As part of its Vision 2030 strategy, the Saudi government has been investing in promoting and supporting the arts, particularly the creative endeavors of the kingdom’s women. New scholarships and grants are emerging. Saudi Arabia returned to the Venice Biennale in 2019 after an eight-year hiatus. And in 2020, a partnership with the California-based group Desert X brought an incredible, Coachella-scale in-situ art show to the country’s western desert. Among the many powerful pieces displayed amid the sloping desert sand was an enormous, bright blue-shrouded sculpture depicting a woman, entitled “Najima (She Placed One Thousand Suns Over the Transparent Overlays of Space)” by the artist Lita Albuquerque. Read on to learn more about three female Saudi artists whose work you should know.
Manal Al Dowayan’s piece “Now You See Me, Now You Don’t,” shown at Desert X AlUla in 2020, looked deceptively simplistic, but its meaning was profound: The circular trampolines of various sizes that viewers were invited to jump on looked, from above, like eerie puddles, an oasis that served as her visual nod to the region’s water scarcity amid the changing climate. The Dubai-based artist who was born and raised in the country’s Eastern Province has, over the course of her career, also explored Saudi women and the intersection of the personal and the political, the modern and the traditional, via a multitude of mediums: black-and-white photography, video, sound pieces, sculpture and participatory installations. Al Dowayan’s 2005 “I Am” series was a collection of stark portraits of women, in traditional jewelry and dress, employed in various fields (I am ... a petroleum engineer, I am ... a scuba diver).
The Qatif-based artist with a master’s degree in digital media from the Rhode Island School of Design combines video, text and installation to powerful and poetic effect in her deeply relevant works that examine the thread between domestic and public life for Saudi women — and the impact of our collective overconnectivity. Her 2018 film The House That Ate Them Whole turned the idea of a domestic sphere on its head, in an evocative story about a house that, dreaming of freedom, devours its tenants.
Exploring issues of gender and cultural identity are central to feminist photographer Nouf Alhimiary’s work, which she sees not simply as art for art’s sake but as an opportunity to effect broader change. The Jeddah-born, London-based artist is concerted in her effort to uplift Saudi women in her work, as in 2015’s “Desire to Not Exist,” which probes the assumptions made about the image of a veiled woman. Or “What She Wore,” which made it to the Venice Biennale, wherein Alhimiary offers her own incisive spin on the social media-borne “outfit of the day” trend; in her series of images, all the women wear the mandatory abaya, a meditation on the relationship between identity and individuality. “In my work, the female takes the lead,” Alhimiary says. “She is the central theme and the most interesting topic, specifically Arab women’s identity in the current state of the world.”
Learn about its galleries, and all the artists you need to know, here.