read: this blog post will not be about oil paintings.
A couple of weeks ago in my class on the “Society and Politics of Saudi Arabia” we had the pleasure of a guest lecture with artist and photographer Manal al-Dowayan
It is true that Saudi Arabia is in many ways very different from the UAE, but the two countries have much in common. They are young nations in the gulf region attempting to reconcile strong religious beliefs with an increasingly globalized world, the residents of which do not universally share said beliefs. They may handle things differently, but their struggles are strikingly similar.
Because both countries are so new, the art culture seems to be a contemporary
art culture. In asking around about where to see Abu Dhabi art, nearly everyone mentioned Art Dubai
(and usually only Art Dubai). From their website: “Over the last six years, Art Dubai, the leading international art fair in the MENASA (Middle East/North Africa/South Asia), has become a cornerstone of the region’s booming contemporary art community.”
Manal, as she insisted on being called, lives in and was raised in Saudi Arabia, but has studied and exhibits regularly in the UAE. She is actively involved in “the region’s booming contemporary art community,” including a project called “Edge of Arabia
She describes her work as being about “belonging,” and her search for her place in her society. Take, for instance, “If I Forget You Don’t Forget Me
,” a series of photographs of the belongings of men and women whom she calls “oil people.” When Manal’s father passed away, she began to think about the questions she wished she had asked him and realized that his generation was beginning to pass away without leaving behind a collective memory for her generation. These people, whose lives have revolved around their careers in the oil industry, had the unique experience of knowing their land before and after the discovery of this game-changing natural resource. She set out to tell their stories through art.
Much of her work also focuses on the experiences of women in her country. Her collections are often based on an interpretation of cultural phenomenon, like the state rhetoric about the sort of jobs that suit a woman’s nature
, the fact that there is a shame in saying the names of one’s wife or mother
rather than identifying them by their son’s names, and the many limitations on women’s actions
This sort of artwork is not, as de Botton describes, about a depiction of the artist’s appreciation for a place’s beauty. It is about the people who inhabit that place and their struggles and successes. Her work does not give us a new perspective on the physical landscape of her country. It shows us, instead, a new perspective on what it might mean to be a Saudi citizen, and Arab, and a woman. It opens up a conversation about the societal landscape, if you will.
This is the work of contemporary art writ large, and it is vital work in a region that is changing so rapidly.