The fledgling contemporary art scene in Saudi Arabia is starting to attract strong international interest, from curators and collectors from the Middle East but also Europe and the US. By the end of this year, both Christie’s and Sotheby’s will have staff based in the country, and last year at Christie’s in Dubai Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem set the price record for contemporary Arab art when his sculpture “Message/Messenger”, representing the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, sold for $842,500. There is obviously no shortage of well-heeled potential collectors, and Paul Hewitt of Christie’s has compared the emerging market in Saudi Arabia to that of Russia and India.
Manal al-Dowayan, the biggest-selling female Saudi artist, has also achieved six-figure sums for some of her works, among them “Suspended Together”, a flock of doves hanging from the ceiling formed from the paper chits signed by male guardians to allow women to travel. The fact that al-Dowayan’s piece makes such a frank comment on the highly restricted lives of Saudi women reflects the obstacles that some artists still face, and there is a growing band of female artists who, subtly or overtly, are challenging social norms. Last month, the first symposium on Saudi art and culture was held in Jeddah. This, in a country where even playing music in public is banned, was remarkable enough, and more so because, corralled at the back of the segregated auditorium, women outnumbered men in the audience two to one. In January the first major public display of contemporary Saudi art opened in the city, tellingly entitled We Need to Talk, in which over a third of the works on show were by women.
Christie’s was the sponsor for the event, organised by the arts initiative Edge of Arabia. Its director Stephen Stapleton is enthusiastic about the contemporary work coming from Saudi artists, work that “has an energy to it, not weighed down by the history of art, and is easily understood, therefore, by all”. He agrees that women are in the forefront: “In Saudi Arabia, more women make art than men.”
But for these women, it’s hardly easy. “At my first exhibition in Riyadh I wasn’t even allowed to stay in the gallery with my art when the men came to look round,” al-Dowayan says.
In her latest work, she is challenging a new taboo gaining credence across the country that forbids men from mentioning women’s names in public – even their own mothers’. She holds workshops in schools and villages to encourage women to shout out and paint their names on to wooden spheres that she hangs from the ceiling like an enormous rosary. The effect of the installation is humbling and poignant.
This new and extreme stricture about naming is a product of a growing religious extremism. “The problem we have in Saudi is a fear of change and the radicals, both old and young, are the people most afraid of it,” says Maha Malluh, an artist in her forties, whose most recent work, “Food for Thought 7200”, uses audio tapes distributed by Islamic radicals in the 1980s. But art, Malluh believes, will be a way of gently modernising the society.
“We want change but we want it in accordance with our tradition and religion. We need to build our future from our heritage. Art is essential if we are to move forward,” she says.
Five years ago the ban on photography in public places was lifted and here Malluh, like many of her artistic sisters, excels. Her ghostly photograms of her domestic trappings – coffee pots, hairpins, handbags – are intended to reflect the obsession in her society, “with tiny things”.
Certainly, the place encourages a focus on detail: among a gaggle of women dressed entirely in black, the tiniest details – the scalloped embroidery on a hem, how a headscarf is folded – declares the wearer’s identity.
But Malluh says she is no revolutionary, merely mirroring the facts of her society. Other younger artists are more unbridled in their criticisms of the system. Sarah Abu Abdullah is, at 22, one of the youngest women artists of the group. “I don’t own myself,” she says. “I feel I don’t have a voice when my face is covered, so I let my brother speak for me as I can’t be bothered. I can’t have my own apartment. I can’t choose who I want to get married to. My mother married at 15. And my grandmother too – but in those days she was allowed to sit alone with her male cousin in a way I could not do nowadays. Some fight their families but they always end up miserable.”
Abu Abdullah’s work “Anees 9999” in the We Need To Talk show was a video expressing her frustration at not being allowed to drive. It shows her painting pink a car crashed by the side of a road, slaving away in the hot sun, sweltering under her abaya; the film concludes with her slumped, defeated, in the passenger seat, leaving the viewer as despairing as the artist herself.
Despite the country’s increasing number of religious militants, however, the Saudi government apparently agrees with Maha Malluh’s view that art is essential to progress. There’s a long way to go: as yet, there are no art schools, public art galleries or even cinemas in Saudi Arabia.
But change is afoot. Last year, for the first time, Saudi Arabia took a pavilion at the Venice Biennale, where it showcased an installation based on the Kaaba – the cube-shaped building in Mecca that is the most sacred site in Islam – by two sisters, Raja and Shadia Alem. Dr Abdulaziz al-Sebail, Saudi Arabia’s former culture minister, spoke to Edge of Arabia of an “intellectual and ideological upheaval in Saudi society” and other voices testify to a new spirit. The Jameel family, supporters of Edge of Arabia, are planning a new contemporary art museum for Jeddah in the next five years.
Art, it seems, is vital to the aim of rebranding of Saudi Arabia – to its own people as well as to the outside world – as a place that is not just about men, money and oil, but cultured and tolerant too.