Over the last year, the Saudi state has initiated many unprecedented reforms aimed at promoting art, culture, female empowerment, and even opening up to tourism. Although this has come as a surprise for many around the globe, in the Kingdom, Saudis have been ready to embrace social change for a while. And despite the preconception that creativity is quasi-inexistent in the orthodox country, a strong grassroots scene has been evolving, with artists subtly merging visual elements of their work with political reflection and critique. And women in particular are leading the movement.
We caught up with four Jeddah-based female artists to find out their hopes and the challenges they face.
Sarah Mohanna Al Abdali, 29
My inner circle has always been supportive and I feel that I get a few opportunities because I am a woman. What’s interesting though is that the local scene is male dominant, and that means that we need more women running galleries and opportunities to create their own narratives. In general, we lack a critical environment and it’s about time to question certain dynamics in the art scene in order for it to grow. I still have doubts pursuing it as my only career. It costs a lot to be an artist! And as long as it will be limited through the support of very few entities, which target a certain niche, it will always remain limited.
Reem Alnasser, 30
In my opinion, Jeddah is a really productive and inspiring city for an artist. I have so much fun doing what I do here. Through my work and the conversations that I have with the community, I’ve been able to find many answers to existential and artistic dilemmas. We have built a really strong community and it’s so nice. I don’t remember encountering challenges because of my gender to be honest. Art is really booming right now and people are realising how much it’s important for our society. My gallery is really supportive and many initiatives are supporting us. We’re living a great time and I’m embracing it.
Filwa Nazer, 30
When I was growing up during the oil boom in the 80s and 90s, it was much more challenging to make the decision to become an artist. So I actually studied fashion design, because I felt like it was my only alternative choice until I felt confident enough to really embrace my real passion. There have been a lot of changes in the past year and a half but in fact, the contemporary art scene has been organically growing for longer than that. But it’s true that very recently, there’s been a stronger and more honest interest in our work and people actually care about understanding our language and culture. It’s exciting seeing our government supporting us. It’s all thriving at the moment and there’s a huge energy in Jeddah. Following the 21,39 fair this year, there’ve been a lot of critical debates and conversations, which I found so great and exciting. But I have to say that it’s still not easy to find the right spaces, assistance and facilities. Funding is a struggle as well. Having said that, limitations can nonetheless be positive. It pushes me to improvise, to look for alternatives and it’s really stimulating, as long as the limitations don’t really hold me back of course.
Asma Saleh, 38
I feel very happy to have grown up in the old city of Jeddah, very close to my family and particularly to my father, who sculpted iron. He taught me patience and my love for art and manual work. So when he passed away, it was obvious I wanted to study fine arts at an academic level. I feel extremely inspired by my city, my environment and work happily as an artist here and I hope to continue, even more powerfully than ever, to transmit a realist understanding of my world.