Four Decades, Four Icons
By: Noor Aldabbagh, September 23, 2015
I thought I would offer an alternative way to commemorate the 85th Saudi National Day by celebrating four pioneers of art in the Kingdom. The artworks below were painstakingly produced at a time when appreciation for visuals was scarce. They also give an overall view of how Saudi art developed in the last century.
So here they are – four iconic Saudi women artists from four generations in the last century. I’ll explain some of their most famous works and show how they left a permanent historical mark on Saudi art. We can remember Saudi Arabia in the 20th century through their genius.
1- Safiya Binzagr
In the 1960’s, Binzagr faced the difficulty of introducing and legitimizing visual art to a country completely unexposed to it. She painted disappearing Bedouin customs during the period rapid modernization and the emergence of sprawling cities in Saudi Arabia following the discovery of oil in 1938. A prolific artist, she has produced hundreds of paintings depicting Saudi traditions and heritage valued for preserving disappearing customs, practices and ways of life in the kingdom. International art critics note the influences of Gauguin, Cézanne, Giotto, and Van Gogh, on her work, which she describes as “primitive,” like that of Gaugin. One of her most famous works, Zabun, is a portrait of a Saudi woman wearing a traditional type of dress from the 1950’s. This image is a tribute to the life of women in that era and the central role that duty and decorum played in their lives. Binzagr received numerous national and international awards along the way, has her own museum in Jeddah, and is quite possibly the cutest old lady art celebrity you will ever lay your eyes on.
2- Badreya Al-Nasser
In the 1970’s, Al-Nasser and her contemporaries paved the way for the development of modern art movements in Saudi Arabia. Her work is well-known for being heavy on symbolism: using images of birds, trees, and traditional Saudi houses, she explores color and form using a modern style of painting that emphasizes flatness. The majority of her works include images of women looking through or waiting by windows, a manifestation of the division between the private and public spheres. She was a special artist among her mostly male contemporaries in the 1970’s. Together they succeeded in creating a distinctive fusion of artistic traditions in painting: they linked their cultural traditions to international artistic trends including Cubism, Surrealism, Impressionism, and Abstraction.
3- Nawal Mosly
Can you be faceless yet still convey a spectrum of emotion? Mosly is famous for employing primitivist expressionism and creating powerfully symbolic images of women without facial features. She is part of a generation of artists who operated in the 1980’s and were strongly connected to their predecessors. In the context of the Modern, the “primitive” represented the libido, the “id” of psychoanalysis, as well as the unblemished and unrestrained sexuality of primitive tribes. Her paintings depicting women in local attire lack facial expressions, but they convey a strong sense of emotion. In other words, the answer to my question is yes – you can be faceless and expressive.
4- Hamidah Al Sinan
In the 90’s, Saudi artists placed emphasis on individuality, subjectivity, and transgression. Hamidah Al-Sinan painted dramatic surrealist representations of the subconscious world. Her work includes elements from the artist’s surrounding environment to express her private emotional turmoil. Al Sinan asserts that her attempt to portray her honest emotions leads to the severity of her compositions, such as this painting Two Birds. She depicts local sparrows in front of a seemingly never-ending row of heavy doors, some carrying large locks, obstructing the view of the desert horizon. Like other artists in her generation, Al-Sinan also experimented with mixed media, such as textiles and fabrics from old carpets and tents with bits of traditional embroidery, arranging them in overlapping layers of collage that reveal the face of a woman lying beneath them, as if smothered. Having grown up as a young girl in the Saudi Arabia of the 1990s I recall just how smothering that decade was.
What do the works of these leading artists reveal? Together they tell a larger story of how Saudi art has evolved over the last century. They reflect a steady move from depicting traditions and customs in a realistic manner for memorializing purposes in the works of Safeya Binzagr, to subversively incorporating remnants of a distinctly Saudi environment to express frustration and entrapment in later art towards the end of the century. There is a shift from depictions of communal scenes to presenting a subjective and individual perception. This carries great significance; it reveals a greater autonomy on the part of the artists who took the liberty to create increasingly personalized compositions that reflect on and critique their environment.
A lot can be read about rebellious contemporary art over the past few years. However, what we are witnessing more recently is simply a continuation of a story whose beginning is important to remember; these women started these colorful conversations. The art of women in Saudi Arabia in the last four decades of the 20th century clearly showed an evolving relationship between the artist and her past, present and future, coinciding with a growing artistic autonomy and perception of the self as independent.
Happy Saudi National day!
note: for larger images of these historic paintings, check out “The Journey of Saudi Arabian Visual Art” by Abdulrahman Al Suleiman.