Interview with Libya Abroad: What is De-Orientalizing Art and why is it important

5 min read
29 Jun

This article is copied from Libya Abroad, an organization that aims to connect the Libyan diaspora ran by Yusra Tekbali . You can find the link to the original article here:


As someone who believes creativity is necessary in a free and democratic society, I was delighted to talk to Shatha Sbeta on her enterprise De-orientalizing Art.


How did the concept of De-Orientalizing Art come about?

As a Libyan with a background in politics and sociology, I was always wary about orientalist and postcolonial frames and rhetoric that are perpetuated consciously and subconsciously through media and other forms of presentations. One example that I personally often face is being told “you look exotic” which I always responded to, with “that is not a compliment, it is offensive” and proceeded to explain why. These comments are orientalist in nature and very problematic as they perpetuate a power dynamic that structures the world into cultural hierarchies.

Art is a form of expression that has been used by people, societies, and cultures all over the world in different ways. However, when one studies art history, we often learn about Western art movements like cubism and baroque among many others, reflect and represent the Western art movement of Europe. Therefore, art, its market and its value is often associated with a Euro-centric gaze. While these movements are important to study and beautiful works, there comes a point where art from other parts of the world is looked at in relation to Western art, from a perspective of ‘us vs. them’. Art from other parts of the world, therefore, becomes exotic!

My enterprise brings artwork made by Libyan females in Libya. I neither want the artwork nor the artists to be looked at from this orientalist lens. Therefore, by acknowledging orientalism, I am creating an intentional effort to perceive non-Western art (in this case, Libyan art) in a non-orientalist way. By de-orientalizing art, I am deconstructing this ontological and epistemological distinction that we often make subconsciously when we look at art that does not conform nor can be compartmentalized under Euro-centric art moments.

So, the enterprise, with the name, De-Orientalizing Art, aims to establish women empowerment and cultural connectivity while simultaneously deconstructing the orientalist frame of perception of art in the MENA region.


How are you in touch with the artists in Libya? Is there someone you work with on the ground there?

Before launching De-Orientalizing Art, I was closely following some artists in Libya and was mesmerized with their work, passion and perseverance to create art amidst the ongoing conflict. I reached out to these artists, who connected me with other artists and we just talked about art and why De-Orientalizing Art can help both of us bring the artists’ messages beyond the borders of Libya.

My communication with the artists is virtual, using social media, phone and video calls. We stay in touch very often.

I do not have someone on the ground that is helping me get this enterprise going, other than the artists themselves.


How do you choose your artists? What is that process like? 

The artists I work with are all women because I want to provide them a platform whereby they can express themselves and gain visibility, especially that female voices are historically not as publicly heard as they should be.

I choose the female artists based on the quality of their artwork. I also look at the media by which they work with and their art style and art movement they perhaps work with. For example, I have artists that use acrylic on canvas, oil on canvas, mixed media, collage and paper. Some artists do abstract work, Arabic calligraphy, expressionist work, among others.

I also want to have diversity among the artists to represent the culture better. The demography of artists is important, that is why I have Arab, Amazigh, mixed ethnicities and races as well as nationalities. Some are from Tripoli, and others from Houn, for example.

I plan to diversify the collection of artwork to include handmade jewelry and other forms of art.

Walk me through the entire process from when a customer chooses a painting to when it is actually in their hands. Is it a straightforward process?

The process is fairly straightforward. I do not follow the gallery model for art marketing and selling. Each artist chooses the price of her artwork. Therefore, the artist make 2/3 profit.

When a customer buys an artwork from my site, I ship their piece with a hand written note that includes a description of the piece they got as well as the artist. Often, I would ask the artist if there is anything she wants me to tell a customer, which in that case I will add to the hand-written note. Once I receive payment, I send 2/3 of that back to the artist.

Why do you think it is important to showcase women’s artwork? 

Female voices need to be amplified for gender equality to take place. Given the history of patriarchy and misogyny that still exists and is perpetuated, I think it is extremely important to amplify the voices of women worldwide.

