Meet Daniah Alsaleh, winner of the Ithra Art Prize 2019

Daniah Alsaleh the winner of the Ithra Art Prize 2019. (Supplied)
Updated 25 February 2019

Meet Daniah Alsaleh, winner of the Ithra Art Prize 2019

  • UK-based Saudi Arabian Daniah Alsaleh won the Ithra Art Prize 2019
  • The win has had a dramatic impact on her quiet life

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.


Emirati horror movies explore region’s fascination with the supernatural

Updated 47 min 6 sec ago

Emirati horror movies explore region’s fascination with the supernatural

  • Horror films are fast emerging as a notable genre within the UAE's film industry
  • Horror films need neither big budgets nor marquee names to be effective

DUBAI: Whether it’s an audience need for escapism or a way to explore danger safely, horror films are fast emerging as a notable genre within the fledgeling Emirati film industry.

Several recent films have braved cinematic elements in recent years. Tobe Hooper’s “Djinn,” produced by Abu Dhabi production house Image Nation, broke the mold in 2013, and set new records as it explored the region’s fascination with the supernatural.

Emirati filmmaker Nayla Al-Khaja has recently finished “The Shadow,” a teaser for an extended feature believed to be based on actual events.

UAE-based Lebanese producer-director Rami Yasin is working on a vampire family drama, “Three Four Eternity,” for Image Nation.

Meanwhile, director Tariq Al-Kazim has begun pre-production on a sequel to 2017’s “A Tale of Shadows,” an English-language film about a gardener who is deeply disturbed by his experiences at a farm where he works.

The latest installment, “A Tale of Shadows: Illusions,” follows the story of a young girl who appears in a hospital, her body mysteriously drenched in blood. A local detective teams up with a journalist to investigate, and the pair land up at an eerie farm, where they find themselves enveloped in a world of illusion, chaos and madness.

The film is brought to life by an international cast, including Nigerian actor Chuka Ekweogwu, German actress Arzu Neuwirth and Swedish actor Almer Agmyren.

Emirati artist Samar Al-Shamsi, better known for the “Arab Mona Lisa” painting, also makes her screen debut in the film. 

Al-Kazim told Arab News that the film could reach cinemas early next year.

The filmmaker believes that horror movies allow him to reach audiences beyond his home country without breaking the bank.

“Horror is an interesting topic because regardless of where a person is from, when a movie is scary, it engenders fear,” Al-Kazim said.

The 26-year-old Emirati has been drawn to the genre since he was a child and has created a name for himself among regional horror fans.

Last year he released “Until Midnight,” which told the story of a newly married young man who encounters a stranger with evil intentions.

Horror films need neither big budgets or marquee names to be effective. “The Blair Witch Project,” for example, made $248 million on a budget of $60,000.

While this allows rookie filmmakers room to experiment, shoestring budgets cut both ways.

 Swedish actor Almer Agmyren. (Supplied)

“It’s actually tough to make a horror film. You need to be able to do it correctly without any mistakes, even in the split second of a frame,” Al-Kazim said.

“But that’s a challenge I like and one of the reasons I choose to make horror films.”

Although “A Tale of Shadows” was initially planned as a trilogy, positive response to the first instalment, which premiered in Dubai and played across the UAE, brought Al-Kazim back to the story.

The UAE film industry needs more incentives to make an impact internationally, he said, but Emirati filmmakers can reach broader audiences by tackling universal themes.

“I think we’re on the right track. However, more movies need to be developed. Without an increase in the number of movies, there will be fewer celebrities, a smaller market, fewer stories and less interest, so it all starts with having a big push to really build this industry,” he said.

“There are several ways to achieve a broader range of audiences, but it’s all about the story. It needs to be universally relatable.”

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This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.