2017: Looking back on the year that was

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From left: Sophia the robot, designer Azzedine Alaia, Rayouf Alhumedhi and Abdulhussain Abdulredha.
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The opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in November 2017 was a huge cultural event.
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‘Salvator Mundi’ became the most expensive painting ever sold at auction.
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French-Tunisian fashion designer Azzedine Alaia died on November 18.
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Rayouf Alhumedhi made headlines with her hijab-clad emoji proposal.
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It is never too late to dress up and have fun.
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Saudi Arabia-based comic fans enjoyed the Comic Con.
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Kuwaiti actor Abdulhussain Abdulredha died at the age of 78.
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Greek maestro Yanni performed to cheering crowds in Saudi Arabia.
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Sophia the robot was given citizenship by Saudi Arabia.
Updated 31 December 2017
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2017: Looking back on the year that was

From music to art, 2017 has been a year of momentous change in Saudi Arabia and wider Gulf region. As the year draws to a close, it is natural to take a moment and reflect on the year that has passed and if anything can be said about 2017, it should be that it has been a year of change — from politics, to entertainment to trends. As we are now closer to 2030 than we are to 1990 and we imagine what the future will bring, we can find guidance and inspiration from the stories that shaped this year in the Gulf.

Announcements in art
The opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in November 2017 was a huge cultural touchstone for not only the UAE, but for the GCC region. Although there are numerous museums throughout the Gulf, the Louvre Abu Dhabi ushered in a new era of art to the region. The museum, opened with a visit by French President Emmanuel Macron comes a decade after France and the UAE agreed to a 30-year partnership initially reported to be worth $1.1 billion, including nearly half a billion dollars for the rights to the Louvre brand alone. The museum has already proven itself to be a popular destination, with tourists flocking to revel in art from history's greatest masters.
In early December, it was announced that the museum would exhibit Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Christ, “Salvator Mundi,” which at $450.3 million became the most expensive painting ever sold at a New York auction last month, Reuters reported.
“Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi is coming to #Louvre Abu Dhabi,” Louvre Abu Dhabi said on its twitter feed on Dec. 6.
It did not say whether the piece would be on permanent display nor did it shed any light on the buyer’s identity.
Not only did art come to the region, but the region also continued to share its art with the world throughout 2017. Most recently, 15 artists from Bahrain showcased their art at the prestigious Saatchi Gallery in London. All works were under the theme of “Diversity.” London’s Design Museum also announced that it would be honoring French-Tunisian fashion designer Azzedine Alaia, who passed away on Nov. 18, with a major exhibition showcasing more than 60 pieces “personally selected by the iconic designer.”

A fashion forward year
In the world of fashion, December saw the first Modest Fashion Week to be held in Dubai, which celebrated modest fashion and style in spectacular style at Burj Park, under the lights of the Burj Khalifa. Over the two-day event, more than 300 modest looks were showcased, led by leaders and trendsetters in the modest fashion world.
Dubai was not the only city to pay homage to modest style, the hijab and abaya took center stage during New York Fashion Week in September as up-and-coming Indonesian designers kicked off a diverse fashion week, hoping to change prejudices in the West.
Speaking of hijabs, 2017 also saw Time magazine place a 16-year-old Saudi girl on its “30 Most Influential Teens” because she proposed Apple’s new headscarf-wearing emoji.
Rayouf Alhumedhi sent a proposal to The Unicode Consortium, a non-profit corporation that reviews and develops new emojis and was met with praise for her idea.
It seemed to be the year of the hijab as the maker of Barbie also announced in 2017 that it will sell a doll modeled after Ibtihaj Mohammed, an American fencer who competed in last year’s Olympics while wearing a hijab.
Mattel Inc. said the doll would be available online next fall. The doll is part of the Barbie “Shero” line that honors women who break boundaries.

Exciting entertainment
Ushering in the beginning of a new era for the country, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Information announced in December that cinemas would be opening in 2018 — for the first time since the 1980s. The announcement was welcomed with enthusiasm by the public and arts community alike, with Saudi director Ali Alsumayin, previously telling Arab News: “Just now we can talk about the movie industry in Saudi where the viewers can live the full experience of movie magic. When a person finds the time and the money to go and watch a movie in a cinema, the pressure on moviemakers is great to produce something worth the time and the money spent by the audiences.”
The opening of cinemas will come on the heels of a year that saw an immense change for the Kingdom, with Comic Con, the popular culture convention, held in Riyadh for the first time in November, welcoming “Game of Thrones” and “Justice League” star, Jason Momoa and regional rapper, Qusai.
Hollywood megastar John Travolta also made his first-ever appearance on a Riyadh stage in December, spurring the hashtag #John_Travolta_in_Riyadh as excitement for his visit spread. The actor spoke to a full audience of 2,000 about his journey to fame at the Apex Convention Center, delighting his fans.
Gulf entertainment lost a great this year, with the passing of the Kuwaiti actor Abdulhussain Abdulredha, who passed away at the age of 78 in London. Abdulredha gained critical acclaim for his portrayal of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in a play in the 1980s and was admired for his ability to perform social and political commentary in a comedic manner and gained fans across the Arab world with his iconic monologues.
In record-breaking, lighter news, Ahlam, the Arab world’s “queen” of pop, become the first female Arabic singer to perform at the Dubai Opera when she sang her famous catalogue of hits, from “Aghla Insan” to “Makani.”
The Dubai Opera was not the only venue in the Gulf to host concerts, with Saudi Arabia holding the Kingdom’s first female-only concert with Yemeni-Emirati singer Balqees Fathi. Mobile phones were prevented from being brought into the concert to make the atmosphere more comfortable for female attendees so that a good time was ensured.
Yanni, the famous world musician, also held six concerts across the Kingdom, in Jeddah and Riyadh. Originally slated for four shows, Yanni increased his performances to six due to the huge demand and excitement for the performance. The 63-year-old enjoyed a great reception from fans as the popular concerts, supported with a 12-piece orchestra, enthralled families for almost two hours per show.

