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Art & Culture

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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