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Meet the Saudi Artists Raising the Bar of High Art in the Kingdom

Sawsan Albahiti. Photo: Supplied

Where there’s a will, there’s a way, is a saying that captures the spirit of the young Saudi performing artists forging new artistic pathways in the region and beyond. Dancer and educator Samira Alkhamis, tenor and composer Marwan Fagi, countertenor Mohammed Khayran Al-Zahrani, and soprano Sawsan Albahiti are among the high art pioneers shaping the landscapes of their respective fields and challenging artistic and cultural expectations through their distinct talents.

The region’s metamorphosing relationship with the arts calls for agile artists who can improvise and fluidly sway perceptions. Alkhamis gracefully guides Saudi arts through movement. An image of her emerging from the sea became the signature poster of the 2020 Red Sea film festival, while audiences of this year’s Abu Dhabi Festival Ramadan Series witnessed Fagi and Al-Zahrani define new musical territory through their performances accompanied by the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra. Alkhamis, Fagi, Al-Zahrani, and Albahiti are at the forefront of movements to uphold the vital role and status of performing artists in society. They are the pulse of the burgeoning Saudi arts community, leading fearlessly from the heart.

Samira Alkhamis

Photo: Abdulrahman Aldukhayni

To scroll through Samira Alkhamis’s Instagram feed is to witness a spirited young woman who uses the platform to surpass the moniker “Saudi ballerina,” often used to describe her. “I found myself unintentionally becoming a role model to other women and I don’t take this responsibility lightly,” she says. She offers movement and dance as inspiration for positive perspectives, sharing not only polished performances but also behind-the-scenes outtakes. “Never forget why you started,” is how she captions a photo of herself teaching ballet to young dancers at her Riyadh studio, Pulse Performing Arts. With arms extending forward, their eyes focusing past their fingertips toward an infinite horizon, the students embody her belief in the value of pursuing one’s passion. In another post, she poses in a white tutu facing her reflection in the mirror and writes, “I’m not waiting for my time, I’m taking it.” Dancing since age four, Alkhamis is a dedicated teacher, well-versed in a range of classical and contemporary dance styles as well as dance kinesiology, the study of the art and science of human movement. On a mission to bring dance education and performance opportunities to wider audiences, she hopes to establish a performing arts academy. “Educating people about the industry is one of the things I have been striving to do, as well as to grow the dance scene within the Kingdom,” she affirms. She encourages people of any age or skill level to discover themselves through dance. “You write your own story with that body, because if you don’t, someone else will.”

Sawsan Albahiti

Photo: Mokhtar Chahine

Moments after Sawsan Albahiti sang “Happy Birthday” at an audition for an elective choir course at the American University in Sharjah, the teacher introduced new words into her vocabulary that left her “shocked to the core:” soloist, opera, soprano. “Don’t believe that there’s anything impossible. There is a way sooner or later,” she says. Upon returning to Saudi Arabia following her studies, Albahiti had few opportunities to perform, so she focused on her career in marketing. She relied on her passion for opera and music to keep the dream alive and maintained her vocal training. Her perseverance paid off. “I was above the moon and stars,” she says, when Vision 2030 became a reality – part of which is an ambitious plan placing cultural and artistic engagements at the center of the Kingdom’s vision to progress inter-community and cross-cultural exchange. It enabled Albahiti to finally share her gift and perform in her country. She honors her Saudi identity as integral to her journey as an artist, including as a collaborator with the global cultural movement Opera for Peace. Though initially hesitant to embrace a career as an opera singer, she is encouraged by the outpouring of support from her peers and mentors, including vocal coaches from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel in Belgium, and Strasbourg Opera House. “Stay loyal to yourself and who you are because this is what will make you stand out,” she says. Albahiti also seeks to bring other Saudi artists forward with her, like selecting a gown by designer Heba Alqurashi for a concert. Already a trained vocal coach, she is now an advisor to the Music Commission at the Ministry of Culture, with goals to cultivate the next generation of performing artists. “I’m so happy that this is happening, and that I’m part of the change and plan,” she says.

Marwan Fagi

Photo: Musab Majedy

An effortless tenor, Marwan Fagi represents a rich heritage of musical tradition. Singing since the age of three, Fagi grew up hearing his father sing at private events. At 16, he became a student of Saudi musician and composer Ghazi Ali. A gifted composer himself, Fagi has steadily advanced his musical training, learning to play several instruments, including the oud, and has produced many singles. A few months ago, he caught the attention of Hiba Al Kawas through Instagram and under his tutelage, Fagi premiered a new song, “Ateehu Fika (Lost in You),” at his Abu Dhabi Festival Ramadan Series concert Wajd. With lyrics written by the poet Nada El Hage, musical arrangement by Rami Basahih, and a melody composed by Fagi himself, the song amplifies the emotional power of his voice. Not long after this performance, he received a letter from Jack Lang, president of the Arab World Institute in Paris and former French Minister of Culture. Lang expressed his congratulations on a digital performance that “transcended all frontiers.” While Fagi considers his work as neither traditional nor commercial, he aspires to “connect cultures” and “take Saudi music to the international level.” His next projects will continue to bring him to the world’s biggest stages and “present the traditions in a modern way,” he says. In time, he intends to create an album of original compositions.

Mohammed Khayran Al-Zahrani

Photo: Abdulaziz Anefsie

Before his debut at the Abu Dhabi Festival Ramadan Series, Mohammed Khayran Al-Zahrani was mustering the courage to sing for friends and share his self-described “different” voice. Until now, he has been self-trained, teaching himself to sing from YouTube and honing his voice through karaoke. As informal as this may seem, there is nothing casual about his discipline, potential, and aptitude for absorbing the intonation and phrasing of languages. His song “Aala Wa Amjad (More and More Sublime)” was composed to highlight his ability to extend his vocal range beyond bass to high notes. What distinguishes his singing is the impression of Western opera resounding through Saudi artistic tradition. Early last year, Al-Zahrani moved to Italy and had a serendipitous experience while waiting at a train station. He heard an elderly man playing the Titanic film theme song on a piano and decided to join in and sing. His impromptu performance was greeted with applause, with one woman asking for his contact information. A week later he was appointed lead singer at Rome’s Coro Polifonico Musica Creator choir. During his brief time in Italy, he performed in two major concerts, including one at Vatican City attended by Pope Francis. Although these performances, due to the religious content of the songs, were received with criticism by some, Al-Zahrani emphasizes that his calling to sing comes from a desire to stir the heart. “I sing to the people; I want to make a connection with them in a spiritual way. Every note I hit, my wings get bigger and bigger. I reach the high notes, my wings spread, and I think I’m flying away. I’m in a deep place with no one other than me.”

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Originally published in the June 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia

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