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Meet the Saudi Women Helping the Kingdom’s Art Scene Get the World’s Attention

The Saudi art scene has captured the world’s attention and women are playing a significant role, creatively and institutionally.

From left: Balqis Al Rashed, Zahrah Al Ghamdi, Sarah Brahim. Vogue Arabia, June 2022. Photo: Sebastian Böttcher

In the 1990s, there were only a handful of artists who were working with contemporary art,” says revered Saudi art patron Basma Al Sulaiman. Her recent Al Ula exhibition, What Lies Within, paid tribute to those artists she considers Saudi pioneers, who took the lead from the Saudi Modernists of the 1950s. Al Sulaiman has a special approach to collecting, both by commissioning artists to make site-specific work with free reign (for her homes in Jeddah, London and Madrid) and by opening her collection to the world through a virtual museum (BASMOCA) that enables individuals to engage via avatars in a metaverse. “I’ve never collected as an investor,” she continues. “It was very important for me to preserve the story of Saudi art for the new generation as a concrete archive of where we were and where we are today. I knew a day would come when everyone would
look at this with a fresh eye.”

Basma Al Sulaiman, pictured by Mohammed Al Shebli in front of “Hajj” by Nasser Al Salem

The effervescence of the Saudi art scene has certainly captured the world’s attention; and women are playing a significant role, not just creatively, but also institutionally, leading major foundations such as Aya Al-Bakree, CEO of the Diriyah Biennale Foundation and Reem Sultan, CEO of Misk Art Institute. It could be argued that women have always led the non-commercial art scene in Saudi Arabia. Princess Jawaher bint Majid Al Saud founded the Al-Mansouria Foundation in 1999, the first of its kind nurturing local artists. In 2013, she established 21,39, an annual exhibition that welcomed international curators, raising awareness of the art scene with a group of patrons including co-founder Al Sulaiman. “At the time, our main exposure to an organized art scene in Jeddah was these government, institutional, and private efforts on a small scale,” Al Sulaiman says.

Zahrah Al Ghamdi. Vogue Arabia, June 2022. Photo: Sebastian Böttcher

Even Saudi artist and academic Zahrah Al Ghamdi, who represented her country at the 2019 Venice Biennale and has been practicing as a land artist for more than a decade, recalls how difficult it was to be an artist in the early 2000s. “Our art teachers were not local,” she says, having left for the UK to study at Coventry University. But things have now changed when she finds herself in the same room as Richard Long, the famous British land artist who influenced her PhD research. At Diriyah Biennale earlier this year, they both presented work. Ghamdi’s was inspired by At-Turaif’s deserted mud houses in an installation that incorporated dirt, leather, and rocks, which for her represents a dying history. Her work is usually large-scale and looks at the rapid changes in Saudi from an urban and environmental level, drawing from the traditional architecture of Al Baha, the southwestern region she is from. As part of a generation of established artists, she expresses a nostalgia for old ways of life and the need for cultural preservation, a connection she shares with Al Sulaiman who was first captivated by art at age nine, by the sight of a painting by Safeya Binzagr depicting a pastoral scene of a young Bedouin girl by a tent. “The sense of heritage in the work has remained with me until today,” Al Sulaiman says. “I come from the village Unaizah in Saudi’s central region and my father would always speak to us about his life there.”

Al Ghamdi’s earliest work, Inanimate Village, references this migration from village to city that her family also experienced. Made of sand and stone, the floor installation emulates the labyrinthine layout of a traditional village. When Athr gallery showcased this temporary work in 2015, it had a huge impact on perceptions of art in Saudi Arabia. “The audience wasn’t used to temporary installation art,” says Al Ghamdi. “I found that instead of liking or disliking it, they asked a lot of questions.”

