JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — In the Arab world, it’s not an easy task to voice an opinion that goes against the cultural norm. The average person would usually be shunned for doing so, often persecuted. But over the past eight years, in the Middle East’s most conservative corner, Saudi Arabia, some have been able to get their hands on a great weapon: art. Accepting the terms of censorship and finding a way to integrate them into their work, artists are able to get away with subversion when government or religious officials ask what their art means.
A recent demonstration of this comes from Arwa Al Neami, a young artist from the greener, cooler part of southern Saudi Arabia who is showcasing her latest series, Never Never Land, in a group exhibition (with the same title) at EOA.Projects in London. The collection of photographs and short videos triggers an immediate interest in how awkward some of them look — funny, uncomfortable, perhaps shocking, even to an open-minded Saudi Arabian like myself. They are pictures of fully veiled women at public theme parks, riding the Drop Zone and bumper cars. Al Neami has also captured large signs at the entrance of the park and all around the interior, which say (roughly translated): “It is strictly prohibited to lift the abaya (black robe) and show the pants and to scream during the rides, and whoever violates these rules will be taken off the ride before completing it.”
In order to take these pictures, Al Neami had to visit the parks with her large camera — not an easy task. “I went to several theme parks around Abha for three days in a row. I decided to go in the evening, as I thought it was safer not to get caught,” the artist told Hyperallergic. “I would hide the camera inside my abaya and try as much as possible not to be obvious. It was quite difficult, and some women who noticed me scuffed and cussed. But a few seemed alright; they would playfully hold up the peace and heart signs.”
It’s impossible to know who the women in these photographs and videos are, but observing their behavior, especially in the short videos, is entertaining. As the artist explained, her intent is to offer us humor, although upon further contemplation, the images also evoke sadness.
Restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia follow them everywhere, from education and the workplace to transportation and even a simple local festival. Al Neami noticed plenty of other signage around the parks segregating men and women in queue lines, specific entrances and exits for each gender. Plexiglas partitions blocked views between men and women where rides crossed; fences prevented them from seeing each other. Another sign, stenciled on one of the rides, said, “Muslim sister, uphold the hijab (body cover) as Allah ordered you.” What struck Al Neami most was the placing of a heavy leather blanket on women on some rides, so that the blowing wind would not “show the pants.”
In the video of the bumper cars, the women try to drive safely and avoid actually hitting cars. In the video of the Drop Zone, they scream, and of course, their abayas lift a bit and their pants show. “I had to hide behind a wire mesh fence, where I stuck the camera lens and discreetly shot women enjoying the Drop Zone ride and screaming,” said Al Neami. Both videos are funny but also disheartening, especially when you see how the women on the Drop Zone quickly react and try to put their abayas back into place instead of just enjoying the ride, like their male counterparts would. “There were indeed some women who were asked to step down from the rides because they were screaming ‘very loud,’” Al Neami said. I wondered how anyone could tell which women were responsible.
“I knew that backlash is inevitable,” she added. “And I already had plenty of criticism from both sexes, mostly on social media.”
The title of the series speaks to the idea of theme parks themselves — places where you can escape the mundaneness of daily life and find the careless child within you, like in Never Never Land. Another reading, especially in this context, would be as an epizeuxis, demanding or forbidding someone from doing something, as in, ‘never never do that again.’
What’s most fascinating is the extent to which people will go to conform to their ideologies, defying the joy of screaming on a rollercoaster. And how a young artist can defy austere conventions and capture humor in a sad situation.
Never Never Land continues at EOA.Projects (40 Elcho Street, London) through January 31.