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Manal AlDowayan Talks Upcoming AlUla Exhibit & Women’s Narratives in Art

Manal AlDowayan, a distinguished name in the realm of Saudi contemporary art, is poised to represent her nation at the 60th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia in 2024. Her multifaceted artistic journey, spanning over two decades, is a blend of photography, sound, sculpture, and participatory practice. AlDowayan's art delves into the complexities of traditions, collective memories, and the nuanced representation of women, making her one of Saudi Arabia's most significant contemporary artists. As she prepares for her upcoming exhibition in AlUla, Saudi Arabia, in February 2024, there's a palpable excitement for her participatory work that captures the narratives of local communities. This exhibition sets the stage for her era-defining commission for Wadi AlFann, due for completion in 2026.

Wadi AlFann, or 'Valley of the Arts', is a groundbreaking project transforming 65 square kilometers of the AlUla desert into a land art destination. Here, AlDowayan's "Oasis of Stories," an architectonic sculpture inspired by the mud walls of AlUla’s Old Town, will come to life, inscribed with personal histories from AlUla communities. AlDowayan's practice, a testament to her role as a keen observer of Saudi Arabia's cultural transformation, tackles themes of social injustice, collective memory, and women's roles and representation. Her notable participatory installations, such as "Suspended Together" (2011) and "Esmi-My Name" (2021), reflect her commitment to involving and resonating with her audience. Her recent work at the Guggenheim in New York, "From Shattered Ruins, New Life Shall Bloom" (2023), symbolized the shattering of oppressive narratives and the emergence of new perspectives.
As we engage in a conversation with Manal AlDowayan, we look forward to uncovering the depths of her artistic vision and the impact of her work in shaping contemporary art discourse.

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Evolving Artistic Expression

- Over your 20-year career, how have you seen your artistic expression evolve, and what have been some of the key influences driving this evolution?
There are some common threads that run through my practice, which can be found in my early works and in my works today; my home country - Saudi Arabia - and the interrogation of social processes. They are the driving forces behind my practice, as I embrace themes of invisibility, active forgetting and collective memory through a number of mediums, including photography, sculpture, textiles, and participatory installations.

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Participatory Art

- Your installations, such as 'Suspended Together' and 'Esmi-My Name,' have a strong participatory element. Could you share with us the importance of this approach in your work and how it enriches the narrative of your art?
The participatory action in my artworks is central to my practice. Creating artworks that engage the community while offering a platform for our experiences to be expressed using a shared voice. These artworks usually carry layers of expression and exist in a space that is part public and part private. I am an author and a mediator at the same time. Still these artworks will always carry a risk or a surprise that I cannot control, this is what I think is the most enriching element when working in participatory art

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Upcoming AlUla Exhibition

- As you prepare for your exhibition in AlUla, could you share how this location's rich cultural and historical significance has influenced the development of your forthcoming pieces?
AlUla is a captivating desert region in north-west Saudi Arabia, an ancient land full of stories and narratives. Numerous civilisations have passed through and lived here – they left their traces in the form of art engraved into the rocks, which allows us to learn about how they lived. Today, AlUla’s society is equally rich and complex. I am always fascinated by how narratives can be collectively remembered or forgotten across generations. I am also inspired by the sculptures and engravings found in the ancient tombs of AlUla, as well as by the region’s local folklore, poetry and crafts.

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Oasis of Stories

- Your installation for Wadi AlFann, 'Oasis of Stories,' is particularly intriguing. Can you give us some insight into the process of gathering personal histories from the communities of AlUla and how these stories will shape the final artwork?
I conducted participatory workshops in AlUla with participants including teachers, farmers, cooks, tour guides, artisans, students and more. I asked them to draw their personal stories onto paper – anything from personal memories to contemporary daily customs. These drawings and stories will eventually be inscribed onto the walls of my new work, Oasis of Stories, which will sit in the Wadi AlFann valley permanently from 2026. This will be a work for and by the people of AlUla – it will allow inhabitants of today to leave their permanent trace for the future.

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Women's Narratives in Art

- Much of your work powerfully reflects on the status and representation of women. How do you see your role as an artist in influencing societal perceptions and contributing to the cultural dialogue around women's issues in Saudi Arabia and beyond?
As an artist, I have always asked and answered questions regarding the visibility and invisibility of women, not only in Saudi Arabia, but also beyond. The biggest transformation I am witnessing today is the emergence of Saudi women into the public sphere. This complex transformation process within Saudi Arabia presents us with a new set of challenges, that demands our collective effort to understand and define. Through my art, I will continue to explore how women in Saudi Arabia find their space and voice in our changing country, whilst also highlighting what these issues could mean for women around the world.

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Personal Resonance

- Lastly, of all the artworks you've created, is there one that holds a particularly special place in your heart or resonates with you on a more personal level?
Not really. My artworks are a document of my life and my experiences. I don’t prefer one over the other, rather, I look at them as chapters of a large book. This book is still being written. Ask me this question again, once you see I have declared it is done.

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