Since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman came to power in 2013, his cultural initiatives and Vision 2030 have been controversial and debated. But a group of Saudi women artists say they have been creating radical art for decades.
The darkroom was a secret until the discovery of Manal Al Dowayan. She worked for Aramco in eastern Saudi Arabia for ten years and one day found a state-of-the-art photography studio in a remote corner of an office building. It was completely empty, cold, and a little dusty from years of sparse use. Built in the 1990s by Saudi Arabian oil company Aramco, they “really used the highest quality technology, it was very sophisticated,” Al Dowayan told me, “but it looks like nobody has used it for decades, if at all. So, I decided to give it a try and it was really my first step into art.”
It was 2005, when less than 10 percent of Saudi women were employed, and in 2021, according to the Brookings Institution, 33 percent of Saudi women are employed. “At the time, the situation with Saudi women was so different, and I wanted to make art my own way,” explains Al Dowayan. “That was very important to me. Women were really not open at all, so I decided to look at photography. Look at the role of women in the public sphere in Saudi Arabia. This exploration has always been the motivation for my work.”
Al Dowayan named these photos I’ma series of black and white photos showing Saudi women and their dreams of future careers. I am… the driver Showing a woman gazing at her own reflection in a car mirror, another I am a writer, shows a woman writing a book. The artist created images that reflected the circumstances of women in Saudi Arabia at the time, more than two decades before women were given permission to drive, work and travel independently without the permission of a male guardian in 2019.
25 years later, Al Dowayan’s I’m The series recently found a new global audience. After discovering the artist on social media, a new wave of fans around the world became interested in the unique perspective that Al Dowayan’s art offered during Saudi Arabia’s time of “complete isolation from the world” as the Saudi government sought to reposition itself through technology A global perspective on women’s rights in the country, sports and arts programmes.
Al Dowayan calls the women in her photos “anti-public,” a spirit of female community she believes has developed among Saudi Arabian women over the past 30 years. “There’s an incredible feminism in the anti-public,” she told me, “before 2018, when women were in the public space, it wasn’t our space at all. Until a few years ago, women were completely there. in their own domain. Before this, public spaces were mainly male spaces.”
Al Dowayan is not the only explorer, for the past three decades a group of female artists has been contributing to the feminist art movement in Saudi Arabia, which has provided a rare insight into the social and political conditions affecting women in the country. insight. As a slew of new cultural programming grabs Saudi Arabia’s attention, female artists including Al Dowayan, Lulwah Al Homoud and Filwa Nazer find their work overdue for recognition of the pivotal role their work plays in the history of protest art – But far from being a new trend, they have been communicating with the world through their art for decades.
Since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman came to power in 2013, his cultural initiatives and Vision 2030 have been controversial and debated. Saudi Arabia’s government has promoted Vision 2030 as progressive, and critics say the independent group Human Rights Watch, in its 2021 world report, is trying to “raise the kingdom’s profile internationally.” “Despite a slight increase in female employment, the main challenge has not changed from when I took these pictures in the 1990s,” said Al Dowyan. “There has been a change, but it has an impact on women across different societies and economies. different levels.”
Born and raised in Saudi Arabia and now a successful artist, Al Dowyan believes that through art, Saudi women have historically been able to speak out more against the state. Today, the artist and her peers — women in their 20s, 30s and 40s — uphold values in their work that are radically different from the Saudi state.
Lulwah Al Homoud is an artist and curator born and raised in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Working primarily in calligraphy and digital installations, her art has been exhibited at the inaugural international Saudi art biennale Misk Art Week, run by the independent art foundation Misk, which recently launched Saudi Arabia’s first public Art Research Library – Over the past year, her private sales have doubled. “I’ve always had collectors from all over the world, and my community was built long before Vision 2030 was announced,” she said.
During Misk Art Week, Al Homoud held a live screen printing class, where she took up half of the first floor of the King Faisal bin Fahd Art Hall in central Riyadh. Misk director Basma Al-Shathry called Mahmoud a “radical, true innovator who had an international fan base years before Saudi Arabia opened up.” Al Homoud sees her success at Misk Art Week as an inspiration to other Saudis Women become tools for artists. The entire fair drew thousands of locals and international visitors from art institutions, including Florence’s Uffizi and London’s Whitechapel Gallery, and Al Homoud said of her art “not a new trend, but a multi-year Research, work and education – I have been an artist for decades.” Al-Shathry said: “Decades before the world paid attention to Saudi female artists, Mahmoud’s persistence in her art was admirable. ”
As a young woman growing up in Riyadh, Al Homoud faced discrimination every day for being a woman, and her art has always provided her with a way to connect with the wider world and convey the reality of living in traumatic conditions. “My childhood was different from what we start to see in Saudi Arabia today,” she said. “I do remember being stopped by the religious police a lot. They would make up any excuse to stop and harass women and it wasn’t a good time,” she said. “Because of that, I went to London to study art at Central Saint Martins, only in That’s where I can really develop my practice.”
