An Art Scene Flourishes Behind Closed Doors In Saudi Arabia

Sep 8, 2015
Originally published on September 10, 2015 2:14 pm

Arwa Alneami's latest art project is called the "Drop Zone," named after the vertical, free-fall amusement park ride.

Her work is made up of photographs and videos from a theme park in her hometown of Abha, in southern Saudi Arabia. The rules for women there have become so strict that the park has signs telling them they can't scream loudly on the rides.

"You should hear the voice of the ladies, they cannot scream," she says, and then imitates the stifled screams of the women clad entirely in black in her videos.

Alneami is a young Saudi artist pushing against the many red lines in the conservative society where she lives. She's not breaking them, she says. She's just reflecting society back on itself.

She sees herself a bit like the court jesters of old.

"Always they say the truth, but they make you laugh," she says. "That's my way: I say the truth, but make you laugh."

She's married to Ahmed Mater, one of Saudi Arabia's most influential artists. Like his wife, he works in a variety of media — sculpture, video, photography. His works have been shown in Italy, Paris and at the British Museum.

In Jeddah, the two are a bit of an artist power couple.

Their private studio is a gathering place for creatives — something like Gertrude Stein's salon in Paris in the 1920s, except this is Saudi Arabia today, where anything that challenges the accepted religious and political norms is generally done behind closed doors.

"It's a place where we meet and we chat about art and see and create and think about what we're going to do in the future," Mater says, showing me around the studio.

The walls are covered in photographs and paintings. The floor is concrete, since it gets covered in paint splatter anyway. There's a room of computers for editing photographs, videos and graphics. In the back, there is a big space where they screen movies and host stand-up comedy for their friends. And then there's a little sitting area where people hang out.

"It's like a meeting point," Mater says.

Every night, architects, filmmakers, musicians and artists gather and exchange ideas. Sometimes they stay well past midnight.

This is a tradition that dates back thousands of years, to a time when gatherings of intellectuals and artists were commonplace.

"I actually take this idea from the Hijaz people of Jeddah and Mecca," Mater says, referring to the western region of Saudi Arabia, along the Red Sea coast. "They have this idea of majlis, where people have one day in the week where people come and gather and talk about what's happening around, what intellectual things are happening, what's happening in politics."

This space is unique in a country where there are no cinemas, live theaters or public spaces where men and women can mix and exchange ideas freely.

Mater shows me around the studio in a converted home, where his gatherings are held. "The library is very important," he says. The couple have built a substantial library of books they've collected on their travels. There are novels, books about art, religion, history and a little library of films. Musical instruments are tucked beneath the shelves.

Like their salon, this kind of library is unique in Jeddah. Before this, Mater says, "We didn't have an art library here."

It's open to budding artists who want to come and learn, but the studio is unmarked, and people find out about this space through word of mouth.

What they're doing is not illegal. The studio is in a private home. But they don't want to draw too much attention. They have a simple guideline for those who come: You need to know one person who visits the studio, and you must be tolerant.

That's not to say there aren't public spaces for art in Saudi Arabia. There are nearly 60 art galleries across the country.

In 1965, Jeddah was home to Saudi Arabia's first art show in modern times. Back then, the scene was more vibrant, with cinema, music and live theater. But in the late 1970s, a conservative religious establishment took control of the country's social life and education and that vibrant scene was shut down.

Today, every piece of art that's shown publicly must first pass the government's muster.

But Qaswra Hafez, a gallery owner in Jeddah, says things are slowly changing.

"The shell remains to be conservative," he says. "But 70-plus percent of Saudi [Arabia] is under 30 years old, who have spent their lives with the communications and the Internet and digital media, and they have access to the world in the palm of their hands."

The younger generation is drawing on the country's cultural past to create art. As midnight nears, one of its exemplars shows up.

Mohamed Hashem has an oud, a Middle Eastern lute, slung over his shoulder. He's dressed in long jean shorts, a button-down shirt and square-rimmed, hipster glasses. He begins to play, and the others clap and praise God.

Hashem is one of the most respected oud players in the country. He clings to the tradition of music from his hometown, Mecca, where the Muslim religious pilgrimage has brought influences from all over the world.

He draws from traditions that date back hundreds of years. He learned them as a child in his grandmother's living room in Mecca, where she held cultural salons of musicians and poets in mixed company — both men and women.

It was a different time, a time that is all but forgotten. But the 30-year-old hopes to revive it.

"Art comes from our history," he says. And he begins to play again.

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Our next story takes us to a country where there isn't much public space to be creative. When you hear about Saudi Arabia, it's rarely an exploration of art, but of oil, regional politics or palace intrigue. It doesn't mean that creativity isn't happening. As we hear in our series Muslim Artist, Now, you have to know where to look for it. NPR's Leila Fadel spent time with artists in Jeddah and sent this report.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Arwa al-Naimi's latest art project is called the drop zone, named after the vertical free-fall amusement park ride.

ARWA AL-NAIMI: It's so scary (laughter).

