The power of images

Art December 25, 2014 01:00

By IAN TIMBERLAKE
AGENCE FRANCE-

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Conservative Saudi Arabia stages its first outdoor art exhibtion



IN HIGHLY CONSERVATIVE Saudi Arabia where most forms of entertainment are forbidden, art has taken to the streets.

Dozens of paintings are being displayed on outdoor advertising billboards in the capital Riyadh and other cities in what organisers say is the kingdom’s first public art show.

“It is something new,” says Mohammed al-Khereiji, deputy chief executive of Al-Arabia Outdoor, the advertising firm behind the exhibition.

It opened Monday night along Riyadh’s glitzy Tahlia Street and runs until Saturday.

“For the first time, art is presented to the public,” although small indoor exhibitions have previously taken place in the kingdom, he notes.

Sculptures have also been displayed in the open, including a permanent display along the corniche in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, and the country has some small galleries.

With about 3,400 billboards showing 80 paintings by Saudi artists, Khereiji called it “the biggest art gallery in the Middle East”.

Normally on Tahlia Street, the only things on show are flashy cars cruising past the boulevard’s wide sidewalks, outdoor cafes, and high-end restaurants serving Western cuisine.

The kingdom, which practises a conservative Salafist version of Islam, bans alcohol even in luxury hotels, does not allow cinemas or theatres, and strictly separates the sexes.

“The culture and the society do not encourage artists and it is difficult to be an artist in this society,” says Majed Saud al-Mefareh, in front of a billboard featuring his painting, “Story”.

It is a patchwork of abstract figures and images depicting Saudi life and traditions.

Mefareh, 38, who holds a regular job in administration, says he has been a part-time painter for about two decades because he enjoys his hobby and knows that “some people in our society like it” too.

The inaugural exhibition should help more Saudis to appreciate the visual arts, he said.

Sultan al-Adwani, a curious onlooker who works at the interior ministry, says the outdoor gallery seems like a good idea.

“It’s better than inside the building,” he says in the chilly evening air as waiters serve glasses of juice to invited guests outside a French restaurant.

The paintings were chosen after a call for submissions drew 3,200 entries.

Most of the colourful works are in an abstract style, some reminiscent of early-20th century Cubism made famous by Picasso.

They include a variety of subjects including urban and rural landscapes, sports, Islam’s holiest site the Kaaba, a stylised camel, and a couple in traditional dress sitting on chairs together at the seaside.

The strict Wahhabi version of Islam forbids paintings of the human form but several works in the exhibition clearly depict people, many of them women.

One painting shows a green female figure, hands on hips and head held high, emerging from a cactus in a desert landscape.

It is a powerful image in a country that does not allow women to drive and where they cover themselves in black from head to toe outside the home.

Ahlam Nassir al-Harbi, 23, says women are also a minority among the country’s artists, making up perhaps 10 or 20 per cent of painters.

An art student at Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University for women, she says “it feels lovely” to have one of her paintings exhibited outside.

The work shows two female forms alongside traditional Bedouin designs.

Harbi, only her eyes visible under a black abaya robe, agrees the outdoor show should help elevate the low level of interest in art among the Saudi public.

It has not, however, generated much attention from the country’s religious police tasked with cracking down on perceived moral violations.

“The Islamic police passed by”, Khereiji says, and they had no problem with the exhibition.