I spoke with Human Rights Watch’s Huda, who has spent the past five years researching how human rights in Saudi Arabia intersect with the country’s recent increase in cultural programming. She suggested that being an artist with broad social commentary is difficult in Saudi Arabia’s current political and social climate following the high-profile arrest of author and civil rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul. “For some women in Saudi Arabia, promoting free creative values as part of Vision 2030 may be uncomfortable, as many feminist creative women have been imprisoned or fled the country for activism,” she said. People are still afraid to speak up and speak openly about their values in the absence of an opposition movement.” Al Homoud said she always sees her art and her “peers like Filwah Nazer and Manal Al Dowayan” to express Saudi Arabian women The truth of life.
Recently, Al Homoud curated the show what is below, It showcases work by seminal Saudi Arabian women from the private collection of art collector and curator Basma Al Sulaiman.exist what’s below, the work of female artists Manal Al Dowayan, Shadia Alem, Nasser Al Salem and Dana Awartani is brought together for the first time to present a largely overlooked part of feminist art history. “It’s been a lifelong ambition,” Al Sulaiman said of the project. “The works of these women deal with notions of isolation, marginalization and freedom – they are important pieces that every art lover should see.”
Al Sulaiman has one of the largest collections of Saudi Arabian women’s art in the world. “The contribution of women in Saudi Arabia to feminist art is incredible,” she said. “It’s an untapped piece of art history. Because of the terrible social climate these women have had in the past, many of them believe that a person who has not participated in leadership has The reputation of the country has tarnished them. I hope people will reconsider separating these women’s jobs from the country entirely.”
Al Sulaiman believes that the art of women, including Al Homoud, Al Dowayan and installation artist Filwah Nazer, was crucial in changing the cultural outlook of Saudi women in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. “People often ask about censorship, but look at Manal’s photo or Filwah Nazer’s another body sculpture. The way these artists track changes in the lives of women in the region and articulate their criticism is important. ”
Independent architecture group Um-Slaim Collective was founded by two Saudi women architects who started their business with the goal of separating Saudi Arabia’s cultural history from that of the government. Their goal was to “preserve the rich design heritage of the Saudi capital, which is fun and beautiful,” said co-founder Sara Alissa. Alissa and Nojoud Alsudairi met through friends at a wedding in Paris, and after discovering they were both architects, they decided to set up a practice where they could design at the same time while working to preserve the historic 19th century mud houses in central Riyadh, formerly city center.
“Most of the buildings were built in the late 1800s,” Alsudairi told me, “everything from the mansions of the old Diriyah Palace, to the cottages of workers and schools. But they are dissolving, literally.” Alsudairi and Alissa are currently developing strategies to preserve the handcrafted mud and hay walls and the artistic details carved into them, which are disintegrating over the years. “Many of these houses have traditional Sadhu cornices, hand-carved by workers, and incredible examples of one of the most important subjects of Saudi visual culture.” They are also interested in seeing Asir outside of Riyadh Al-Qatt Al-Asiri House, where women would paint the interior walls of the living room in the 1970s.
O’Dowyan and Mahmoud believe their work carries these key historical markers of the women who came before them, and also works secretly, as O’Dowyan originally did at Aramco, “In my art you can see women Life-changing Saudi Arabia is in the works, and a work of art becomes historical art in a few years, not just a few decades.”
One of O’Dowyan’s first photo series at Aramco is particularly striking.it is I’m… a filmmaker It depicts a woman covering her face with the film director’s clapboard.This is O’Dowyan’s friend, now acclaimed film director Haifaa Al Mansour, who made the 2012 film Wajida and recently perfect candidate, explores the tension between the rapid changes in women’s laws in Saudi Arabia and the reality of societal attitudes that make these laws difficult to implement. “Haifa and I were friends for years!” O’Dowyan said, “but years before she was successful, no one realized it was her in the photo. But that’s the power of the anti-public.”
The Art Library of the Minsk Academy of Arts is now open.