JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia’s relatively young history (the kingdom was established in 1932) is filled with gaps due to poor documentation and preservation efforts, especially when it comes to the many contributions of Saudi women. These contributions have been declared trivial, discarded, and sometimes unjustly attributed to men (i.e. their husbands or fathers). Any information on the role of Saudi women in society comes from previous generations, who retell those histories orally and rely solely on their imperfect human memory.
Efforts, however, have been made to remember the sporadic, yet significant achievements of women of the past. The endeavor of one particular curator is in itself a contribution to the urgent change. Anonymous: Was A Woman, a group exhibition at Jeddah’s newest venue, Hafez Gallery, focuses on the representation of Saudi women in art as depicted by 20 Saudi female artists across generations. “Women empowerment in our society is a subject I am passionate about,” said curator Samia Khashoggi, an art teacher, artist, art historian, and pioneering co-founder of Saudiaat, an art platform established in 2005 that focuses on Saudi female artists. “I wanted to explore the diversity in mediums and see how female artists have represented women in our society. I thought that would be interesting; women by women.”
In addition to the displayed artworks, a timeline was created to map out the achievements initiated by or involving women throughout the kingdom’s history, often noting the gaps and lack of details. The timeline provides a social, political, and economic context to the artworks in the exhibition, going back to the late 1960s onwards. Khashoggi made sure to note that the timeline was not the result of exhaustive academic research, as this would not be possible, but of histories as told by word of mouth.
The title of the show was conceived from what seems to be a frequently misquoted phrase from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman” (the original quote is “Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”) Woolf’s quote notes how women’s roles and conquests across disciplines were — and sometimes still are — ignored, replaced, and most often erased by men. In Saudi Arabia, while progress is slow and monotonous, it is happening, often appearing when you look closely from within the kingdom.
Anonymous beautifully demonstrates how Saudi women have documented their roles in society through their art. Art has basically imitated their life and though it might not have been made intentionally as a form of activism or demonstration before, it has grown to be in the last 20 years. Safeya bin Zager, credited alongside Mounirah Mosley as being one of the first women to hold a public art exhibition in Jeddah in 1968, often painted women in domestic roles, showcasing daily life in the multicultural and cosmopolitan Hijaz region (often referred to as the most relatively “socially liberal” part of Saudi). The figures wear elaborate and colorful clothes and are mostly depicted amongst their children or other women.
Safeya bin Zager’s paintings are paired with Manal Al Dowayan’s — a former ARAMCO employee who is now a leading full-time multi-media visual artist — I Am (2006), a series of photographs of Saudi women working in various professions, from medical doctor to engineer, from UN Ambassador to musician and writer, along with her now iconic photograph of a veiled lady holding a driving wheel from The Choice (2005) series (women are still not allowed to drive, and always need approval from a legal male guardian to travel anywhere). The contrast between the two artists’ artworks, I believe, sums up Saudi women’s perception of themselves from generation to generation: whereas older generations of women often believed they should confine themselves to domestic roles, contemporary generations are pushing back and eliminating these male projections, pursuing careers as engineers and civil servants, even if Saudi society still demands their legal male guardians’ approval.
Another important work featured in the exhibit is by young artist Basmah Felemban, titled “Nusseibeh bint Ka’ab and the Battle of Uhud” (2015), in which he has torn out a page from Saudi’s 4th grade curriculum history textbook on the Battle of Uhud (in which the Muslim community of Medina led by Prophet Mohammed fought against his enemies in Mecca, in 625). Through research, the artist discovered that Nusseibeh bint Ka’ab, an early female convert to Islam, entered the battlefield and shielded Prophet Mohammed from harm — yet her name is never mentioned in these history books along with his other disciples, warriors, and defenders in that battle. The artist added Nusseibeh bint Ka’ab’s name with a pen, placing it permanently among other prominent warriors, and cut out Islamic geometric shapes around the pages, as if to demonstrate how certain authorities like to redecorate history to fit their misogynistic agenda, by cutting out facts.
Najat Muthar’s painting, titled “A Man Has No Shame” (2014), shows a young girl, looking at her reflection in the mirror while holding a strand of her long hair against her lips to mimic a moustache, reminding every Saudi girl of the freedom her brothers enjoyed while she often felt caged, diminished, insecure, and cast out. Making them wish they were born men. The painting complements a video by Arwa Al-Neami where women enjoy a thrilling theme park ride, completely covered in black abayas (robes) and try their best not to scream, as signs across the park clearly state that women caught screaming loudly will be asked to leave the park (austere Islamists believe women’s voice should never be heard by male strangers in public).
The exhibition also features the short film “Sanctity,” by acclaimed Saudi film director, Ahd Kamel, which tells the tragic story of an unemployed and pregnant widow whose life comes to a halt after her husband dies, leaving her with no other legal male guardians. This particular issue is most evident in the kingdom’s largely male-dependent, impoverished communities.
Filwa Nazer’s self-censored photograph of a wedding uses abstract shapes to conceal the bridge and groom. By presenting this intimate moment in a public gallery, yet erasing all intimate features, the artist demonstrates how women are taught to self-consciously erase themselves and their identities from history. In contrast, a drawing by Nabila Al Bassam from 1973 shows carefree women dancing privately, without the company of men.
In this exhibition, art in fact represents the slow but hopeful, inevitable progress of basic women’s rights and equality in Saudi. Art itself has shifted from a mere hobby adopted by housewives to full-fledged rewarding careers for some talented Saudi women. These women’s artworks were acquired by the likes of the Tate Modern (Maha Malluh), British Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Manal Al Dowayan). For these women, art has become an essential and vital platform to challenge destructive social norms and daily trials, even if they are discussed in the most abstract way.
These women speak to and for their generation of Saudi women. As women’s rights and role in society progress in the kingdom, these artists march side by side with the rest of Saudi women, documenting their lives, achievements, and desires.
Anonymous: Was A Women continues at Hafez Gallery (Bougainvillea Center, 3rd floor, King Abdulaziz Road, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia) through April 10.
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