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Art & Culture

Saudi artist explores ‘A Journey of Belonging’

Athr Gallery is ushering in the new year with renowned Saudi artist Manal Al-Dowayan’s first solo exhibition in the Kingdom, which kicked off yesterday and runs for a month. The exhibition, entitled “A Journey of Belonging,” introduced the artist’s new work, as well as seminal work from her previous series, in an exploration of her frequent voyages into the past in search of understanding and mutual acceptance.
Photographer, visual poet, and artist Al-Dowayan is one of the most recognized and critically acclaimed new wave of Saudi contemporary artists. She has exhibited globally, from Belgium to Bahrain, and her artwork has been acquired by collections such as the British Museum, Nadour, Barjeel and the Jordan National Museum of Fine Art, amongst many others.
With the intersecting of key works from the artist’s different series under one roof, a pattern emerges, a common thread weaves itself through her works that gradually alters and transforms, but remains unbroken. A journey comes to light. A Journey of Belonging allows the viewer to approach Al-Dowayan’s work from a new perspective. There is a paradigm shift in focus, with controversial issues of women’s rights and identity, normally associated with the artist’s work, fading into the background, and the artist’s personal fears and obsessions coming to the fore.
Specializing in photography, Al-Dowayan’s varied series consistently presents meditations on the complex textures of a paradoxically evolving and traditional society, along with a distinct, deep-rooted sense of personal and collective history. Thus, the exhibited work reveals a young woman’s obsession with preservation and remembrance, and constitutes a fight against rejection and disappearance.
Featured series such as ‘Pointing To The Future’, ‘Look Beyond The Veil’, ‘Landscapes Of The Mind’, ‘And We Had No Shared Dreams’ and ‘Blinded By Tradition’ display the artist’s progression and creative evolution over the years. Through these discrete series of works, Al-Dowayan not only explores the role of women in Saudi Arabia, but also reflects upon a wider reality in which gender equality is symptomatic of power hierarchies, dogmas, interplays with foreign cultures and shifting domestic social attitudes. Whilst her primary medium is photography, series such as ‘Point To The Future’ further demonstrate how the artist amplifies her characteristically monochrome compositions with lyrical visual language.
Another recurring topic in Al-Dowayan’s work is the relationship of the individual to their environment. For instance, Al-Dowayan explores manifestations of progress and change in the physical textures of the country’s geography in ‘Landscapes Of The Mind’, which uses various locations around the country to frame deft, simple glyphs representing the self, and the individual’s relationship with her surroundings. The artist places herself amidst these symbols, relenting her hold upon her own identity and becoming indefinable and ephemeral against monumental natural and urban settings.
Similarly, the series ‘We Had No Shared Dreams’ is a conversation between the inhabitant and the landscape in which she lives, but to which she longs to belong.
‘If I Forget You, Don’t Forget Me’ reflects on the profound shifts in Saudi society over the past fifty years, documenting the rise of the oil industry through the individuals who were there at the start of the oil boom. Al-Dowayan goes beyond a narrative re-telling of contemporary social evolution and instead looks for her own identity and self amidst the turbulent histories of immediately preceding generations, hoping to discover amidst the plenitude of the past, clues and possibilities for the uncertain future.
In her latest body of work, Al-Dowayan continues to explore the practice of preservation via one of the oldest and time-tested means of documentation, language. In particular, Arabic, a language lauded for its beauty and complexity.
Athr Gallery has selected works that show Al-Dowayan’s evolution as an artist, as a Saudi woman and as a lightening rod for sparks and flashes of progress and change within the strictures of her environment. Ultimately, the exhibition gives a unique and candid perspective of the intense and idiosyncratic relationship that exists between a woman and her homeland.

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