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Hend Al-Mansour: Saudi-American Artist Who Turns Women’s Stories Into Powerful Art

Al-Mansour is one of the best-known Saudi female artists and has been an important figure in the country's women’s movement.

Image courtesy of Richard Tsong Taatarii, "Star Tribune"

While she initially started her professional life as a physician, it was art that opened all the doors for Hend Al-Mansour, who has been on a mission to recapture the story of women in the Arab world through her art works. Her pieces reference gender politics in the region and are by and large an exploration of the complexities of faith, social belief systems and feminism today, with a focus on questioning women’s roles and their sexuality.

Heavily influenced by women’s stories and Islamic art, patterns and architecture, the Saudi-American artist is known for her printed silkscreens, installation art and portraits of women. As well as using vibrant colours, Arabic calligraphy, Sadou (Bedouin style) designs, silk screened, dyed or hennaed fabrics, the McKnight Fellowship recipient integrates stylised figures and faces intertwined with Islamic ornamentation, composed using repeated, patterned forms on her screen-prints. In her large-scale installations, Al-Mansour uses large sheets of silk, wool, canvas and other fabrics, and they resemble shrines, tents or mosques in which the viewer walks in. For authenticity, she uses details like archways, sand, decorative pieces like, let's say, a fabricated tea set, geometric sculptures and distinctive Middle Eastern scents.

The Hofuf-born visual artist, who was listed among the 100 most powerful Arab women in 2009, 2011 and 2012 in online magazine Arabian Business, has shown her work in regional, national and international exhibitions. One of her current exhibitions, “Homage to Fatmah Abu Gahas,” is taking place in Minnesota, where she lives with her husband. Recent past exhibitions include “Mihrab,” which was displayed in several places, including Michigan’s Arab American National Musuem, and “Radical Love: Female Lust.”

“In the first few years (of my shows), I found myself more or less educating people, trying to help them understand the basic thing, that women in the Arab world are not passive,” she told Saudi-based English language daily Arab News. “Later, the audience was more understanding. Especially now, as the Saudis are on the front pages, people understand more.”

 Al-Mansour, who earned the Jerome Fellowship of Printmaking in 2013/14 and the Juror’s Award of the Contemporary Islamic Art exhibition in Riyadh in 2012, has also lectured on Arab art and her personal journey and curated exhibitions featuring Middle Eastern artists. She is the co-founder of Arab Artists in the Twin Cities too and was a member of the Arab American Cultural Institute, where she promoted Arab culture in the West.

Although Al-Mansour loved to draw pictures as child, including carving large female figures into sand, art wasn’t’ her first vocation. She earned degrees in cardiology and internal medicine in Cairo, Egypt and went on to practise medicine for around 20 years. Her love for sketching was never totally forgotten though, and she made a name for herself for the images she drew in doctors’ rooms.  It was after she immigrated to the United States in 1997, after receiving a fellowship at Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic, that she fully embraced her love of art. She attended the Women's Art Institute at St. Catherine University and obtained her Master of Fine Arts from Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

“I wanted freedom of expression and freedom to be myself. It was really hard. When I realised how our conception of art in the Arab world was limited to Western art, the whole question of identity came to the fore,” she told Arab News.


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