To outsiders, Saudi Arabia and art may seem like polar opposites because of the country’s complicated history of iconoclasm, censorship, and limitations on artistic expression. Instead we should acknowledge how art historically has taken shape in Saudi Arabia and how art is manifested in contemporary contexts.
Edge of Arabia, an independent arts initiative founded in 2003, showcases the work of artists who shed light on contemporary Arab, and particularly Saudi, culture. The works displayed in their exhibitions reflect the diverse exchange of ideas taking place within the artistic discourse in Saudi Arabia. Jowhara AlSaud’s Out of Line series explores, through photography, cultural taboos and the need for anonymity or privacy. AlSaud illustrates this tension through sketch drawings that omit faces and skin while keeping intact essential features such as accessories or hair. What emerges are visually-enchanting images with added subtext; something that a nearsighted act of censorship could do little to circumvent. Artist Shaweesh’s Banksy-esque digital art piece ‘Al Baik (Iwo Jima)’ manipulates the iconic Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima photograph to have the American soldiers raising a road sign for Al Baik, a fast food restaurant chain in Saudi Arabia. There is an active renegotiation of identity taking place in Saudi contemporary art as individual identity, identity of the body politic, and identity of manufactured environments are all eligible for dissection. Often pioneering these negotiations are women whose autonomy in Saudi Arabia has too often been marginalized. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s first submission to the Academy Awards in 2012, Wadjda, was the work of female director Haifaa al-Mansour and it dealt with issues of female autonomy and independence in Saudi Arabia in endearing and universal terms.
Due to Saudi Arabia’s oil and gas industry, there is a significant expatriate population of engineers and their families living in corporate gated communities. Revolving around this economy, there is also a population of expat doctors, nurses, and teachers. The children of these professionals attend international schools where they must make sense of the world from their unique vantage point. Hajra Waheed, a South Asian Canadian who spent her formative years living in Dhahran where her father worked, captures this experience through her art, poetry, and prose. A desolate motif permeates through her work; with powerful images that are minimal and fragmented. Her art is inspired by the paradox of living in corporate structures alongside jarring social, cultural, and class hierarchies in a supposedly internationalized setting. Saudi art is enriched and empowered by the spectrum of different lifestyles in Saudi Arabia. From oil company sponsored playgrounds to the white marble of the Holy Cities, juxtapositions, paradoxes, and the bittersweet realities of life captivate and draw people.