles of spices at a market stall.
The process of pigment making has become an obsession for Al-Yousef. “A lot of things happen in the process that people don’t witness. It becomes very personal,” she explains. It is the all consuming nature of the process that engages all the senses – which makes it very intimate. “When I’m working, I don’t listen to any music because I like to hear the sound of the material and it is relaxing, therapeutic. When I’m crushing the rocks, there is a certain satisfaction in knowing that I have the strength to break and transform it into something very, very intricate and useful.”
But, the true discovery reveals itself through the mistakes of the process: spills, for instance. “I never knew spills could look beautiful. They crystallize and dry into interesting formations, where you can see how the water has evaporated, leaving behind a multi-colored pattern because of the pigment within it.” In the last exhibition of her work, she highlights the pigment-making process and features these mistakes as prominent elements because they reveal something “profound” about the process. Learning requires letting go of control, Al-Yousef explains. “If I try to recreate these spills, it doesn’t work. It never looks the same, it doesn’t look good. It just has to happen as a mistake.” The process must be trusted to take its course free of bias and design.
What started as a crutch for a broken finger, has now turned into a personal artistic practice for Al-Yousef. “Pigment-making is something that once you get into it, you can never get out of because colors are infinite, and there will always be a search for how I can extract a particular color.” In the world of increasing automation, reconnecting with the physical to manually extract and create sustainable pigments from the land, holds an intoxicating appeal indeed.
“Color is something very universal, and has been used for a long time to make things more appealing and to decorate. It can be very symbolic,” says the artist. “A part of me wants to prove to people that Qatar is not beige. You just have to look deeper. Here’s the proof. All you have to do is observe at eye level, and you’ll see all the color underneath.”
Amena Al-Yousef is an interdisciplinary artist whose work focuses on the subject of human interaction with nature. She considers her artistic practice to be a continuous study that helps her understand nature, and the change in human perception and approach towards it, especially with the rise of technology. She graduated with a BFA in Painting and Printmaking from VCUarts Qatar in 2019, before completing an Art Residency at Doha Fire Station in 2019. Her work What Remains was showcased in AIR 5: Grey Times.