Abstract artist Lulwah Al Homoud, creator of the cover artworks for this issue, found meaning from within – and it’s resonating throughout the world.
When Saudi artist Lulwah Al Homoud was a little girl, she would spend hours in front of the mirror, enthralled by her reflection as she tried on different outfits. She examined the colors, shapes, and textures with infinite curiosity. “I was always attracted to beautiful clothes,” she recalls, fascinated by how these sartorial signs could convey meaning. “I was an artist as a child, like every other child.”
Today, Al Homoud is known as a pioneer, one of the few women to practice abstract art in Saudi Arabia. Characterized by intricately placed Arabic letters in delicate mesmerizing patterns, her work explores calligraphy and Islamic philosophy. It has found an international audience, featuring in the collections of the British Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia in the Netherlands. She also heads her Lulwah Al Homoud Art Foundation, which publishes books, organizes exhibitions, and promotes cross-cultural research. One of her works hangs in the office of HRH Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, and she even crops up in the national curriculum.
“My plan was to follow a career in something that was close to art,” she reminisces. Born in Riyadh in 1967, Al Homoud studied sociology at King Saud University, then left for the UK, where she researched Arab calligraphy and Islamic geometry as part of her MA from Central Saint Martins. She was the first Saudi to graduate from the celebrated college of art and design. She worked in London as a creative director, designing logos for art pavilions, curating exhibitions, and teaching at the British Museum. Gradually, however, she grew disillusioned and alienated from her work. She also felt that she could create more impact as an artist. And so, she looked to calligraphy, something which had always been a source of inspiration, even in her commercial work.
“I always wanted to do something different,” she says. “I didn’t want to follow a school.” Al Homoud trained with the renowned Pakistani calligrapher Rasheed Butt, and drew inspiration from Egyptian calligrapher Ahmed Moustafa. Her process centers heavily on research. Using calligraphy, she painstakingly builds up intricate patterns based on a sacred sense of geometry. This is the deeper meaning behind the commission of this issue’s cover: abstract beauty crosses borders that in reality don’t exist, be they geographic, gender, art, fashion, geometry, or creativity. Abstract art transcends all boundaries.
In her work, Al Homoud represents the oneness that connects: the mathematical principles behind the universe and its creation, from the unique hexagonal shape of snowflakes to the double helix of DNA. It is also a founding principle behind Islamic art, which uses geometrical archetypes to decorate holy sites. “It’s an extension of the philosophy of Islamic art because that’s my inspiration,” she explains. “It is the relationship between the finite and the infinite, the periphery and the center; God being the center.” At first, she struggled. “Doing something that was inspired by Islamic art was difficult,” she says. “I wasn’t doing art that was popular at that time.” In fact, her earliest supporters were Western. Perhaps it makes sense; she doesn’t typify her art as “religious” but rather a system of meaningful signs. “They were drawn to the process of my art; the simplicity and complexity,” she says. “They thought I was doing something new with language.” Her artworks are so precise yet full of movement; each element perfectly balanced.
Although she says she didn’t intend to create her own school, perhaps Al Homoud has joined one unwittingly. “When you talk about geometry in Islamic art,” she explains, “it’s a whole school of abstract art.” Her references are unexpected: Bauhaus but also Kandinsky, Klee, Picasso, and Mondrian. “Islamic art is misunderstood,” she says, explaining that it is often seen as primitive rather than as an evolution. She explains how artists like Picasso increasingly used light and shapes as they matured. “They became more spiritual as they aged and that’s why Muslims started with that kind of art because they carry sophisticated ideas and principles behind their art.” She feels that more work is needed on the academic reception and analysis of Saudi Arabian art. “We have a lot of creativity, we have a lot of artists. I think what we need is critical academic research.”
For her, it is a seminal moment for the artistic scene in the Kingdom. “We’re racing,” she says. “We’re trying to catch up with what we’ve missed.” But just as she returned to the founding principles of her culture as her inspiration, she sees this in a wider context of national identity. “My dream is to see my country at the forefront of education, because it has all the components to get there,” she says. “My dream is to see my country at the forefront of the world.” There’s no denying that Al Homoud sees herself as an ambassador for her culture. “National branding is through art,” she says, “It will raise questions and open…” She pauses. “I lost the word in Arabic and English!” We settle on the word “dialogue.” Al Homoud is behind much of that intercultural conversation. The Saudi government has recently significantly bolstered its support of the arts. Al Homoud curated a show for the Mohammed bin Salman Foundation (MiSK) in 2019 and for Unesco in Paris; she featured at the Noor Riyadh festival of light this year, and won the 2020 Al Rawabi Holding Group prize for her outstanding contribution to Saudi-British relations. She is starting to publish books about Saudi artists under the imprint of her foundation and she is also looking forward to a retrospective of her work in the next few months.
If Al Homoud considers that art will “say something about us in the future,” perhaps it is the new vocabulary for the country, to be used to converse with the world, sharing the essence of its people. Al Homoud’s work is a sophisticated language, one in which no words are missing. She calls it her lifetime project. And in creating her own language, she has understood different facets of herself. Just like that little girl, rifling through clothes, her art is her ongoing exploration of meaning. “I rediscovered and uncovered so many layers within me. My research made me grow spiritually,” she says. “It changed me from within.”
Photography: Hayat Osamah
Fashion director: Katie Trotter
Style: Sara Essa
Makeup: Yasmin Isanbouli
Hair: Lana at @e11evenby4
Creative direction: Duha Alhosainy
Junior fashion editor: Mohammad Hazem Rezq
DOP: Othman Mohammed
Editing: Souhail Mohammad
Sound composer: Taha
Models: Shahad Salman, Abdulrahman Alammar
Creative assistant: Abdulaziz Tashkandi
Photography assistant: Sultan Hussain
Catering partner: Vogue Café Riyadh
Local production: Five Colors Films