Her growing up in the oil compound of Saudi Aramco can be likened to the life of “army brats”, who live inside the impenetrable ring of protection, privilege and promotion, barricaded from the banality of commonplace civilians.
Saudi artist Manal Al-Dowayan chose to step outside the protective boundaries. She wandered off, away from the barbed wires and unfettered independence, and traveled far and wide with her camera in hand to document a life far removed from the perimeters of utopian boundaries.
Last week marked her first solo exhibition in the Kingdom and Arab News’ editor Rima Al-Mukhtar talked with Al-Dowayan.
Arab News: When you first stepped out of your house to shoot “Landscapes of the Mind”, how did people react to your camera?
Manal Al-Dowayan: I didn’t go very far from my compound, where women go unveiled and drive a car. I was within one mile of my house, but stepped into another world. It was different, it was easy: walking down the streets, going to the mountains, taking pictures. For my series “We have no shared dreams”, I went into the city and that was a challenge. I started shooting drive-by. Not people, of course. I also did a lot of photo shoots from rooftops of buildings, a very isolated experience. And the thing you get out of the experiment of trying to get a photograph in Saudi is that challenges can lead to creative results.
AN: Your work has been labeled feminist. What do you think about that?
MD: I’ve been called that many times because my work has a lot of issues on women’s empowerment but only because of the experiences I’ve had.
I used to fight it but when I actually sat down with a Saudi feminist and we had an interesting conversation about the idea of feminism, I changed my mind. In the West, feminists have gained the reputation of being too extreme and shave their heads. Here, we don’t do that. We do need people to push women’s rights. So yes, I’m a feminist.
I don’t like labels. They even exist in the art world. Like… Middle Eastern art… Arab women’s art… But then I think these labels help people understand what they see. Once they feel safe to look at art, they have the chance to explore it.
Maybe the next generation won’t need labels to bring people through the door of a museum or gallery.
AN: Women are now included in the Shoura Council and you also talk about women’s issues in your photographs. What’s the one issue that you’re keen to fix?
MD: Women driving. How can you be financially independent when you can’t even reach your workplace? Movement is the most restrictive thing that exists in our country.
AN: Is the guardianship issue not bigger? To be financially independent you need to have a guardian to get a job.
MD: Yes. OK, let me tell you a story. My installation “Suspended Together” consisted of flying doves with traveling permits. I arranged for women to send them to me. The installation was never shown in Saudi Arabia, because nobody wanted to deal with bringing it in. I thought it was going to be censored and people would talk about it, but nothing happened. I was surprised that Saudi Airlines’ inflight magazine had a four-page spread about this project with close-ups. It’s not like they didn’t notice. So you start wondering how open our society is to dialogue. And it makes you think that I have my own prejudices and own red lines that I’ve created. In reality, nobody has reacted to it negatively and attacked me for it, because people believe it’s an issue they can have a dialogue over.
It seems that my art is giving a certain message about other women. In reality, it is my personal feelings about issues that impact only me. My new collection talks about the media’s representation of women, which is deeply offensive to me. When other women connect to my artwork it becomes a larger issue that concerns all women. I don’t mean to do that when I first start it. I don’t do art on behalf of women, I do it behalf of me but it resonates with other women. I’m glad other women connect with it.
For more information on the artist, visit www.manalaldowayan.com.