In the 20th century, six thousand and six hundred and twenty nine miles away from home, all forms entertainment were banned including art galleries, movies, live theatres and public gatherings. Artistic development outside of religion was not encouraged, representation of people and animals was not allowed. Geometric, floral, abstract works and calligraphy dominated the visual arts. Could you imagine a place in the world where contemporary art as we know it was not allowed to be expressed in public?
Post Gulf War Saudi Arabia, a strange and intriguing ancient world. The promise of jobs with tax-free lucrative salaries & free accommodations has lured female medical professionals for years. Our eyes focused on dollars, travel and men, but not necessarily in that order. We gave up our passports, dressed according to the code of orthodox Islam by wearing abayas and covered our faces when necessary. We followed the restriction on women in public. We sat separately in specially designated family sections of restaurants. Our travel destinations within the kingdom restricted.
Artist Sarah Abu Abdallah is pushing the boundaries of restriction and expressing sophisticated commentary on the various elements of her highly controlled life. In her video installation “Saudi Automobile”, Sarah toys wih the idea of becoming a self mobile individual. Sarah buys herself a car, albeit a wreck and paints it diligently with light pink paint. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world which prohibits women from driving. Upon completion of her task, Sarah in her paint splattered abaya; retreats defeated to the passenger seat of her car. A true reflection of the fact that Sarah may never be able to drive in her country.
Our artistic expression consisted of sarcastic memoirs in a collective diary we kept on the kitchen table of our shared villa. Our lives were cocooned by housing compounds. We traveled in packs and planned our shopping and social trips carefully around prayer time. We ran and hid from Mutawa, the Islamic religious police. They chastised us for exposed ankles and imprisoned us for other non-conforming behaviours. Socializing with men is illegal under religious law. We barely tolerated the religious social order. We created our own social order in gated communities. Ours was a suspended reality, quite different than the reality of Saudi women around us.
The Edge of Arabia, a contemporary art and creative movement has changed the visual arts reality in Saudi. Ahmad Angawi, a member of the movement relies on his architectural roots to create a spherical structure composed of hundreds of microphones. The interactive giant microphone was placed in various locations around the Kingdom. Participants recorded messages and used attached headphones to listen to messages left by other fellow Saudi’s. “It shows the various voices we have, all confined into one sphere. The idea behind it is, if we don’t speak up, if we remain silent, if we keep putting our feelings aside, one day we will explode,”Angawi said of the piece. “Street Pulse ” which augments the voice of the Saudi public was exhibited during Edge of Arabia’s aptly named art project “We Need Talk”. The show appeared in cities around the world starting in 2008. In 2012, the exhibition was shown for the first time in Jeddah.
In the 21st century female Saudi artists are silent no more. Manal al-Dowayan’s publicly exams the Saudi woman’s social order in her works “Suspended Together” and “The Choice”. These works investigate female status and contemplate the restriction of movement, lack of freedom, and progression of women within the context of the Kingdom.
“Suspended Together” a flock of doves hanging from the ceiling appears to convey flight and movement. The paradox of the piece lies in the fact that the doves are adorned with travel documents of female scientists, educators, journalists, engineers, artists and leaders. Saudi women are not allowed to travel alone without travel permission documents signed by their male guardians. The black and white photos in “The Choice” gives the viewer the opportunity to meditate the idea of Saudi women driving, traveling, and voting. The suspended flock and surreal images exquisitely questions the adherence to customs of 1200 years ago.
In the new millennium the Kingdom has seen unparalleled shifts to a world where challenges are articulated through greater public participation, freedom of expression and protest. During the Arab Spring in March 2011 minor protests broke out and led to the Male Monarchy announcing economic concessions and approval for women’ suffrage in the 2015 male only political municipal elections. Although the Arab Spring has amplified the free voice of the people, it has not eased the strife of Saudi artists to address subjects of political ideologies, criticism of the monarchy and women’s lack of equality.
In 2015 the organizers of Al Arabia Outdoor have managed to pull off the ‘biggest art gallery” Saudi Arabia, using 3,400 advertising billboards to exhibit paintings by Saudi artists. I often wondered, how long could the Kingdom adhere to it’s tradition and culture with pride and devotion of the past? The desert kingdom has always been teeming with rich cultural visual art tradition of their nomadic tribes and religion, but new kinds of expression have started an artistic evolution. Now, imagine a place in the world where contemporary art is just being allowed to be exhibited in public. Are you looking?