Libya, in this context, is not exceptional. Women in Libya struggled in history and continue to struggle today to speak their minds and emotions in a male-oriented society. Although I acknowledge and salute the work that women and men have done to create better and safer spaces for women, there is still a long road to go.

By showcasing women’s artwork, and selling their pieces, I help them achieve financial independence which is a necessary condition for women empowerment.

I believe that using art as an invitation for dialogue helps create a neutral space for conversation to foster. Art helps deescalate potential polarization and conflict and therefore can be a great tool to achieve productive conversations.

In America, where I currently reside, there is an evident ignorance about Libya’s cultures and identities. By bringing artwork made in Libya by Libyans, I am hoping to decrease the cultural gap that currently exists and build instead cultural connectivity.

At the same time, I am cautious about the rhetoric of “women in Libya need saving” that could potentially be misunderstood. Hence, showcasing their work challenges this rhetoric.

What is your theory on art and creativity and freedom and democracy? 

I do not have a theory on art and creativity, because I believe these are forms of expression and transcend boundaries.

At the same time, I think art plays a vital role in achieving freedom and democracy. Because art is a form of expression that transcends boundaries and reflects complex thoughts and emotions, it can foster dialogue in creative ways that have the potential to decrease the probability of conflict.

However, I recognize that not all artists enjoy this privilege to self-expression. I am aware that some artists, use their work to challenge injustices, but face threats and hate speech as a result of their work.

How do you deal with competitors and what kind of profit are you making and hoping to make?

I believe that my enterprise is very unique. The art market is small and mostly deals with museums and galleries and depends on auctions and art fairs for commercial use. I, on the other hand, launched a social enterprise; it is a corporation with social impact. In addition, my competitors often take at least 60% commission from artists.

I am also unique because of the artwork I sell. Very little Libyan art made it to US museums and galleries before. I bring individual women and cultural stories. I do not just sell artwork, I highlight their stories, what they represent and the direct impact it has on artists on the ground.

Do all the proceeds go to the artists in Libya or are you making some commission? 

In order to be able to continue operating, I need to make a percent profit. However, 2/3 of the proceeds go to the artists in Libya.

Are you receiving any grant money or funding? 

No, I have not received any grant money or funding yet. I may be exploring that option in the future.What do you think of the term The liberated Libyan woman?

I have a problem of the term “liberated” because it takes me arguments like that made by Qasim Ameen in his “Liberated Women and New Woman”. Furthermore, liberation is very vague and can be understood in many perspectives. Liberation for a woman in a small town in Indiana, for example, is different than liberation for a woman in New York city. This is also true for Libyans in Libya. Therefore, I cannot speak about what it means to be a liberated Libyan woman. I know what liberation means to me but that reflects my own experience and journey of self discovery and identity.

Liberation is often used by Western feminists and women rights activists, and for that reason, I am cautious about using it. The savior complex is built upon an understanding of liberation of women that does not consider cultures and hence carries that orientalist connotation I wish to fight.

I, on the other hand, believe in women empowerment. I believe that every woman should be empowered to makeher own choices and have the freedom to decide accordingly. Empowerment helps achieve that.

What is your idea of a liberated Libya?

A liberated Libya is Libya free from war and conflict in all its shapes and forms. That means liberty from arms and fear of using arms. That means liberty from civil war and the ramifications of civil wars. That means full autonomy and sovereignty. That means liberty from patriarchal and misogynist systems of oppression. That means liberty from racial and ethnic injustices. That means full and equal rights for all.

Where did you grow up and go to school? I was born and raised in Tripoli, Libya until I was 16 years old. I went to school in Tripoli, in Zohour al-Andalous school.

When was last time you were there? 

I lived in Libya up until I was 16, and since then I visited twice a year, during the winter and summer holidays.

However, since the war began in 2014, I visited once in 2016 and I plan to go again this year.

To see some of the artists work check out on Instagram.

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