Art Evolution: Saudi Arabia

Find out how the art world in Saudi Arabia is different than the western world.


| October 2016



Art Supplies

While the art supplies are the same, art in Saudi Arabia is very different than the western world.

Photo by Fotolia/Gino Santa Maria

Crossing the Kingdom (University of California Press, 2016) by Loring M. Danforth takes the reader on a journey across the kingdom of Saudi Arabia using vivid descriptions and moving personal narratives. In this excerpt from chapter three, "Saudi Modern," Danforth explores the ever changing role of women in the world of art in Saudi Arabia. 

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Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries most of the Arabian Peninsula remained relatively isolated from the artistic and cultural developments taking place in western Europe, the Mediterranean and other parts of the Middle East. With the exception of the Hijaz on the Red Sea coast, which includes Jeddah and the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the Ottoman Empire exerted very little influence over the peninsula. During the early decades of the twentieth century, Abdulaziz ibn Saud expanded his rule over much of the region and in 1932 founded the kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the support of the conservative Wahhabi religious authorities. The discovery of oil in the 1930s transformed the county tremendously, but it remained in many ways a very closed and traditional society. With the oil boom that followed, cars and cement came to dominate the Saudi landscape.

The introduction of a western educational system in the 1950s brought with it art teachers from Egypt, Lebanon, and Palestine. By the 1970s, the first organizations devoted to supporting the fine arts were established. Then in the 1980s, as a result of the Iranian Revolution and the siege of the Holy Mosque in Mecca by Islamist extremists, the Kingdom entered an extremely conservative period in its history. Religiously based restrictions on the mixing of men and women; on photography and the depiction of the human form; and on women’s freedom of dress, movement, and employment were strictly enforced.

It was difficult for the few Saudi artists working in the country to obtain the materials they needed. They had to purchase paint and canvas from abroad; they even found it difficult to buy art books, since depictions of the human figure were forbidden. Female artists couldn’t attend the openings of exhibitions of their own work. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there was still virtually no contemporary art scene in Saudi Arabia. There was no infrastructure to support the development of the arts — no schools, no journals, no galleries. Even films couldn’t be shown in public, since — with a few exceptions — there were no movie theaters in the country.

By 2012, the contemporary art scene in Saudi Arabia had come alive. As the director of one art gallery told me, “Modern art is booming here.” Young artists doing comic book art, conceptual art, digital art, installation art, performance art, pop art, street art, and video art were forming networks and collaboratives all around the country. Several new art galleries had even opened in Riyadh, one of the most conservative cities in the Kingdom.