LONDON: The UK-based Saudi Arabian contemporary artist Daniah Alsaleh is a calm, level-headed character, in person. But she admits that her recent receipt of the Ithra Art Prize — an annual award for Saudi, or Saudi-based, talent, launched in 2017 by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) in collaboration with Art Dubai — has had a dramatic impact on her hitherto quiet life.
Alsaleh is currently halfway through her Masters in Fine Art at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her specialty is Computational Arts — a fast-evolving sphere that brings together the latest technological and cultural developments. When we meet in her light-filled London studio overlooking the Grand Union Canal near Notting Hill — where she is preparing “Sawtam,” her Ithra-commissioned art installation that will be shown at Art Dubai in March — she is still coming to terms with her win.
“It came as a shock. I was so delighted and enthralled that I was chosen by such a prestigious judging panel. It took a few days for things to settle down and for me to realize what had happened. I wasn't aware that it was so important to win this prize. It is a significant one — the most important in Saudi and in the Gulf region as well,” she says. “The financial support goes up to $100,000, depending on what the manufacturing of the piece costs.”
She explains the vision behind “Sawtam.”
“I have had this idea brewing in my head for a long time. The piece is based on deconstructing the Arabic language to its tiniest form, which is the phoneme (or ‘sawtam’ in Arabic). I didn't sit down and think about this in a concrete form or research the topic until there was the open call from Ithra, at which point I decided to try and put the idea into action. I sat for weeks reading about it and envisioning how it would look.”
After submitting her proposal, she says, she “forgot about it.”
“Obviously, as an emerging artist you face a lot of challenges and disappointments and this gives you a thick skin,” she explains. “So I just sent it in with no expectations. Then in December, I received a message and phone call telling me I had won the prize. I was over the moon.”
Alsaleh used her own voice to record the 28 phonemes (the smallest units of spoken language) which are the building blocks of Arabic. Visual images created by the sound waves of each one will appear on 28 dedicated screens. “Sawtam” is a fusion of sound and vision with both a cerebral and emotional pull.
The idea, she says, came from an abstract vision of wind chimes. “The chimes move and sound in tandem with the wind — sometimes a gentle breeze, sometimes a stronger gust,” she explains.
Alsaleh felt it was important to use her own voice in the work, seeing it as symbolic of the increasing recognition that women in general are beginning to enjoy in the Kingdom.
“With the changes in Saudi Arabia, women are more prominent now. Many are holding very high positions,” she explains. “So I can use my own voice to say, ‘I am a female. I am a Saudi. Here I am.’
“I hope other female artists will be encouraged to go out there and try and send proposals and act upon their dreams,” she continues.
Alsaleh, who was born and raised in Riyadh, says she fell in love with art when she was young, and has never lost her fascination for it. As a child, she recalls constantly sketching in her text books, or whatever paper she could lay her hands on — particularly if she was bored in school — drawing anything and everything she saw.
But it was her journeys overseas with her family that really opened her eyes to the possibilities of art. “When we travelled and went to art galleries, I would stop — mesmerized by the work,” she says. “I was in a happy place. I wanted to draw like that person — to color like that person. It was always there.”
After her high-school graduation, Alsaleh’s ambition was to study fine art. Her parents, however, advised her to take a more-practical subject that was more likely to lead to a secure career. So, she took a course in Computer Applications at King Saud University.
She married and moved to Jeddah. As a way of meeting new friends, she enrolled in some art courses at Darat, the private gallery of Saudi artist Safeya Binzagr. One of those courses was taught by Scottish artist Dorothy Boyer, who became something of a mentor to her. Over the years, Alsaleh seized every opportunity to enroll in art courses both in Saudi and abroad. “I learned things I never dreamed I could do,” she says.
She was becoming increasingly confident in her abilities. And while she was still making art solely for herself, she was starting to develop an identity by incorporating Islamic geometry into her work. “I always found it beautiful and wondered how I could move it forward and make it contemporary,” she explains.
Encouraged by support from local galleries, Alsaleh began showing her work — first in Jeddah, then in Riyadh — and quickly discovered that there was a high level of interest in what she was doing. The curators of the first edition of 21,39 — the annual art festival held in Jeddah and run by the Misk Art Institute — invited her to take part. “And that’s when everything took off,” Alsaleh says.
Four years ago, Alsaleh finally realized her dream of studying fine art when she was accepted into Goldsmiths MA program.
“It's new-media arts; far removed from the idea of the lonely artist in the studio attic,” she says. “It's a computational course catering to artists including dancers, choreographers and musicians. They teach you a lot of code programming. It’s such a challenging course, but it's amazing because they give you the possibility of pushing boundaries and working across disciplines.”
And while she’s quick to say that she misses Saudi Arabia and the comforting presence of family and friends in her neighborhood, she has no regrets about her move to London.
“Everything has its own time and place. To grow and move forward you have to be very disciplined with yourself and not become too attached. Be open to trying new things. That's how you evolve as an artist and a person. I won't let nostalgic feelings hold me back,” she says.
Alsaleh is too busy looking forwards to let that happen. And her immediate focus is on perfecting her Ithra prize-winning submission — an entirely new, and imaginative, way of presenting the essence of the Arabic language.
“I am eagerly anticipating seeing the kind of emotions people will experience when they are immersed in the work,” she says.