These Are The Saudi Women Shining A Spotlight On The Kingdom’s Art Scene
Saudi Arabia’s buzzing art scene is capturing global attention, and there happens to be a significant female driving force making it happen. From opening and curating art galleries to establishing foundations, there are women such as, Aya Al-Bakree, CEO of the Diriyah Biennale Foundation and Reem Sultan, CEO of Misk Art Institute that are paving the way for Saudi women in art across the world. In the past, in the kingdom, women were predominantly part of a “non-commercial” art scene, until 1999 which is when Princess Jawaher bint Majid Al Saud founded the Al-Mansouria Foundation in 1999, which was the first, established by a woman that looked to encourage and help develop local artists. She went on to establish 21.39 in 2013, which is an annual exhibition that invites international art curators, that also helps to highlight local talent.
Zahrah Al Ghamdi
Another significant Saudi woman in art is Zahrah Al Ghamdi, who represented Saudi Arabia in 2019 at the Venice Biennale, and is most noted for her work as a land artist for over 10 years. Having faced a number of challenges in trying to establish herself as an artist in the early 2000s within the kingdom, she took off to Coventry in the UK to study. Now, in 2022, Al Ghamdi is rubbing shoulders with a number of internationally renowned artists, including Richard Long who is a prominent British land artist that inspired her PhD research. Both Al Ghamdi and Long exhibited their work at the 2022 Diriyah Biennale.
Al Ghamdi’s work explored deserted mud houses found in Al-Turaif, and created an installation that featured the use of dirt, leather, and rocks, representing a “dying history.” Zahrah often works on large scale projects that are usually inspired by the speedy changes taking place in the kingdom, especially in the environment and urban spaces, whilst also using elements of the traditional architecture of Al Baha, where she is from. She uses materials such as acacia trees, plaster, mud, cement, date containers, construction textiles, for texture and for structural depictions she uses fungal networks, building plans, rivers, and walls to create her large scale pieces of art.
In a new wave of Riyadh based contemporary artists, Sarah Brahim stands out. She is a trained dancer and choreographer – just one aspect of her creativity – and a sculptor that creates using fabric. Brahim’s work explored the relationship between textile and memory for her thesis at London Contemporary Dance School in 2016, and one of her pieces included a handmade book that detailed the clothes her mother (who had passed) made and wore. Sarah Brahim’s work comes from a place of grief and pain and how it can consume the body, but her art is driven by research as she looks at subjects such as medical anthropology and public health in Portland which she studied at as an undergraduate - and where her Saudi father and her America-born Swedish- German mother met in the late 1970s at university.
Brahim’s work is performative, and rather novel in the kingdom, as she is one of very few who create this way in the country. Her first performance piece was at Bienalsur in Riyadh when she activated a sculpture by Carol Zech.
Balqis Al Rashed
Having spent much of her life in Beirut studying graphic design before returning to Saudi Arabia with her family back in 2010, Saudi artist, Balqis Al Rashed’s work was part of the closing performance at the Diriyah Biennale, that she had created alongside dancer Bilal Allaf. Her piece was a concrete wall she had built and burned incense. The performance was all about the dance between masculine and feminine, “public and private, sacred and profane,” which are common themes in her body of work. In 2014, she had created a controversial video series, “A State Of Play,” in which she conveyed a niqab wearing woman simply hula hooping in her home. The piece went viral on social media and was consequently taken down due to public outrage. Al Rashed maintains that this piece of work is still very much relevant today as it challenges perceptions and social norms, and the perception of what Arab women should be.