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.
The Lam Gallery opened in an upscale mall in Riyadh in 2005. Originally established as a gallery for female artists from the Gulf, it has since broadened its focus to include a broad range of paintings, photographs, and sculptures from the all over Middle East. Lamya al-Rashed, Lam’s founder and director, said that when she opened the gallery her male guardian had to sign the official paperwork. She admitted that she’d experienced some difficulties with the religious police. The mutawwa had confiscated all her favorite art books, because they contained photographs of ancient Greek statues of nude men and women. They even removed some works of sculpture that were on exhibit in the gallery. A male visitor had been offended and called the mutawwa.
“Some people in Saudi still don’t understand art,” she said. “But Saudi artists enjoy much more freedom of expression now then they ever did before.”
Edge of Arabia is a new, nonprofit arts initiative dedicated to promoting the contemporary art of Saudi Arabia and the entire Arab world. It has rapidly become one of the most important institutions in the Saudi contemporary art scene. On its website, Edge of Arabia describes itself as “Saudi Arabia’s first independent platform for contemporary art.” From its base in London, Edge of Arabia is bringing the work of new Saudi artists to the attention of international audiences by sponsoring seminars, publications, and exhibitions. It works closely with some twenty-five artists in Saudi Arabia and an equal number from elsewhere in the Arab world and the diaspora. Much of its funding comes from Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives, the corporate social responsibility wing of the ALJ Company, a Saudi-based multinational conglomerate with investments in hotels, electronics, automobiles, and financial services.
Edge of Arabia was founded by two young Saudi artists, Ahmed Mater and Abdulnasser Gharem, and a British artist, Stephen Stapleton, when they met in 2003 at the al-Meftaha Arts Village, a local arts community that had recently been established in the city of Abha under the sponsorship of the governor of Asir, a poor region in the mountains of southwestern Saudi Arabia near the border with Yemen. The first major exhibition sponsored by Edge of Arabia was held in the Brunei Gallery at the School for Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in 2008. The exhibition generated an overwhelmingly positive response. Three years later, at the Fifty- fourth Venice Biennale, Edge of Arabia produced the first Pan-Arab exhibition of contemporary art. It has also provided valuable international exposure to Saudi artists with exhibitions in Berlin, Istanbul, and Dubai.
The most exciting show Edge of Arabia has organized was its first public exhibition inside Saudi Arabia, which opened to much acclaim in January
2012. This “homecoming” of sorts was the first, and by far the most significant, exhibition of contemporary art to have ever taken place in the Kingdom. The exhibition, entitled We Need to Talk, was held in an unfinished wing of the al-Furisiya Marina and Mall in Jeddah. As Stephen Stapleton told a reporter from the New York Times at the opening, modern art is hardly the first thing people associate with Saudi Arabia.
The curators of “We Need to Talk” recognized the need to make the show accessible to local Saudi audiences, many of whom were completely unfamiliar with contemporary art. Mater, Gharem, and Stapleton were determined to be “gently provocative.” Officials from the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information inspected the exhibition and removed one work. Eight representatives of Christie’s and four from Sotheby’s attended the opening. The exhibition included forty works by twenty-two Saudi artists, half of whom were women.
The title of the exhibition suggests the emphasis the organizers placed on the need for open conversation — genuine dialogue — about the place of art in contemporary Saudi society. It also acknowledged the many controversial issues that were raised by the art itself — the position of women, freedom of speech, human rights, and the role of Islam in Saudi society. After all, King Abdullah was known as the “King of Dialogue” because of his repeated calls for national dialogue among the various segments of Saudi society.
The success of Edge of Arabia has been impressive. The contemporary Saudi art it has presented to international audiences powerfully demonstrates the creativity and vitality of Saudi culture. This success is testament to the dramatic changes that have transformed Saudi society — the rise of individualism and consumerism, the growth of new technologies and social media — but it also confirms the continued relevance of traditional Islamic beliefs and tribal practices. In this way, Edge of Arabia opens an instructive window Europeans are rarely privileged to look through, a window onto the complex- ity and richness of Saudi culture in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Here contemporary Saudi artists are testing the limits of what is possible in their very conservative culture. They are working right at the edge of Arabia.