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HRH Princess Nourah Alfaisal on Preserving and Celebrating Saudi History as CEO of Art of Heritage

Taking the helm at Art of Heritage, HRH Princess Nourah Alfaisal preserves and celebrates Saudi history in an ever-evolving world.

Photo: Abeer Ahmed

When Her Royal Highness Princess Nourah Alfaisal logs in for her Vogue Arabia interview via Zoom, she is fresh-faced and bespectacled with a wide and inviting smile. There is no official protocol required for addressing the Saudi royal at the start of the call, and her setup for it is casual, with not much more than the top of her velvet couch and part of a framed image behind her in view. It’s no coincidence that she’s chosen this spot in her home in Riyadh. The image, she comments, is a digital print by artist and collector Prince Sultan Bin Fahad Bin Nasser Al-Saud. It depicts King Faisal bin Abdulaziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, on a visit to an oil field, the glossy silhouette of a man standing among the wells captured in the reflection of a car door. “I feel like it represents an era when Saudi Arabia shot into the future,” Princess Alfaisal says of the black-and-white image. “It’s like we’re going through the same renaissance again, so I like to keep it close to remind me.”

Handmade dress and abaya inspired by clothing from the Najd region. Photo: Abeer Ahmed

It sets a fitting tone for an interview oriented around her new role as the chief executive officer of Art of Heritage (AOH), a socially responsible organization committed to the preservation and conservation of Saudi cultural heritage. Its operations are two pronged: Firstly, there’s the retail collection of thobes, abayas, and other customary apparel made using traditional techniques that rival the intricate craftsmanship of European haute couture. Also within this branch of the brand are the gifts and objects it creates that are representative of the kingdom’s rich history. Notably, the organization is often celebrated for its support of local women with special needs who produce its Yadawy pottery for gifting purposes. Secondly, there is the archive – which the princess says is the single-most comprehensive Saudi heritage collection in existence – featuring over 57 000 artifacts ranging from costumes to textiles to jewelry to photographs. A curated Art of Heritage exhibition hosted by Vogue Arabia’s editor-in-chief Manuel Arnaut was on view last month in Riyadh, along with high jewelry from Van Cleef & Arpels. “There is a group of women who have spent over 30 years creating this collection. They’ve dedicated their time and their efforts to building an asset that’s a gift of identity to the future generation,” says Princess Alfaisal. “The goal is for this to be an asset that is available and that is there for anyone, whether it’s someone local or international, who wants to understand the DNA of Saudi Arabia.”

Photo: Abeer Ahmed

Her predecessor, Somaya Badr, helped to turn Art of Heritage into an independent entity in 2009 that remains under the umbrella of one of Saudi Arabia’s earliest charitable societies, the Al-Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women. Al-Nahda was founded in 1963 under the supervision and support of Queen Effat Al-Thunayan, honorary president of the organization, pioneer of Saudi women’s education, and wife of King Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Princesses Sarah and Latifa Al-Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud along with Samira Khashogji and Muzaffar Adham also played a pivotal role. Since its inception, Al-Nahda has promoted equal opportunity through female social and economic participation and earned accreditation by the United Nations in recent years.

A pottery tray is crafted by clay formation. Photo: Abeer Ahmed

As part of that mission, Art of Heritage helps young women start their careers by teaching them the historic artisanship that is at risk of becoming obsolete such as pottery, embroidery, palm weaving, and wood engraving. There are currently more than 100 women employed by AOH and even more participating in its training programs every three months. The way Princess Alfaisal sees it, the many women who have been involved in these initiatives in Saudi Arabia over the past decades are responsible for “essentially saving our identity.” She adds: “I’m very, very proud to be following [in their footsteps]. I almost feel like they did all the hard work and now I just have to make sure that people understand the magnitude of what they’ve been able to preserve here for our country.”

A wooden box is hand engraved. Photo: Abeer Ahmed

The new CEO of Art of Heritage is taking the reins at a time when the nation is in the throes of rapid cultural expansion as part of the broader changes outlined by Vision 2030 – the kingdom’s ambitious set of goals to reduce its dependence on oil by developing sectors such as tourism, recreation, and education. In order to understand her role in navigating this change as the head of an organization that is committed to honoring the country’s history, one must understand the fundamental difference between heritage and culture. Two words that, according to the princess, get erroneously conflated. “Yes, heritage is there and it needs to be preserved and it needs to be archived and understood, it needs to be part of who we are. Let’s say it’s the leap-off point,” she offers. “But culture is alive and it’s evolving. Culture is what’s happening now. One does not necessarily negate the other.” This explains the tremendous hope she has for the next generation of Saudi creatives, artists, and trailblazers whose responsibility it is to take over and represent their country in an ever-changing cultural climate. With the support of organizations like AOH and its extensive archive of information, she believes Saudi Arabia’s youth is well-equipped to channel a palpable desire to own and understand their heritage into innovative ways of exporting it globally as the country opens up to the rest of the world.

The second stage of pottery making, where pieces that are fully hand-made by Saudi women are colored. Photo: Abeer Ahmed

In addition to her role as CEO, Princess Alfaisal remains at the helm of her luxury jewelry brand Nuun Jewels, which she created in Paris in 2014. Design has the power to communicate across cultures, she says, describing her signature minimalist aesthetic as an homage to a piece of Saudi Arabia’s story that is often missing from mainstream narratives: the bedouins, who historically inhabited the region’s deserts and carried as little with them as possible as they journeyed along the dunes. “There’s nothing in the world more minimal than a bedouin. When you look at my jewelry, you understand something about the culture and the people behind it that maybe you weren’t aware of. Design speaks to that.” Princess Alfaisal is also the founder of Adhlal, a social enterprise built to unite local designers, in turn nourishing a high standard of native talent and providing buyers better access to their products. Needless to say, her work with AOH adds to an already full plate. Yet, she considers the job a natural extension of her greater personal and professional mission to revive the specialness of Saudi Arabia’s storied traditions and customs. “There’s this common thread that runs through everything that I do, which is why I always tend to look at it as one component – each feeding the other.”

Originally published in the June 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia

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