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In This Saudi Curator’s Gallery, Activism And Art Go Hand In Hand

“We’re experiencing a traffic jam getting to our venue,” texts Saudi gallerist Mashael Al Rushaid. To prove her point, she sends a video. Gondolas and woodpaneled motorboats are bobbing in murky waters as they try to sort out drop-offs at a dimly lit palazzo. It’s an amusing scene from Venice, where Al Rushaid is currently attending the 58th Venice Biennale. However, at this year’s edition, the founder of London’s Heist Gallery is not just a guest – she is hosting “most of the biennale,” and her arrival is imperative to this and generally all the soirées.

The main affair is Heist’s showcase at the 18th century Palazzo Benzon. Called She Persists, it presents and all-female group of 23 established and emerging artists, including Judy Chicago, Lynda Benglis, and Rose McGowan. Using various creative mediums, female voices of rebellion and resilience are elevated.

Courtesy of Heist Gallery.

Al Rushaid – who comes from a family of trailblazing sisters, one of whom launched Raffles Riyadh, the first women’s international institute of design in the Middle East – is keen to offer a platform for debate for female “art activists” changing the art history narrative. “The Venice Biennale is the heart of the global art world,” she says. “As a gallerist and a Saudi woman, I felt a sense of responsibility to use this platform to spotlight a rich diversity of global artists’ perspectives.” Heist gallery showcased a series of subversive Guerrilla Girls posters, including The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist (1988) and Do Women Have to be Naked to Get Into the Met Museum? (1989). Heist also commissioned a film by Tonia Arapovic, starring #MeToo pioneer Rose McGowan. Indecision IV challenges prescribed notions of gender constructs via contemporary dance.

Courtesy of Heist Gallery.

In between hosting a lunch at Gritti Palace and dinner at a secret location, Heist held a panel discussion, called Breaking the Glass Ceiling in the Arts, moderated by Louisa Buck with McGowan and She Persists co-curator, art historian Sona Datta. One such work aiming to break through is The Paradise Bath (2009), a provocative photo series by Kuwaiti-born artist Hamra Abbas. The series, which was banned from production in Pakistan, is staged in a 15th century Ottoman bathhouse, with the artist ritualistically bathing a white European woman, “contextualizing colonization with Orientalism and addressing power structures while probing Islamic ideals of purity.”

Originally published in the June 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia

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