One Saudi woman’s visual Journey of Belonging

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Updated 23 January 2013
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One Saudi woman’s visual Journey of Belonging

Manal Al Dowayan’s first solo exhibition in the Kingdom has been a long time coming. And when her exhibition finally opened last weekend at Athr Gallery, it deservedly received wide acclaim and excitement, especially among the art enthusiasts who have been following her work outside the country. 
The photographer’s solo exhibition titled ‘A Journey of Belonging’ displays collections of old and new works produced between 2009-2012: “The state of disappearance”, ”If I forget you, don’t forget me”, “We had no shared dreams”, ”Landscapes of the mind”, ”Pointing to the future”, and “Look beyond the veil”.
“The state of disappearance” is the artist’s personal investigation into the portrayal of Saudi women in the printed media and newspapers in particular; expounding on the misrepresentation of a large section of Saudi women who are typified shrouded in veils.
A glass-enclosed newspaper spread to the sharp eye reveals the same recurrent photograph, which appeared repeatedly in publications under different contexts. 
Al Dowayan obsessively gathered this collection of newspaper clippings, painstakingly over a period of two year, to accentuate the abject stereotyping of Saudi females, which according to the artist do not represent the individual Saudi woman.
This may in fact be an ironic attempt by the system to preserve what seems to be a losing endeavor. 
Borrowing archaic words not currently used in contemporary language from the ancient book “Jurisprudence of a Language: The Secrets of Arabic”, penned in the 10th century by Abu Mansour Al-Tha’alby Al-Naysaboury, she places words across images of women as presented in the media, thereby staging a parody and creating an obvious conflict with the play of words and images.
“If I forget you, don’t forget me” is a visual recreation of her late father’s collective journey at Aramco, along with other families who worked together in the oil business; a testament to the realization of dreams with the creation of an oil wealthy Saudi Arabia. 
This collection is a photographic reconstruction of the past drawn from the longing to reconcile the present with an un-visited future. The inconsistent placement and juxtaposition of odd objects found at her father’s office, thrown together in a quiet arrangement, tells stories, speaks of memories and exhibits pride toward the shared achievements of a generation gone by.
“We have no shared dreams” is a personal investigation into the schizophrenic relationship between the urbanite and the city. It is a conversation with a city that responds in silent indifference to the frustrated plea of its inhabitants. The collection of photographs largely shot on rooftops and in moving cars, draws its subjective premise from the expectations of a city dweller seeking to understand, accept and achieve his/her goals through the city’s landscape.  
“Landscapes of the mind” battles the concept of space and geography, boundaries and backdrops in the context of personal symbolism. The artist plays the role of observer, director, informer and participant in perceiving the interplay of space with self.
It is the excavation and understanding of the space one belongs to and yet must remain apathetic with. This particular collection is Al Dowayan’s most defining work that sets the tone for her visual precept in exploring spatial relationships whether in time, space or context in her following works.
“Pointing to the future” and “Look Beyond the veil” are older works by the artist that address the status of women as integral participating members of the Saudi society, questioning the validity of traditions wrongly spangled with religion and cultural discourse that limit the potential of women. 
The fabric and spirit of the female presence is examined and re-iterated through expressions of bold presence, dreams, beauty, and found and unfound freedoms.
The exhibition ‘A Journey of Belonging’ will continue until Feb.16 at Athr Gallery.

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Middle Eastern art exhibition celebrates life and work of Kahlil Gibran

Updated 16 August 2018
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Middle Eastern art exhibition celebrates life and work of Kahlil Gibran