A robotic first
In October, Saudi Arabia became the first country in the world to naturalize a robot as a citizen when it bestowed the rights to “Sophia,” a robot designed by Hong Kong-based company, Hanson Robotics. In an exchange during her unveiling, Sophia said “I want to live and work with humans so I need to express the emotions to understand humans and build trust with people.” Saudi Arabia also announced plans to open a $500 billion city of robots and renewables in the Kingdom’s Red Sea coast, as part of a national push to diversify its economy. Known as NEOM, this zone will be 26,500 square kilometers focused on industries including, biotechnology, food, energy and water, advanced manufacturing and entertainment.

Driving change
In an announcement that sent ripples around the world, Saudi Arabia in September stated that it would allow women to drive in the Kingdom, as part of a string of social and economic reforms underway in the country.
Women across the Kingdom celebrated while car makers were quick to target the new market of female motorists in Saudi Arabia. Within hours of the news becoming public, car manufacturers from Ford to Jaguar were jostling for position in the race to win the attention of the lucrative new market.
So, as we roll into 2018, we can keep an optimistic eye on the development of music, art, and culture in a country and wider region that has oh-so-much to offer.


‘Atlas of Beauty’: A Romanian photographer captures images of female beauty that defy every stereotype

Updated 16 July 2018
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‘Atlas of Beauty’: A Romanian photographer captures images of female beauty that defy every stereotype

  • Since 2013, Mihaela Noroc has photographed over 2,000 women in more than 50 countries, listening to their stories and learning about their lives.
  • For Noroc, beauty is diversity. She believes each one of the “shining stars” in her book radiates dignity, strength and beauty. 

JEDDAH: We live in a world where female beauty standards vary but are all socially and culturally constructed. The Romanian photographer Mihaela Noroc traveled that world with her camera and backpack, photographing women in their everyday surroundings and listening to their stories. The result is the “Atlas of Beauty.”

Since 2013, Noroc has photographed over 2,000 women in more than 50 countries, listening to their stories and learning about their lives.

“I noticed that there is a lot of pressure on women to look and behave a certain way,” she told Arab News.

“In some environments, it’s the pressure to look attractive. In others, on the contrary, it’s the pressure to look modest. But every woman should be free to explore her own beauty without feeling any pressure from marketing campaigns, trends or social norms.”

For Noroc, beauty is diversity. She believes each one of the “shining stars” in her book radiates dignity, strength and beauty. 

During her five-year odyssey, there have been tremendous ups and downs. Yet, with each country, Noroc never failed to tell the story of the woman in her photographs. Some countries were deemed dangerous — but she traveled there anyway. 

“In Afghanistan, I traveled in a remote area called Wakhan Corridor. The fighting was very close, condemning this place to total isolation,” she said. “People were living like their ancestors lived hundreds of years ago, so photography was a miracle for them. They were incredibly happy to see themselves in photos and I was invited to every home to photograph each member of the family.” 

Visiting North Korea, Noroc was accompanied by local guides as she walked the streets to get a glimpse of women in their daily routines as if nothing was out of the norm. 

“There is a lot of pressure on women to look a certain way, so sometimes it’s a struggle to be yourself, to make yourself accepted as you are. But I hope this project will encourage more women and men to follow their own path, to explore their own beauty without feeling constrained.”

Traveling as a backpacker introduced Noroc to all kinds of environments. She has captured beauty in Brazilian favelas, in an Iranian mosque, on the Tibetan plateau, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, the Amazon rainforest, upscale neighborhoods of Paris, downtown New York and more. 

She focuses on photographing the environment around the women, and prefers to photograph their natural faces, without a lot of makeup.

Noroc also makes sure that she chats with her subjects while the photographs are being taken — she is an excellent conversationalist. 

Woman shopping at a market in Nampan, Myanmar.

“Many of the women I photograph are in front of a professional camera for the first time. This isn’t bad at all because they are more authentic. For even more authenticity, I always use natural light. Through my camera, I try to dive into their eyes and explore what’s inside.”

Each image is raw, colorful, delicate, intimate, striking and empowering. A Jordanian Bedouin grandmother sits with her children and grandchildren in the background, the woman’s deep wrinkles revealing her desert life living off the land.

Another image shows the resilience in the striking green eyes of a Syrian refugee with her two daughters in a camp in Greece. In Jodhpur, India, a young woman heads to the market in a vibrant fuchsia outfit and silver jewelry. 

“There is much love, beauty and compassion in the world and I see it with my own eyes. Yet a few sources of hate and intolerance can ruin all this. Many times, the victims of intolerance are women, and while on the road, I hear many heartbreaking stories,” she said.

Gauri, an Indian from Kolkata, India, sells splendid flower garlands at a Hindu temple. Female “bomberas” (firewomen) in Mexico City. Sisters Olga and Anya, street performers from Odessa, Ukraine. Eleonora, a ballerina from St. Petersburg, at one of the most prestigious dance schools in the world. A Mayan descendant in Guatemala donning a colorful dress and posing in her village. These are just some of the stories in the “Atlas of Beauty,” yet the journey is continuing since there are no limits to beauty in this world. 

“For me, beauty is diversity and it can teach us to be more tolerant. We are all very different, but through this project, I want to show that we are all part of the same family. We should create paths between us, not boundaries,” said Noroc.