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Saudi Arabian women and collective memories: a discussion with artist Manal AlDowayan

February 13, 2024 at 8:42 am

Artist Manal AlDowayan poses ahead of the opening of the exhibition ‘The Future of a Promise’ in Venice, Italy on June 1, 2011 [Marco Secchi/Getty Images]

Saudi Arabian artist Manal AlDowayan used to hate the word feminist. “I thought feminism was created for white, Western women, and their language didn’t include me,” she told me recently. Her work spans the range of photography, video, sound, sculpture and participatory practice. It is usually themed around the limitations and pockets of freedom that Saudi women have, as well as interrogating traditions, and collective memories. This has caused the art public to look at her as a feminist artist, and that’s also why her statement is quite surprising.

“I think my grandmother was a feminist,” she clarified quickly. “Not through her sexual conduct or the way she dressed. Just by her resilience. She was a strong woman. Her husband died early and she had to raise 10 children alone. All of them became successful in their own right. She was amazing.”

In the fast-changing socio-cultural landscape of Saudi Arabia today, Manal AlDowayan’s art is getting more and more attention. While the Kingdom is slowly involving more women in the public sphere, especially in the arts, the international art world looks with increasing interest at the condition of women in Saudi Arabia. In this sense, AlDowayan’s practice provides a never-complacent, complex, nuanced perspective, based on lived experience.

I’m sitting with her in a small, comfortable back room of the house hosting her show in AlUla. This is a dazzling region in the Saudi Arabian desert, a central part of the Saudi investment plan towards the art sector.

Called “Their Love Is Like All Loves, Their Death Is Like All Deaths”, the AlUla show is a re-iteration of that which AlDowayan had in Madrid with her gallery Sabrina Amrani in February last year. The show was based on the artist’s first visits to Hegra, the World Heritage List UNESCO site presenting Nabatean, Dedanite and Lihyan ruins, monuments, thousand-year-old inscriptions on rocks and magnificent tombs.

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“To be honest, that show was inspired by AlUla and it was destined to come here. Spain was an experiment to be refined here,” said the artist who wanted the AlUla community – with whom she worked for another large land art commission — to know about her studio work.

The show, showcasing cutouts, drawings of rocks, fabric works and abstract sculptures reminiscent of the desert landscape, fauna and flora, takes place within a traditional house, with dark interiors and entrances made by ropes. “The house is part of the work, it’s like looking in the inside of my brain. I like to have both the big public work and the studio work being showcased at the same time. I want the people of AlUla to see that dichotomy.”

From a petrol city, pursuing art

Born in Dhahran, Manal AlDowayan began her career working for the huge Aramco oil company, before transitioning full-time into an artistic practice. “The entire city of Dhahran was built and existed solely because of Aramco,” she explained. “I work there, my father worked there. My brothers, sisters and every one of my friends worked there. And my mother still lives in the Aramco compound.”

In such surroundings, art was never seen as important by the residents, although she grew up in a family that loved creative expression. “My mother was a huge influence. My uncle owns what back in the day was the only art store in the city.”

Her interest was sparked by a children’s art competition across the Kingdom that took place in the compound where she lived. “Every year my sister and brother won the first or second prize, I never won it. But I was passionate. There was just a softness about exploring my creativity. It was a break from my everyday life and studies.”

When she told her father that she wanted to study art, he pointed out that there were no galleries, no art economy in the country, and she would better study computer science, that at the time was seen – and proved to be — the future. “I didn’t even see a woman artist from Saudi Arabia with my own eyes. I didn’t know what steps to take to become an artist.”

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While she excelled at computer science in university, she never gave up her dream, and her mother secretly sent her money to go to do art courses at Central Saint Martin’s and Slade School of Fine Art in London: “My mother really understood that I had the passion, and supported me.”

Working with the community in AlUla

The artist currently has another show in AlUla, which has just opened as part of AlUla Arts Festival 2024. Titled “Oasis of Stories”, it showcases a series of drawings realised by over 700 participants from AlUla’s communities.

These drawings will later be engraved on stones on a big land art commission, to be installed permanently in the stunning valley of Wadi AlFann. Opening in 2026, the land art piece will live in the desert alongside works by celebrated artists like Agnes Denes, Michael Heizer, Ahmed Mater and James Turrell.

“Throughout my 20 years of practice, I have always included participatory work,” says AlDowayan. “People joined me to make my art, from the very beginning. For my first ever photographic series, I invited my sisters and friends. This was the first community that I felt safe with.”

Her first celebrated participatory installations, called Suspended Together (2011) and Esmi-My Name (2012), were also the result of workshops offering channels for thousands of women in the Kingdom to address gender-biased social customs. “Back then I started to travel between my home in Dhahran, Riyadh and Jeddah, and I had more than 100 women coming to each workshop.”

She was surprised to witness the enthusiasm of these women who had no conception of contemporary art, as at the time there was no art system. “They just came because they trusted me, and they liked what the work represented.”

In this sense, working with the community in AlUla feels like coming full circle. “The Royal Commission for AlUla didn’t give me boundaries. They said: just dream, and we will make this work.”

Parallel between Manal AlDowayan’s work and the opening up of Saudi Arabia

There is an interesting parallel between Saudi Arabia, which is opening up culturally, and AlDowayan’s practice. In the themes she has explored through art, the artist was ahead of the curve, and now she is the most prepared to ride the sudden wave of change.

“If you look at my art, the very early works were done in the studio. I didn’t even leave my home. I felt constrained, and didn’t want to go out with my camera.” Then, she said, in the next set of works she did in 2009, she ventured out, into the area around her house.

“And then I decided to go even further in the Dammam region. But I didn’t go on the street; I was on the rooftops taking pictures, or videos from a car. And slowly, slowly, I expanded from these two-dimensional works to three-dimensional works. I then discovered the idea of participation, to bring women into my work, to have multiple voices.”

Being ahead of the time also means that she finds herself juggling between a lifetime of making work about the limitations of women, while having to dismantle prejudice towards Saudi Arabian women, which she often experienced in the West.

“I always say that the most restrictive perception about me is the Western one. When I show up in Saudi Arabia, I never feel shut down, or that my voice cannot be expressed. But Western publications love the narrative of the oppressed Arab woman. It gives them more clicks and likes. They just love to repeat a stereotype.”

Over the years AlDowayan has studied closely all the feminists of the Arab world and of the West who talked about intersectionality. She believes that the most weakening thing that women are doing is “othering” each other. “Some Western people would look at me and think: the poor Saudi,” she explained, and yet, with her piercing black eyes and fierce and warm personality, she seems to be anything but an oppressed woman.

“If we look at each other thinking, ‘I’m not like her,’ we are dismantling our strength as women. Patriarchy fragments us, so we must unite. We are alike, and our wishes and dreams are the same.”

At the Venice Biennale

Manal AlDowayan was chosen to represent Saudi Arabia at the 60th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia in 2024, held under the theme Foreigners Everywhere, with a work that will again be participatory, and based on the female experience in Saudi Arabia. “I knew in my heart that if I have arrived at that international platform it was because of these women who supported me, believed in me, trusted me. Of course, I will take their voice with me to this beautiful place.”

Her installation will reflect the Biennale’s theme of Foreigners Everywhere, namely exploring the figure of the outsider through installation and video art. “The process for the work at the Venice Biennale is similar to the one I have in AlUla; participatory, based on workshops,” she concluded. “I finished my last workshop in Riyadh last week. The women seemed to crave to be involved. We had 350 women taking part, and even had to turn some away. It was chaos, but such a deep pleasure. Such a deep pleasure.”

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