LONDON: What is it about the work of the famed Lebanese poet, writer and artist Kahlil Gibran that touches the hearts of so many people across the world today, decades on from his death in 1931? An exhibition of art inspired by his writings held this month at Sotheby’s in London provided an opportunity to consider that question
“Kahlil Gibran: A Guide for our Times” was organized by the peace building movement, Caravan, and co-curated by Janet Rady and Marion Fromlet Baecker. It featured work by 38 artists from across the Middle East. The vision for the exhibition grew out of a recent book on Gibran titled “In Search of a Prophet: A Spiritual Journey with Kahlil Gibran” by the Rev. Canon Paul-Gordon Chandler, Caravan’s founding president.
Chandler is committed to breaking down cultural, racial and religious barriers. Through the Caravan initiative he has hosted numerous exhibitions using art to build bridges between the Middle East and the West. He sees the message contained in Gibran’s 1923 book “The Prophet” as profoundly relevant today.
Speaking to Arab News at the packed-out event, he said: “All the artists in this exhibition are trying to express how they have been inspired, challenged and encouraged by Gibran’s themes of peace, love and harmony for all of humanity. The thread running through all the work is the unique role that Gibran plays in reminding us that we are one family.
“The idea of the Caravan movement is that we are all journeying together, regardless of background, tradition or religion,” he continued. “The arts have a unique role in peace-building between the Middle East and the West.”
Lebanese-Syrian artist Rana Chalabi, who was raised in Lebanon, said she first read “The Prophet” at school, but made a point of re-reading it several times before starting work on her contribution to the piece, “On Giving.”
Her painting shows a throng of people gazing upwards at a transcendent figure — the Prophet — who seems to shimmer above the multitude in hues of gold.
“To me, Gibran’s Prophet represents an enlightened mystic,” she explained. “He was so ahead of his time and such a spiritual person.”
For Chalabi, Gibran’s work continues to resonate. “The wisdom of Gibran is very much needed today,” she said. “He could explain his ideas in a simple way to people. In his day he was misunderstood and branded a heretic by those who missed the essence of what he was saying and took his teachings at a very superficial level.”
Chalabi was clearly pleased to have been invited to submit work to Caravan’s exhibition.
“I believe in what Rev. Chandler is trying to do,” she said. “We have to bridge the differences in the world and try to understand each other’s religions, cultures and perspectives.”
Bahraini artist Lulwa Al-Khalifa showed a striking painting of a woman, titled
“Blind Faith.” The starkly expressive figure looks perplexed and stares out from the painting with an abstract and tense expression.
Al-Khalifa said: “There are a lot of emotions I wanted to convey through this work. I was exploring the concept of faith and how sometimes people have to abandon some of the ideas that give them their own sense of identity and take a leap of faith. I consider the question ‘How much of you are you prepared to surrender for your faith?’ Faith is surrender with cause but without proof. Sometimes people have to face ambivalence, fear and anxiety on this journey.”
Al-Khalifa also stressed how relevant Gibran outlook remains today.
“I love how Gibran explored many aspects of many themes. His thought process is very fresh and modern — even today,” she said. “It is not rigid, but very hopeful and expresses love and acceptance.
“I really believe that all people are united as human beings. But we try so hard to separate from each other, even though in reality we all have the same concerns and loves and hates. We should come together,” she continued.
Lebanese artist Christine Saleh Jamil echoed Al-Khalifa’s sentiments. “Gibran means so much to me. Reading his book ‘The Prophet’ taught me a lot about life, how to live peacefully and accept things in a harmonious way,” she said. “His message is very important today.”
Jamil created “The Wanderer,” a captivating image of Gibran as a child, for the exhibition. Her work, she said, was based on a photograph and inspired by Chandler’s book, which, she said, “took me back to my childhood in Beirut.”
“That’s why I chose to represent Gibran as a child and in this image you see his face set among birch trees, as he loved nature,” she explained.
Lebanon’s ambassador to the UK, Rami Mortada — a special guest at the event — spoke to Arab News about Gibran’s legacy.
“The interest shown here tonight and the big turnout is an indication of how the message he stands for is relevant, badly needed and timely in our world today,” Mortada said. “It is a message of harmony and peace, of removing barriers between nations and cultures, and of interfaith dialogue. This is what Gibran encapsulated. If I had to sum up his work up in one word, I would say (it is) inspirational.”
Another ambassador, Dr. Alisher Shaykhov from Uzbekistan, stressed that Gibran’s work is of truly global significance.
“Gibran’s fame extends far beyond the Middle East. He is a person who has succeeded in transferring the spirit of the Islamic people in a harmonious way,” he observed. “One of his most important messages is that of the unifying elements, rather than the differences, between religions. He has a gift of being able to express the feelings of the people. The artists here, imbued with his spirit, have transferred his message through their artworks in their own personal way.”
Art enthusiast Mira Takla said she had attended a number of ‘Caravan’ art events and always found their message very persuasive.
“As far as I am concerned these events do more for interracial understanding and comprehension and tolerance of different cultures than many other such initiatives,” she said.
Another guest. Anthony Wynn, gave a good example of Gibran’s cross-cultural appeal, pointing out that he had often heard Gibran quoted at weddings in the UK — particularly a verse from “On Marriage” from “The Prophet”:
“Love one another, but make not a bond of love/Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls/Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup/Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf/Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone/Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.”