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Saudi artists forge creative partnerships on US art trip

The Crossway team with students from the University of Texas in El Paso. (Photo by Majid Angawi)

Two young Saudi artists are standing in an expansive white desert – but they far away from their homeland. They are in New Mexico, US, at the breathtaking White Sands National Monument, surrounded by 710 sq km of white gypsum.
The artists, Ahaad Alamoudi and Basmah Felemban, gave Arab News vivid descriptions of the places they visited on their recent two-week tour of the southwestern US organized by the Crossway Foundation and Art Jameel. They traveled alongside eight other emerging artists from Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Syria, Egypt and Pakistan who were selected from over 100 Crossway Foundation alumni following an Open Call this summer. Along the way they collaborated with local arts and social organizations in both Texas and New Mexico.
Alamoudi is in the final year of her MA program at the Royal College of Art and Felemban is in the final year of her MA at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, founded in 2004 by HRH The Prince of Wales. The Prince’s School grew out of the Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts Programme (VITA) established at The Royal College of Art in 1984 by Professor Keith Critchlow.
Both students said the experience of traveling across the US with artists from different creative disciplines and countries had opened up new ways of thinking about their art. Meeting with the townspeople they encountered on their journey had also been a great experience and had helped them to see the country from perspectives based on their own personal encounters.
“Everyone we visited in the small towns was really welcoming. We always felt comfortable,” said Alamoudi.
With the US election campaign then in full swing, they met people from both the Republican and Democrat camps and observed: “In the news, especially in relation to the coverage of the elections, you can get a lot of negative messages. But the people we met shattered the stereotypes on both sides of the contest.”
One of the places they found especially inspirational was Marfa, Texas, which has been called one of the last American frontiers. It is situated at an altitude of 4,830 feet above sea level in a semiarid region.
Marfa was the film location for James Dean’s final picture, Giant, which also starred Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and Dennis Hopper. In 1971, Donald Judd, the renowned minimalist artist, moved to Marfa from New York City with the intention of permanently installing his art. Judd acquired an entire Army base, and before he died in 1994, he filled it with art, including light installations by Dan Flavin and Judd’s own signature boxes. One hundred of them made of silvery milled aluminum are housed in two old brick artillery sheds. They sit in perfectly quiet rows, glowing or seemingly translucent, depending on the light.
Another high point was The Lightning Field (1977), a land artwork in Catron County, New Mexico, by sculptor Walter De Maria. It consists of 400 stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips, arranged in a rectangular 1 mile × 1 kilometer grid.
Alamoudi, who placed her own hand-crafted clay date palm trees along the route, commented: “The Lightning Field really resonated with me. We traveled 45 minutes off-road to get to this remote place. I strongly related to the landscape art – especially in the context of my own palm tree project. It was really inspirational in terms of thinking of a space as part of your artwork. Formerly, I thought of an artwork just as an entity in itself – I didn’t think of the space surrounding it as being a part of the piece itself.”
Asked about the thinking behind her date palm concept, she explained:
“I see my placing of date palms in the US as an act of forming a bridge between Saudi Arabia and the USA. Throughout history, date palm trees have offered sustenance wherever they are found. So these trees that I left behind are a symbol of the culture of my country and a personal gift from me. I left them in good faith – not knowing what would happen to them.”
For Felemban, whose work has always been in black and white and highly structured, the trip was a turning point in how she views the use of color.
