Al Rawiya

Art as Freedom: A Personal Essay

Under the shade of beautiful trees, a vibrant blue beetle car finds its spot on the streets of Jbeil. Photo courtesy of Emma Jowdy.

For as long as I can remember, I have always had an interest in art, specifically photography. As I got older, the urge to capture moments, people and memories grew stronger. My camera doesn’t only capture pictures: it tells the subjects’ stories and it translates the way that I perceive the world into something tangible. When I moved overseas from the United States to Lebanon, taking pictures became my therapy. I found that it helped me immerse myself in a new culture and country that I knew almost nothing about. Even though I pursued my studies in something that is far from creative, once I had completed my degree, I knew that I had to follow the passion I have for my art- photography, as that was how I would reach my true sense of freedom.


Beyond its legal definition, freedom is a marker of identity; it’s a way to do and say the things that you want, and a way to live your life in a manner which you choose. Many of the world’s greatest creators, like Frida Kahlo or Fairuz, left their markers and revolutionized how we think about and see art and self expression. Many have criticized Fairuz for her “gloomy” or “monotone” facial expressions during live performances over the past few years, but some might argue that this was her way to express the pain she had endured as a result of the death of one of her children.

Melodic tunes fill the air as the skilled oud player captivates onlookers in Jbeil's bustling souks Photo courtesy of Emma Jowdy.

And who’s to say what art is? Photography, painting, literature, music, dance, even tattoos; all of these forms of art are essentially a vessel through which individuals can express themselves in the way that they wish to, beyond the critiquing eye. As such, art is freedom. Why do we feel the need to create?  What prompts a painter to tap their paintbrush across a canvas? What motivates a baker to throw a bunch of ingredients in a bowl and into the oven? 


Beyond the beautiful outcomes, I find that art is a tool which one can use to explore their inner imagination, emotions, and thoughts. The product of creation reflects the internal state of an artist or how they view the world around them.  Some of us are naturally inclined to create with our hands, or our minds, to reflect and make sense of our ‘inner world’. In our societies, particularly in the Levant and the MENA region, we’re conditioned as kids to focus on grades, logic, and rational thinking. A child is expected to grow up and become a doctor, engineer, or lawyer. However what the traditional education system lacks, is properly teaching children to express themselves creatively. The system is heavily concentrated on teaching the language of math and science, even within the one-period-a-week of art class in Lebanon, where students are sometimes graded on their ability to replicate their teachers’ art without room for personal creative freedom.


Pink Floyd’s well-known song, ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ even sheds light on this seemingly universal experience, describing the education system as one that does not allow kids to be themselves. When we limit kids in what is considered ‘important,’ or maybe what is or is not art, we take away an outlet, or rather a language, for expression. 

É Café adds a touch of art to Souk Jbeil's outdoor art display. Photo courtesy of Emma Jowdy.

Through expressing myself in art, I find that I get lost in creation. I release tension, anger, and frustration. Art organizes, interprets, and simplifies the racing thoughts and pent up emotions stuck in the mind and body. Once the art piece is done, all of these have moved from the body and mind to the canvas. 


And yet, art is not only what we produce on canvas, through digital platforms, or using other material. Art is also how we do our hair, what we like to wear, and the tattoos that cover our bodies. Tattoos, a once taboo subject in recent history, date back to the beginning of times, performed by different ancient cultures for spiritual reasons. 


Tattoos are also a tool of self expression, and have been found to increase self-confidence when it comes to body image and give a sense of control over one’s body. 

Artist Maryline Trad is busy tattooing her client at the FreeStyle Tattoo Shop in Jbeil. Photo courtesy of Emma Jowdy.

Book Ink, a Lebanese platform that connects people to different tattoo artists all around Lebanon, explores the relationship between tattoos and self-expression in one of their articles. “Tattoos have been a form of self-expression for thousands of years, and have evolved into a powerful tool for mental health and well-being. Whether used as a form of coping, expression, or personal empowerment, tattoos can have a significant impact on an individual’s mental health and provide a sense of control, security, and belonging.” 


Tattoos have especially been a taboo subject in Middle Eastern culture. Many consider it rebellious, unprofessional, and wrong. Showing tattoos at a professional workplace was like a sin in itself, and suddenly one’s proficiency and honor were questioned based on outside appearances. 


But despite that, Lebanon has produced so many successful tattoo artists in the past couple decades, scattered all across the country, and the new generation is growing more interested in this historical tradition. To some older generations, tattoos are still unacceptable or pointless. Parents are slowly growing more accepting of the idea that their kids see their tattoos as a way to express themselves. Dismay surrounding getting tattoos still exists, but it is no longer as much of a god-forsaken thing. 

Topono’s founder Anthony Androas poses with one of his beautifully crafted terrariums. Photo courtesy of Emma Jowdy.

Art also improves the overall well-being of a person mentally and emotionally . The benefits of art on mental health affect both the creator and the viewer. We connect with artists by engaging with their work, we build relationships with people who are inspired by the same art. An art-seeker connects to a song, a novel, a poem, a photograph, or a painting. We connect to the creation and the artist. Listening to an album on repeat, waiting for your favorite artist to release a new single because you can’t wait to see more of their art, or visiting art galleries and museums because you love to see art. They become means by which we express ourselves and gain higher levels of self-awareness, of what we like, what we don’t, what inspires us, and what motivates us. 


As a photographer, I continuously experience the need to be creative and express my vision, myself, and how I see the world. Everytime I pick up my camera, even without a specific creative vision in mind, I feel that I can unapologetically express what I’m feeling at the moment. I try to capture moments and people and use photographs to represent them, that way everytime I look back, I relive the moment, and others who see the photographs can do so, in their own way. 

A portrait of a woman lost in her dreams. Photo courtesy of Emma Jowdy.

Whether it be expressing a thought or emotion, or simply creating for the sake of moving your hands or body, the outcome of what is shown to the world is a representation of the artist, how they view the world, themselves, and how they cope with their experiences. Art is subjective and is an interpretation of the artist themself, however it also becomes a tool to which viewers may relate to in their own way, and according to their own reality. The freedom for the artist can become the freedom for the art-enjoyer. This explains why a song can be so meaningful to one listener, but can mean nothing to another. It explains why some people see Pablo Picasso as one of the greatest artists of all time, while others may believe it’s Frida Kahlo. 


That’s the beauty of art: it builds connections between people. The freedom to express oneself through art is beautiful because it does not care for talent: it is the experience of engaging with our creativity that truly counts. It’s about the journey of the piece of art and letting our freedom of expression do the rest. 

Emma Jowdy is a self- taught photographer based in Beirut, Lebanon. Her passion for photography has led her to take on a career in the art field after obtaining a degree in psychology. Her work revolves around storytelling and documenting the world around her. Emma has been involved and featured in many online photography magazines and communities, and continues to work to share her perspective on the world.



Rijan Amro

RIJAN AMROAn identity at the crossroads of Palestine and Canada – Behind ‘Pieces of Palestine’ “Where are you from?” I am Palestinian. But I’m also

Dave Merheje

DAVE MERHEJELaughter as Antidote Comedy has always been in the background of my life ever since I was a little boy. My family were jokers,

Sandra Succar

SANDRA SUCCAR Pursuing Dreams through the MMA Octagon At 24, I’ve journeyed from the confines of a basement to the electrifying octagon of MMA arenas,