‘Local traditions, as important as they may be, shouldn’t be left unexamined’
Boldly highlighting the status of women in her native country, Manal Al Dowayan is one of Saudi Arabia’s most promising young artistic talents. Having received international acclaim for photographic series such as the empowering I Am, as well as iconic installations including the telling Esmi and the ethereal Suspended Together, the ‘fearless’ (to quote the Daily Telegraph) artist recently exhibited a collection of works, old and new, at Jeddah’s Athr Gallery. Entitled A Journey of Belonging, the exhibition not only shone a light on the condition of women in the Saudi kingdom, but also provided a glimpse ‘beyond the veil’ into the heart and mind of the young prodigy.
Travelling between the past, present, and future, tradition and modernity, Manal provided me with her insights and comments about the works in the exhibition, her journey, as well as her life.
With your previous series, I Am, as well as the highly acclaimed installations Esmi and Suspended Together, you brilliantly brought the issue of the status of women in Saudi Arabia and their ordeals to the forefront. In this exhibition, however, you seem to be tackling new ground. While the photographs in the Look Beyond the Veil and State of Disappearance series may seem familiar to admirers of your earlier works, the rest of the pieces seem to suggest the exploration of new concepts and ideas. Can you tell us a bit about the idea behind this exhibition? On what ‘journey’ have you embarked?
Look Beyond the Veil was one of the first series of photographs that I exhibited as an artist, and the works in the State of Disappearance series were produced specially for the Jeddah show at Athr Gallery. The entire collection will be on display during Art Dubai at Cuadro Gallery.
I started off my journey as an artist with bold statements that were direct and two-dimensional, and I now express my ideas in a multi-layered fashion. I work with spaces, words, and light. I incorporate experiences that I come across on a daily basis in my concepts; but generally speaking, the direction I am heading towards today deals with the urgent need to fight the deliberate act of forgetting – or, in other words – erasing.
In my new works, I am constantly questioning the state of disappearance that led me to its counterbalance – the necessary act of preservation. I began examining two subjects, and set them against each other: the Arabic language, which acts as a gateway to understanding, and the terminology/lexicon utilised, often integral to comprehending a subject matter. At the same time, I explored the media portrayal of the Saudi woman – specifically her portrayal in daily newspapers, where a filtered image is fed to the masses through repetition, creating a gender stereotype that dramatically alters how women and girls are viewed in society. By setting the language against the photograph, I create a tension between the power of the written word and the visual image.
I had worked with the ‘media image’ of women in Landscapes of the Mind in 2009, and expanded on the subject with a focus on dissecting the idea of erasing the image, face, voice, and name of a woman over the years with different works, which led to this exhibition.
In the series, And We Had No Shared Dreams and Landscapes of the Mind, one witnesses a sense of longing and estrangement on your part, where your surroundings are concerned, which brings to mind the title of the exhibition. To what extent do you feel you ‘belong’ in Saudi Arabia? Where do you see yourself belonging – if one can even say that there exists a single place where they belong?
That is exactly what I explore in these two bodies of work. There is no direct answer to the question – do I belong to a landscape, or does a landscape belong to me? Do I own it, or does it own me? These two collections were produced in 2009 and 2010 respectively, and were the result of artist residencies in London and Dubai. I was living outside of Saudi, and began a new conversation through my work, specifically addressing the notions of belonging and isolation. I was deeply influenced by Edward Said’s article, Invention, Memory, and Place, in which he eliminated the idea of belonging to a physical place, stating, ‘geography can be manipulated, invented, and characterised quite apart from a site’s mere physical reality’. I created a completely new landscape, which at times I manipulated with layers of imagery (e.g. in Landscapes of the Mind), and at others, brought to life through personification in an imagined conversation between a city and its inhabitants (e.g. in And We Had No Shared Dreams). It was my attempt to understand how society can alienate a person through a combination of habit and tradition.
Taking into account your childhood and upbringing, the photographs in the series If I Forget You, Don’t Forget Me acquire a new poignancy. Having grown up in an American oil compound, how would you say the oil boom, as well as the growing influence of American culture have impacted Saudi society?
Although the compound was originally built to house American oil workers, and the culture inside was deeply influenced by American traditions, I can’t say I grew up in an American oil compound. I grew up in a Saudi-owned oil compound, surrounded by oil. I saw the push for the ‘Saudisation’ of every job in the company. It was a time for leadership to emerge among young, ambitious Saudis. It was an era of dreaming, and seeing those dreams come true. That is what I captured in this collection.
There’s one striking piece on display, quite unlike any of the others. In one diptych, you’ve written the phrase, nostalgia carries us but desire keeps us away. I’ve been thinking about this for days, now, and I’ve got to ask you – what exactly do you wish to convey here?
This artwork consists of three elements: a line from a poem written by the late Dr. Ghazi AlGosaibi mourning his best friend’s passing, two photographs of the Saudi-Bahrain causeway taken at different times and places, and the actual layout of the photographs and the text. This piece was made immediately after my father had passed away. In it, I explore the idea of movement from one space to another, the links between spaces, and the need to understand that there are destinations that exist in this life, which we have not yet explored.
The restrictions placed on women due to local traditions have become entwined with religion and identity, making any sort of dialogue impossible … people cling to certain traditions for a sense of safety … as beautiful and as important as they may be, they shouldn’t be left unexamined
If I Forget You, Don’t Forget Me features a selection of photographs, relics, as well as video interviews, which all deal with the men and women who were involved in the Saudi oil industry during your father’s time. While you once mentioned to me that your work only deals with the present, and some of your works make an explicit reference to the future, I can’t help but feel a sort of delving into the past here. What is the concept behind this series, and what is being explored?
I work in the present with all my subjects. I actually presented a paper in 2010 at the Helsinki Institute of Art entitled But Today is So Much More Interesting Than Yesterday! In my collections, I speak about women and the workforce, their participation in politics, the social injustice they are subject to, and the way they are represented in the media. These are all very contemporary issues. The black-and-white photography process is probably the only historical reference, as it belongs to the past.
In If I Forget You, Don’t Forget Me, I explore a community of oil families that were spontaneously put together; they all took a collective life journey, and came back to create a culture of their own. This generation can never be replicated again, and for me, represents an impossible past to relate to … but I wanted to relate to it. In constructing the memory of my late father’s generation of men and women at a different time than the one in which I knew him, I wanted to create my own stories and personal narratives from the collective memories of these men and women, so that I could ‘own’ my past.
In works such as Blinded by Tradition and Look Beyond the Veil, you highlight and criticise the more ‘unsavoury’ aspects of your country’s culture, especially where the status of women are concerned. What, in your opinion, should be preserved from Saudi Arabia’s rich past, and what discarded (or, as you’ve alternatively put it, ‘erased’)? What and where is the future towards which the hands in your photographs point?
There is no delving into the past. In Blinded by Tradition, I address a simple issue. The restrictions placed on women due to local traditions have become entwined with religion and identity, making any sort of dialogue impossible. Because identity preservation among all cultures is strongly linked to tradition, and as societies move at light speed to keep up with the changing world, people cling to certain traditions for a sense of safety. Local traditions, as beautiful and as important as they may be, shouldn’t be left unexamined. The hands are pointing to the future … and that is the only direction I will look towards at this point in my life.