“I have always struggled with color – even at school. I don’t like the idea of just putting colors together to make a pretty effect. Now I have found a way of making color a theory; the colors now make sense to me – the colors of space. So this trip has helped me to be experimental and creative as an artist. When you become a commercial artist, it is all too easy to conform to the demands of the market, avoid risk and end up never producing work that you actually want to create.
“Trips like this and residencies are very good for giving you more space to experiment and let loose,” she said.
She created a video presented at the conclusion of the tour to demonstrate her way of interpreting the landscapes.
“I came up with the idea of documenting space through color palettes. I color-matched the places we visited. If I liked an art work, for example the Lightning Field, because I am neither a photographer nor an illustrator – I would document the color palette.”
She found the whole experience and collaboration with other artists energizing and liberating.
“My work has always been very structured and organized. I went to the US with the attitude that I wanted to be more experimental. Two weeks away from school and being somewhere new – in nature and focusing on minimal art – was really helpful to me. The Lightning Field is a perfect grid but it is in the middle of nowhere. I was able to explore a middle ground between wild expanses and structured elements.”
Felemban, who has interned with the prestigious architectural firm Foster + Partners, was asked about her love of Islamic art and her view of how artists interact with their surroundings.
“Sacred art and the language of geometry resonate with me. It is so broad and has so much symbolism and philosophy. My internship with Foster + Partners made me appreciate and respect how the mind of an architect works. Their brains have to constantly balance the elements of function and design. Every beautiful design element has a function.
“Perhaps contemporary artists have forgotten the practical considerations which led artists in the past to use particular materials according to location, setting or even climate. Now we have art that is not going to last for the next 100 years because we are not thinking in such a practical way.
“We need to think of ourselves as people involved in society, as activists, as entrepreneurs, teachers and mentors. My course at the Prince’s School is challenging; it is very traditional – for example, you have to use natural pigments. My natural element is contemporary but this approach pushes me to be a better artist.”
Elaborating on her view of Islamic art, she observed: “Most western audiences are not aware of the architectural significance and quality of Islamic patterns; how they are made, the construction lines, how they tessellate. I thought it would be interesting to create work about this but also to conceptualize it – so it is not just a process of how to make an Islamic pattern. The idea is to compare Islamic patterns with social fabric. One unit is a pattern within itself but it is also open to connecting with other units. It has the ability to be independent but also able to be flexible. I love to compare people to patterns, our ability to be symmetrical and asymmetrical.”
Both Felemban and Alamoudi are planning to return to Saudi Arabia after finishing their studies next summer.
Alamoudi said: “I see myself going back to Jeddah working in the educational field or perhaps as a freelance artist. I want to produce work. Within our generation there is an awareness of the importance of art to culture and to society. The Internet and social media has had a big impact – and artists such as Abdulnasser Gharem, Manal Al Dowayan and Ahmed Mater have led the way and given others a platform to pursue art as a career. It’s really an interesting time in Saudi Arabia right now; there are many new galleries and exhibitions.”
Felemban is keen to work in education. She commented: “Girls like us are very lucky; we have families who support our choices and we have had the opportunity to attend prestigious art schools. There are many women with the same passion and eagerness to learn. It is our responsibility to return and give back.”
Looking back over the amazing trip, she was asked if there was anything that she had not expected. She replied with a laugh, remembering her visit to a family ranch in New Mexico where she rode the horses: “One of the most surprising things for me was that cowboys are real! The cowboy lifestyle is real.”
Alamoudi concluded: “My objective was to understand a new landscape that I have never visited. I found it intriguing, exciting and beautiful.”

