February 15, 2006
by Viju James
Maltese painter Stephanie Borg’s range of Omani miniature paintings are vibrant, colourful and becoming a rage among art collectors.
Stephanie Borg first came to Oman in 2001. The self-taught graphic designer and painter had not touched the brush for a while. During her first few months in Oman, she realised she had time as an absolute luxury on her hands and began to observe life around her. From her home in Azaiba, she watched the men and women of Oman engaged in their daily preoccupations. A journey to Massirah gave her more insight and she was convinced she had stumbled on a big idea.
“I was absolutely fascinated by the colours of life in Oman,” she said. She noticed that very often the colours that came together in an Omani woman’s attire were mismatched when perceived from a Westerner’s point of colour apperception. It was the ‘mismatch’ and vibrancy that encouraged her to start painting a series of miniatures with titles such as ‘Mahfooda’s Family’, ‘Maryam and Majid’, ‘Warda’, ‘Ameera’, ‘Fatma’, ‘Leila’, ‘Muneera, Yousef and Abdulla’. In the 20cm and 16cm work titled ‘Maryam and Majid’, Stephanie introduced the figure of the Omani male for the first time.
Stephanie’s men and women have no features. The decision to avoid giving shape to the nose and the eyes is intentional – in her artistic view this was not essential for what she intended to convey – colour. “In these paintings it was important for me to convey how the people in Oman dress. Their identity was not so important for the series,” said the artist. In some cases, she has let the name of the painting determine the choice of colour – Warda (Arabic for rose), for example, is dressed with deep pink with diagonal stripes and a black abaya.
The patterns on the clothing of her characters may not be the same as what appears on the imported squares of cloth used for the headdress and the upper shirt. This again has come from the artist’s imagination. All that is truly portrayed are the genuine mix of colours. Stephanie admits that she once hoped to be a textile designer and the miniature series gave her ample opportunity to live her hopes through the series.
The artist has worked with inks to do these miniature portraits of the people of Oman. “It was a long process as one had to paint several layers of inks to get the right effect.” She confesses that because of the medium she was unable to match the colours used in different paintings. Stephanie says she visualises the colours first and then puts in the rest of the details.
In her selection of names of the people, Stephanie says she did a little research. She also consulted some Omani friends and finally chose names that were traditional and more representative of the interior rather than the capital area. Stephanie has been showcasing her work through the Bait Muzna and the Al Madina Galleries, and The Chedi. Her work exhibited at The Chedi caught the attention of Dimitris Tziotis of Cleverbank (the people behind the sound and light show at the 2004 Olympics and at some of Oman’s National Day programmes). The 35th National Day programme brochure presented to His Majesty and his VIP guests has an entire page with her miniatures.
The originals of the miniatures have been snapped up and are now in private collections in different parts of the world – in UAE, Australia, and perhaps, she said, in New Zealand too. Four pieces of her work are exhibited in her home country including one at the VIP Lounge at Malta International Airport. In her first solo exhibition in Malta in February 2004, Stephanie introduced the Omani women. She says the miniatures of Omani women drew a lot of attention and was covered extensively in the Maltese press. All that is now available are reproductions of the miniatures for use as greeting cards.
Stephanie’s other works are very linear and very colourful. Did Oman provide some inspiration for a shift from what she had been doing earlier? She said that she feels a passion for colour and has a deep respect for line. The availability of light and space in Oman aroused her and she now makes the best of it. “I come from a small island – the light and the space available here are a bonanza for a person like me.”