FADEL: The work is made up of photographs and videos from a park in her hometown in southern Saudi Arabia.

AL-NAIMI: All of the project is secret. Nobody know I'm photograph. It's not allowed.

FADEL: The rules there have become so strict on women that the park has signs telling them they can't scream loudly.

AL-NAIMI: You cannot screaming. They put the label in each...

FADEL: You can't put scream on that? That looks scary.

AL-NAIMI: You cannot scream. We have a limit. You can hear the voice of the ladies. It's like (gasping). They cannot scream.

FADEL: In the video, they try to stifle their screams.

AL-NAIMI: You can hear the limit of the voice.

FADEL: In another part of the project, she shows women gleefully driving bumper cars because in Saudi Arabia, women can't drive. It's a way to push the many boundaries that exists in the country she loves. She sees herself a bit like the court jesters of old.

AL-NAIMI: Always, they say the truth, but they make you laugh. That's my way, too. I say the truth but make you laugh.

FADEL: She's married to Ahmed Mater, who's one of Saudi Arabia's most influential artists. Like his wife, he works in a variety of media - sculpture, video, photography. His work has been shown in Italy, Paris and at the British Museum in London. In Jeddah, he and his wife, Arwa, are a bit of an artist power couple.

AHMED MATER: (Speaking Arabic).

AL-NAIMI: (Speaking Arabic).

FADEL: Their studio is a gathering space for creatives, something like Gertrud Stein's salon in Paris in the 1920s, except this is Saudi Arabia today, where anything that challenges the accepted religious and political norms is generally done behind closed doors.

MATER: It's a gathering. It's, like, a place where we usually chat about art...

FADEL: Ahmed Mater.

MATER: ...And talk and create and think about what we can do in the future. It's like meeting point.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Arabic).

MATER: (Speaking Arabic).

FADEL: Every night, architects, filmmakers, musicians and artists gather and exchange ideas. Sometimes they stay here well past midnight. This is a tradition that dates back thousands of years to a time where gatherings of intellectuals and artists were commonplace.

MATER: I actually take this idea from Hijaz people. I mean Jeddah, Mecca. They have this idea of Majlis, where people have one day in the week that people can come and gather and talk about what's happening around, what the intellectual things happening in the political side.

FADEL: Today, this space is unique in a country where there are no cinemas, live theaters or public spaces where genders can mix and exchange ideas freely. Ahmed Mater shows me around the studio where his gatherings are held in a converted home.

MATER: The library is very important.

FADEL: The couple has built a substantial library of books they've collected on their travels. There are novels, books about art, religion, history and a little library of films. Musical instruments are tucked beneath the shelves. Like the salon, this kind of library is unique in Jeddah.

MATER: We didn't have art library here. We cannot find.

FADEL: So you keep it open for other artists?

MATER: Yeah, of course, especially from 9 to 5 every day, it's open for anyone, especially from school or university.

FADEL: But how do they know about you - like, word-of-mouth, or...

MATER: Word-of-mouth is the best.

FADEL: What the couple is doing is not illegal, but they don't want to draw too much attention, so the studio is unmarked. They have a simple model for those who come. You need to know one person who visits the studio, and you must be tolerant. That's not to say there aren't public spaces for art in Saudi Arabia. There are nearly 60 art galleries across the country.

Jeddah was home to Saudi's first-ever art show in modern times in 1965. Then, the scene was vibrant - cinema, music, live theater. But in the late 1970s, a conservative religious establishment took control of the country's social life and education. Today, every piece of art that's shown publicly must first pass the government's muster. But Qaswra Hafez, a gallery owner in Jeddah, says things are slowly changing.

QASWRA HAFEZ: The shell remains to be conservative. Don't forget, 70-plus percent of the population is under 30 years old who have spent their lives with communications and the Internet and digital media, and they have access to the world in the palm of their hands.

FADEL: And the younger generation is drawing on its cultural pass to create art. As midnight nears, one of its exemplars, Mohamed Hashem, shows up.

MOHAMED HASHEM: (Speaking Arabic).

FADEL: He has an Oud slung over his should, a Middle Eastern lute. He's dressed in long jean shorts, a button-up shirt and square-rimmed hipster glasses. He begins to play, and the others clap and praise God.

HASHEM: (Singing in Arabic).

FADEL: Hashem's one of the most respected Oud players in the country, and he clings to the tradition of music from his hometown, Mecca, where the Muslim religious pilgrimage brought influences from all over the world.

HASHEM: (Singing in Arabic).

FADEL: He draws from traditions that date back hundreds of years. he learned them in his grandmother's living room, where she had cultural salons of musicians and poets in mixed company, both men and women. It was a different time, a time that is all but forgotten.

HASHEM: (Singing in Arabic).

FADEL: But the 30-year-old hopes to revive it.

HASHEM: (Speaking Arabic).

FADEL: "Art," he says, "come from our history." Leila Fadel, NPR News, Jeddah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.