Email: [email protected]

Two young Saudi artists are standing in an expansive white desert – but they far away from their homeland. They are in New Mexico, US, at the breathtaking White Sands National Monument, surrounded by 710 sq km of white gypsum.
The artists, Ahaad Alamoudi and Basmah Felemban, gave Arab News vivid descriptions of the places they visited on their recent two-week tour of the southwestern US organized by the Crossway Foundation and Art Jameel. They traveled alongside eight other emerging artists from Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Syria, Egypt and Pakistan who were selected from over 100 Crossway Foundation alumni following an Open Call this summer. Along the way they collaborated with local arts and social organizations in both Texas and New Mexico.
Alamoudi is in the final year of her MA program at the Royal College of Art and Felemban is in the final year of her MA at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, founded in 2004 by HRH The Prince of Wales. The Prince’s School grew out of the Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts Programme (VITA) established at The Royal College of Art in 1984 by Professor Keith Critchlow.
Both students said the experience of traveling across the US with artists from different creative disciplines and countries had opened up new ways of thinking about their art. Meeting with the townspeople they encountered on their journey had also been a great experience and had helped them to see the country from perspectives based on their own personal encounters.
“Everyone we visited in the small towns was really welcoming. We always felt comfortable,” said Alamoudi.
With the US election campaign then in full swing, they met people from both the Republican and Democrat camps and observed: “In the news, especially in relation to the coverage of the elections, you can get a lot of negative messages. But the people we met shattered the stereotypes on both sides of the contest.”
One of the places they found especially inspirational was Marfa, Texas, which has been called one of the last American frontiers. It is situated at an altitude of 4,830 feet above sea level in a semiarid region.
Marfa was the film location for James Dean’s final picture, Giant, which also starred Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and Dennis Hopper. In 1971, Donald Judd, the renowned minimalist artist, moved to Marfa from New York City with the intention of permanently installing his art. Judd acquired an entire Army base, and before he died in 1994, he filled it with art, including light installations by Dan Flavin and Judd’s own signature boxes. One hundred of them made of silvery milled aluminum are housed in two old brick artillery sheds. They sit in perfectly quiet rows, glowing or seemingly translucent, depending on the light.
Another high point was The Lightning Field (1977), a land artwork in Catron County, New Mexico, by sculptor Walter De Maria. It consists of 400 stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips, arranged in a rectangular 1 mile × 1 kilometer grid.
Alamoudi, who placed her own hand-crafted clay date palm trees along the route, commented: “The Lightning Field really resonated with me. We traveled 45 minutes off-road to get to this remote place. I strongly related to the landscape art – especially in the context of my own palm tree project. It was really inspirational in terms of thinking of a space as part of your artwork. Formerly, I thought of an artwork just as an entity in itself – I didn’t think of the space surrounding it as being a part of the piece itself.”
Asked about the thinking behind her date palm concept, she explained:
“I see my placing of date palms in the US as an act of forming a bridge between Saudi Arabia and the USA. Throughout history, date palm trees have offered sustenance wherever they are found. So these trees that I left behind are a symbol of the culture of my country and a personal gift from me. I left them in good faith – not knowing what would happen to them.”
For Felemban, whose work has always been in black and white and highly structured, the trip was a turning point in how she views the use of color.
“I have always struggled with color – even at school. I don’t like the idea of just putting colors together to make a pretty effect. Now I have found a way of making color a theory; the colors now make sense to me – the colors of space. So this trip has helped me to be experimental and creative as an artist. When you become a commercial artist, it is all too easy to conform to the demands of the market, avoid risk and end up never producing work that you actually want to create.
“Trips like this and residencies are very good for giving you more space to experiment and let loose,” she said.
She created a video presented at the conclusion of the tour to demonstrate her way of interpreting the landscapes.
“I came up with the idea of documenting space through color palettes. I color-matched the places we visited. If I liked an art work, for example the Lightning Field, because I am neither a photographer nor an illustrator – I would document the color palette.”
She found the whole experience and collaboration with other artists energizing and liberating.
“My work has always been very structured and organized. I went to the US with the attitude that I wanted to be more experimental. Two weeks away from school and being somewhere new – in nature and focusing on minimal art – was really helpful to me. The Lightning Field is a perfect grid but it is in the middle of nowhere. I was able to explore a middle ground between wild expanses and structured elements.”
Felemban, who has interned with the prestigious architectural firm Foster + Partners, was asked about her love of Islamic art and her view of how artists interact with their surroundings.
“Sacred art and the language of geometry resonate with me. It is so broad and has so much symbolism and philosophy. My internship with Foster + Partners made me appreciate and respect how the mind of an architect works. Their brains have to constantly balance the elements of function and design. Every beautiful design element has a function.
“Perhaps contemporary artists have forgotten the practical considerations which led artists in the past to use particular materials according to location, setting or even climate. Now we have art that is not going to last for the next 100 years because we are not thinking in such a practical way.
“We need to think of ourselves as people involved in society, as activists, as entrepreneurs, teachers and mentors. My course at the Prince’s School is challenging; it is very traditional – for example, you have to use natural pigments. My natural element is contemporary but this approach pushes me to be a better artist.”
Elaborating on her view of Islamic art, she observed: “Most western audiences are not aware of the architectural significance and quality of Islamic patterns; how they are made, the construction lines, how they tessellate. I thought it would be interesting to create work about this but also to conceptualize it – so it is not just a process of how to make an Islamic pattern. The idea is to compare Islamic patterns with social fabric. One unit is a pattern within itself but it is also open to connecting with other units. It has the ability to be independent but also able to be flexible. I love to compare people to patterns, our ability to be symmetrical and asymmetrical.”
Both Felemban and Alamoudi are planning to return to Saudi Arabia after finishing their studies next summer.
Alamoudi said: “I see myself going back to Jeddah working in the educational field or perhaps as a freelance artist. I want to produce work. Within our generation there is an awareness of the importance of art to culture and to society. The Internet and social media has had a big impact – and artists such as Abdulnasser Gharem, Manal Al Dowayan and Ahmed Mater have led the way and given others a platform to pursue art as a career. It’s really an interesting time in Saudi Arabia right now; there are many new galleries and exhibitions.”
Felemban is keen to work in education. She commented: “Girls like us are very lucky; we have families who support our choices and we have had the opportunity to attend prestigious art schools. There are many women with the same passion and eagerness to learn. It is our responsibility to return and give back.”
Looking back over the amazing trip, she was asked if there was anything that she had not expected. She replied with a laugh, remembering her visit to a family ranch in New Mexico where she rode the horses: “One of the most surprising things for me was that cowboys are real! The cowboy lifestyle is real.”
Alamoudi concluded: “My objective was to understand a new landscape that I have never visited. I found it intriguing, exciting and beautiful.”

Email: [email protected]

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