Inside Zahrah Al Ghamdi’s atelier. Vogue Arabia, June 2022. Photo: Sebastian Böttcher

Al Ghamdi’s textural work stands out for her use of materials (acacia trees, plaster, mud, cement, date containers, construction textiles), structural depictions (fungal networks, building plans, rivers, and walls) and notions of embodied memory. Sarah Brahim, who is part of the new crop of Riyadh-based artists, also works with embodiment, expressing it performatively — she was trained in dance and choreography — and sculpturally through fabric. “I’ve been researching how the material can show what we can be, how it can expose, disguise, and amplify different parts of the body. Material is an extension of the body. In Diriyah, it becomes a lung,” she says, in reference to her latest work, Soft Machines/Far Away Engines where textile animated the dancers’ bodies expressing breath as an elemental rhythm in individual and social states of being. The artist worked on this relationship between textile and memory for her thesis at London Contemporary Dance School in 2016, which included a handmade book documenting the clothes her mother (who passed away three years prior) made and wore. While much of her work stems from this grief and its manifestation in the body, her practice is research-driven, drawing from her undergraduate studies in medical anthropology and public health in Portland, which is where her Saudi father and her America-born Swedish- German mother met in the late 1970s at university. “My mother moved to Saudi when she was 21 and became part of a group of women, both Saudi and non-Saudi, who would organize underground exhibitions in private spaces. There was this need to come together through art.”

Sarah Brahim. Vogue Arabia, June 2022. Photo: Sebastian Böttcher

This urge has now infiltrated the public sphere in a major way and while performance art is a novelty in Saudi Arabia, with less than a handful of artists working in this domain, Brahim says there is a thirst for this kind of work. Her first performance was at Bienalsur in Riyadh when she activated a sculpture by Carol Zech. “You can go to an empty space and make a life-changing experience out of it,” she continues. “That’s the magic of dance.” Although she acknowledges that artists need more physical spaces to play out this spirit of experimentation — such as studios — she doesn’t feel limited. “Everything is in evolution with events and biennales that have never been done before. There’s no precedent. I think that’s what makes it exciting here. There’s so much that can be catalyzed and a lot of support for us to grow as artists. I acknowledge that I’ve been supported.”

Saudi artist Balqis Al Rashed, who spent most of her adult life in Beirut studying graphic design before she returned to Riyadh with her family in 2010, has a different perspective. “I don’t fit in because my work is very experimental, but I feel like my time is coming.” Tapped for the closing performance at the Diriyah Biennale, along with contemporary dancer Bilal Allaf, she built a concrete wall and burned incense, situating the performance within binaries of masculine and feminine, public and private, sacred and profane, which are constant threads in her work. “I operate at the threshold of these dichotomies; it’s a volatile place.”

Balqis Al Rashed. Vogue Arabia, June 2022. Photo: Sebastian Böttcher

Indeed her 2014 iteration of the video series, A State of Play featuring a niqab-wearing woman hula hooping from her home, went viral on Instagram before it was shut down two years later after it was featured on Instagram’s account and caused a public backlash. “It came out at an interesting time when ISIS was hijacking this image of representation and people transformed and diluted and took my work out of context. Social media became a space for me to perform the kind of women’s invisibility I saw in public space. It was as if I discovered a techno-social blind spot in which I could access the public.”

While she thinks the work is still relevant today as Saudi artists learn how to navigate new spaces and old boundaries, her practice is moving towards research. Following a 2021 Delfina Foundation residency about the politics of food, she is working on an online archive on Saudi women’s memories of culinary practices in a residency at the Berlin Art Institute this summer, a collaboration with Misk. “Because things are changing so much in Saudi and women were so underrepresented, there’s an erasure of the everyday stories, with the kitchen being a confined domestic space but also the only place where women could make history. I want to visualize how we got here through a timeline,” Al Rashed adds. With the rapid expansion of Saudi’s art infrastructure, more spaces are opening for women to make their mark outside the home and in the public art domain. As Al Ghamdi puts it, “Saudi is in a cultural revolution. I’m a mother with children, I have full-time work [at the Islamic Arts Department at King Abdulaziz University], and I have a studio practice. It’s a dream that I recreate every night.

Originally published in the June 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia

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