Small, striking, with red dyed hair, and 78 years of age, Safeya Binzagr is known in Saudi Arabia as the “Mother of Art,” a titled rightly earned given her decades-long journey to becoming the iconic artist that she is today. Binzagr’s fame started exactly half a century ago, when she held her first exhibition in Saudi Arabia, immediately putting her on the map of talented female artists from the region. Just two years after that, in 1970, she became the first woman to hold a solo exhibition of her work in Saudi Arabia, in the city of Jeddah. According to The National, there were no galleries in the city at the time so Binzagr’s works were displayed at the Dar Al-Tarbia Al-Hadetha, a school for girls.
Born in 1940 to a wealthy merchant family, Binzagr has been an icon for both female and male artists in Saudi Arabia. The renowned painter started began her life in Jeddah and then moved to Cairo, Egypt with her family when she was seven. After years of receiving private art lessons, she moved in 1965 to Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, graduating with a degree in Drawing and Graphics.
According to the portal Destination KSA, Binzagr started out producing simple drawings of the Kingdom’s social history. From there, she developed her skills, following years of private tutoring and practice. Using various mediums, ranging from oil paint, watercolor, pastel, drawing, and etchings, Binzagr’s work often centers around daily life in Saudi Arabia and celebrates Hijaz heritage as well. She also helps to preserve Saudi heritage through her work by researching social customs, collecting traditional and old costumes, as well as photographs, which she classifies based on regions.
Binzagr has a deep sense of connection to her art. Each piece she creates is a product of her memories, emotions, and feelings. Selling the paintings meant parting with this sentiment, and so after the first exhibition she decided to never sell a painting again. In 2000, she opened her own museum, a first for any artist in the Kingdom. The Darat Safeya Binzagr houses both her paintings and a growing collection of costume and jewelry from Saudi Arabia, making it an important cultural institution in Jeddah.
In 2017, she was awarded First Class honors in the Order of King Abdulaziz. Her paintings represent scenes of Saudi Arabia’s past: the Mahmal, or ceremonial palanquin, being carried through Jeddah before the Hajj; a woman sitting on the floor combing her hair as her servant holds up a mirror; young boys playing the marbles-like game of Al Kubush, which makes use of bones from the joints of goats or camels.