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Saudi art blooms with the kingdom’s transformation

Saudi artist Manal AlDowayan will represent her country at the 2024 Venice Biennale Courtesy of the artist/National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia
Saudi artist Manal AlDowayan will represent her country at the 2024 Venice Biennale
  • Female artists come to fore
  • Cultural scene ‘very strong’
  • Open-air museum for AlUla

The arts have undergone profound changes in Saudi Arabia over the past decade as the country has enacted wide-ranging reforms, according to a leading Saudi artist. 

Once silenced by religious forces and a conservative culture, female artists in particular have come to the fore through a raft of government and private sector initiatives to encourage artistic expression, Manal AlDowayan says. 

AlDowayan, fresh from showing her work at the Guggenheim in New York, has been chosen to represent Saudi Arabia at the 2024 Venice Biennale. It will be the 60th edition of the art exhibition but only the fourth time the kingdom has participated. Three of its four representatives have been female.

“Venice is very important for any artist in their career,” AlDowayan says. “But it’s about bringing our Saudi art. The cultural scene in this country is very strong, it always was, but it wasn’t seen. There is a transformation taking place.” 

Earlier in her career, AlDowayan says, her exhibitions would attract comments misinterpreting her artwork. One piece that incorporated a steering wheel, with its criss-cross structure, was seen as promoting Christianity. 

A 2020 art installation by Manal AlDowayan at Desert X AlUla entitled Now You See Me, Now You Don'tLance Gerber/Courtesy of the artist
A 2020 art installation by Manal AlDowayan at Desert X AlUla entitled Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

Since the morality police had their powers of arrest removed in 2016, such limits on freedom of expression have partly gone. Women were granted the right to drive in 2018 as part of the social reforms that have changed life in the country. 

Jeddah on the Red Sea coast and AlUla in northwest Saudi Arabia are being developed as major cultural sites for tourists and art-lovers. Jeddah contains an arts complex called Hayy Jameel and a museum and opera house are planned as part of the Jeddah Central project.

The Royal Commission for AlUla is building an indoor and permanent outdoor museum called Wadi AlFann. It will cover 65 square km in the region, which houses rock homes and tombs from the pre-Islamic Nabataean city of Hegra.

AlDowayan is one of five artists commissioned to design large-scale installations using the stunning sand and mountain landscape.

Three of the others are pioneers of the land art movement in the 1960s and 1970s, James Turrell, Agnes Denes and Michael Heizer. 

Manal AlDowayan's 2023 artwork From Shattered Ruins New Life Shall BloomMidge Wattles/Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation
Manal AlDowayan’s 2023 work ‘From Shattered Ruins New Life Shall Bloom’ at the Guggenheim in New York

AlDowayan’s work, which is set for construction by late 2024 or 2025, will reflect on the labyrinthine structure of ancient Arabian towns. Ahmed Matar – the fifth artist invited to contribute – will use a mirrored tunnel to give the impression of a desert mirage. 

“Public art is insane now in Saudi Arabia,” AlDowayan says.

“The vision is to put art outside. It’s very different from the West. We don’t have so many galleries here as in the UAE, but we have more public art. There is a large investment in public arts.”  

AlDowayan says that while attitudes have shifted dramatically inside Saudi Arabia, there is still a tendency internationally to view Arab women through a lens of oppression. 

“Mainstream media don’t want to give us credit for doing difficult work,” she says. “They can’t understand the voice of the artist to create change.”

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