Saudi artists interpret Arab culture
Saudi artists interpret Arab culture
The whole premise is hilarious; the vanity of the designer and her customer — a gullible and spoilt ambassador’s wife. Both need each other to further their ambitions; the designer to raise her profile, attract more prestigious clients and build her business, and the hapless client as a lady who must at all costs outshine everyone else even it means going well beyond sensible boundaries.
Fardaous, the designer, is fawning in her flattery of her client, and the client vain to the point of not being able to see how crazy she looks in the ridiculous headpiece that at the push of a button can rise to a towering crescent — from normal to four times its height.
When she is being measured for her hijab, Fardaous suggests adding a bit of padding to the bust and backside to make her more alluring beneath the flowing garment. This is a really funny cross-cultural moment because many women in tight, figure hugging western dresses are resorting to the same ploys for the same reason.
Fardaous takes over-the-top pride in showing off her beautiful house and pool which she has bought with the proceeds of her successful business. She is shown relaxing by her pool covered completely and asks ‘So you think we Arab women do not sunbathe?’
She is endearing and comic and it is this gentle approach that makes it possible to share the joke and recognize the human failings that happen when fashion is taken to extremes no matter what the cultural context.
Another quite mesmerizing work is the video made by artist Riffy Ahmed who co-curated the exhibition. Ahmed, who studied Fine Art: New Media at Central St Martins and Chelsea School of Art, is keen to challenge the way that women from MENA cultures have been depicted in the Orientalist tradition.
Her black and white film in the style of an old movie, depicts herself reclining on a divan; an exotic creature who gazes out at us in a pose that is both haughty, sensual and mysterious. At that moment, with that gaze, she embodies the exotic ideal that is so often seen in Orientalist depictions of women. Then, suddenly, she breaks the pose, gives a deep, bored sigh and slumps back on the cushions; in an instant the whole image of the alluring siren is shattered. We see an ordinary women, flicking through a magazine, munching sweets and quite clearly a person very far removed from the fantastic vision that the artist was trying to frame.
Ahmed, who was born in Manchester to Bahraini/Bangladeshi parents said that she is constantly questioning the stereotypes that place women in fixed frameworks.
Speaking of her video she said: “In those orientalist photos — that gaze was created by the French - they exoticised the woman through these poses. We keep seeing those images but it does not mean it was the actuality.”
She explained that the idea of the Arab-b-less exhibition was to examine how women of Arab backgrounds manage to make sense of their cultural heritage while living outside of Arab lands. What were the blessings and the drawbacks? What was gained and what was lost?
She said that she wanted to show not the historic frameworks but the real, living contemporary experience: “I am changing it by showing that I am bored with the framing and I want to make it something new.”
The exhibitions co-curator, Sarah El-Hamed, said of the vision behind the concept: “Ara-b-less? is the idea of it being a blessing because it is something beautiful and diverse that we should share, and at the same time you have to question yourself all the time about who exactly you are and how much you are part of one side or the other.
“Everyone you see in this exhibition, including the curators and the producers, has a sense of belonging to a culture that we don’t live in — because we are third generation kids. We live in the Western world so we are not that linked to our parents and grandparents culture, but at the same time it is deeply engraved in us so in our daily lives we have to struggle.”
El-Hamed’s video performance ‘Mots pour maux’ shows a woman during a ritual which she explained drew on Berber traditions. El Hamed is inspired by her cultural roots and influences: “I am Algerian on my mother’s side and my stepfather is Syrian/ Lebanese. I have grown up with these three cultures in my background. After the Algerian civil war in the 90s I moved to France and then to the US. Home is Paris.”
She said of her culture: “Berber women were never victims. We have Berber queens that led wars; they are powerful women and often were there to make decisions in the village.”
Of the woman in the video she said: “She is a sorceress — she is looking for her powers. The man can assist her but he does not put shade on what she is doing — he is just there to assist her — he is not threatening her and she is not threatening him. He is there to assist her in the ritual she is going through.”
She reflected that women need to find the space to connect with their deepest feelings and intuition: “I feel that with regard to intuition and feelings of that sort — in our western world where everything is very fast, we don’t hold on to these signs. Sometimes we go past them and don’t see how important they can be to our balance. Trying to see how things were done in generations before us, we can stop and take the time to unfold signs in our life and thus find our balance.”
Arab News was delighted to catch up again this year with Saudi artist Wejdan Reda who curated the installation ‘Exclusion’ featuring works by Saudi artists Arwa Al-Neami, Sarah Attar, Meaad Hanafi and Wa’ad Al Mujalli. ‘Exclusion’ was featured in a University of Westminster exhibition featuring the work of its art graduates earlier this year. Reda is now planning to study for an MA and is considering offers from such prestigious institutes as the Royal College of Art and Goldsmiths.
The ‘Exclusion’ installation housing the artists’ work takes the form of a purpose built structure referencing traditional housing in the Hejaz region. The public and private faces of women and their place in society are explored in highly creative ways.
Reda said that she was delighted that that the artwork had been included in the Saatchi exhibition.
“The curators of the event were very generous to give me this opportunity to participate, as Saatchi Gallery is known as one of the top galleries in the world. I was so happy to get this opportunity and for them to believe in me, especially as I have only just graduated from university,” she commented.
She is currently back in Jeddah preparing for the next stage of her art education; she plans to study for an MA in Curating for Contemporary Art.
“At this stage I am trying to acquire the funding necessary to complete my education. I am undertaking independent curating work and planning my next exhibition over the next few months. I am also seeking other opportunities to work either as a curator or assistant curator in Saudi,” she explained.
A highly provocative work was presented by Palestinian artist, Shadi Alzaqzouk. In the gallery a white woman knelt on a patch of soil. She knelt in front of an artwork showing the same image of a Muslim woman kneeling on a patch of earth before a defaced Arc de Triomphe in Paris. She is surrounded by rabbits which he said were a reference to how some people sneered at Muslims in France for ‘breeding like rabbits’. She wears a row of horns planted on her headscarf to make her like an alien. He said he hated the way Muslims were regarded in Paris and admitted that he was very angry about his mother being refused a visa to visit him from Gaza last year.
His anger he says makes him provocative and through his animated conversation you could sense that his feelings are strong and personal. He was born in Benghazi in 1981 and spent his early years as a refugee in Libya. In 1996 with the signing of the Oslo Accords he and his family along with 30,000 Palestinians were expelled from the country and returned to Gaza. Since 2007, he has lived and worked in Paris. Alzaqzouq’s work recently featured as part of Banksy’s ‘Dismaland’, Weston-Super-Mare – a glum take on Disneyland.
Ara-b-less is part of the Nour Festival of Art which celebrates contemporary arts and culture from the MENA region. Roya Arab, Nour Steering Committee member, commented: “What is excellent about this exhibition is that it brings together youth, art and the Arab world.”
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