'Ladies, don't settle for less'
Dubai artist Kristel Bechara uses her signature style to challenge stereotypes and celebrate the many different facets of a woman.
The woman is an undeniable beauty, her unblinking stare equal parts formidable and arresting. The intricately-crafted crown resting on her head sends a message loud and clear, but it's her gaze that speaks louder: she has no plans to back down. 'Lion' is one of Dubai artist Kristel Bechara's many stunning creations as part of her 'Ask A Woman' print canvas collection, releasing just in time for International Women's Day (IWD) this week. But Kristel is not releasing just one collection - rather, she's launching two, and her message, too, is crystal clear: equality is for all.
The collections are nothing short of enchanting - more so because of their signature style, involving black and white photographic imagery, with just a single section painted in the most vivid patterns and colours. The result is a feast for the eyes. It's a style the Lebanese expat has been calling her own for the last five years. Prior to that, she was experimenting a lot with different techniques; this, however, became her calling card. "This is the one that became a career for me," she says. "It's not a style I've seen elsewhere - and I hope it stays that way!"
Kristel's first collection, Ask A Woman, portrays womenfolk from all walks of life, but each canvas tackles a stereotype that almost every woman can relate to. From the woman indulging in a doughnut (inspired by Sophia Loren's "I'd rather eat pasta than be a size zero" mantra) to the one with lips parted (in defiance of those who'd prefer her to merely "sit down and look pretty") to the cheeky one feigning astonishment to stroke the male ego (despite not giving a hoot, in truth), these are not imagined convictions. They're every other woman's story.
Her second, called Inamorata (Italian for 'the loved one'), pays tribute to truly iconic women who either broke the mould or refused to toe the line. They are, as the title suggests, women the world has loved. Kristel captures them in moods that run the gamut, from mysterious to sensual to rebellious. In it, a playful Audrey Hepburn embodies the alternative feminine ideal, as do Twiggy and Marilyn Monroe. Immortalised in history, none of them were cookie-cutter variety. One flaunted curves, the other ushered androgynous fashion in; one dressed for men, the other for women - but that is exactly the maxim Kristel paints by: beauty in diversity.
Kristel's personal favourite is her interpretation of Frida Kahlo. "I find her work very inspirational; she drew women as well, and used a lot of bold colours. These are the people who paved the way for women artists; they struggled a lot to prove themselves, and made it easier for our work to be better accepted by the public today." Madonna is her other muse. "She reinvented herself hundreds of times," says the long-time resident, who even did her university thesis on the Queen of Pop. "She isn't just artistic, she is art."
It's just as well that equality is the artist's chosen theme, because it happens to be the campaign theme for IWD this year too. #EachforEqual encourages collective individualism. What sounds like an oxymoron is, in fact, a call for gender rights to not just be a women's issue, but everyone's issue.
One piece from Kristel's first collection speaks to this in particular. 'She Is King' is not about misplaced pronouns or triggering grammar Nazis; it's about making a statement. Produced last year for Standard Chartered as part of the Art Gap edition to raise awareness on gender pay inequality, it features an acrylic painting of a woman (who's almost a replica of the 'Lion', except slightly more brooding). It's also only half done.
Last year, it came to light that paintings by women sell for 47.6 per cent less than those by men. A powerful exhibition followed at World Art Dubai, with female artists displaying artworks that covered only 52.4 per cent of the canvas. The idea was that if female artists were going to be paid only half their due, they would sell artworks that were only half finished. "I thought the gap was obscene," remarks Kristel, who still expresses disbelief that the disparity in pay between male and female artists could be so wide. "We judge art by the work, not by the artist. We sold those artworks for their full price last year. People understood they were buying a statement, not just a picture. And their willingness to buy such art to raise awareness is how we know we're accelerating change."
Is a future with gender equality at the workplace - one in which, as Sheryl Sandberg once said, there won't be 'female leaders', only leaders - a utopian dream? Kristel says, on the contrary, she actually feels hopeful. "I have a daughter and she's three. Change is happening far more quickly today than it did years ago. Women are not settling. They are asking for more opportunity and equality. Making that a reality even means changing policies on how often dads can stay at home as well. I'm hopeful that the change we seek will be one we can see at least in my daughter's generation."
As for what she hopes women will take away from her work, she says: "I want women to be themselves, and know their worth. To know that they're capable of doing whatever they put their minds to, and support each other. I want them to know they shouldn't settle for less."