“Are there a lot of women artists in Saudi Arabia?”
“Yes there are quite a few”
“Are they oppressed?”
“But is it more difficult for them to work as artists than their male counterparts? Are they given equal opportunity?”
“Most certainly, if not actually more so”
“But is their work considered inferior?”
Basma Al Sulaiman, founder of BASMOCA
Having dabbled in the Saudi art scene for the better part of eight years, this is an early example of the many conversations I’ve had with international press and numerous other parties interested in the burgeoning Saudi art scene of the last decade. Although my consternation at these questions gradually dissipated and my answers grew more eloquent with time, they never seemed to be what people wanted to hear. It became clear that the art market in the Middle East thrived on the typecast of the subjugated woman and anything veil, chador or burqah related was all the rage.
The truth of the matter is, that despite the great leap forward in the liberties and opportunities recently afforded to Saudi women, not least the celebrated lifting of the driving ban in June earlier this year, in the art scene, women have always stood on equal if not possibly higher ground than men. In fact, women have been huge trailblazers in the arts and culture sector of Saudi Arabia, not just as artists but as art professionals and as powerful patrons of the arts.
Upon deeper reflection, It is not too difficult to see why such a phenomenon was possible in an environment such as Saudi Arabia’s especially, where a proper art industry with all its trappings didn’t exist and there was little opportunity to sustain a career in the arts alone much less survive on it. So while the male population concentrated on career paths with a guaranteed revenue, women, not traditionally the primary bread-winner, seized this unique opportunity.
Maha Malluh. This Way from the Shemagh Mirage series. 2010. C-Print Dibond mounted with perspex. 158x125cm. Courtesy of BASMOCA
Women stepped in and took initiative; artists Safeyya Binzagr and Mounira Mously jointly held the first public art exhibition in Saudi Arabia in 1968; Shadia and Raja Alem were the first artists to represent Saudi Arabia at the Venice Biennale in 2011; HRH Princess Jawaher bint Majed bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud established Almansouria Foundation in 1990, the first art foundation of its kind to support Saudi creativity; private arts institutes such as L’Art Pur were opened by Princess Adwa bint Yazid Al-Saud in Riyadh and Darat Safeyya Binzagr by the artist herself in Jeddah; and Dr Effat Fadaag and Dr Zahra Al Ghamdi introduced novel and unconventional notions of conceptual art to the King Abdulaziz University arts programmes.
While these are just a few examples of women’s pioneering activities over the past few decades, in the past year, there has been a notably significant governmental push in support of the cultural sector as part of Vision 2030. As of this year, Saudi boasts its own Ministry of Culture headed by Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al-Saud, which had previously represented only one half of the Ministry of Culture and Information and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself established Misk Foundation, which includes Misk Art Institute, an artist-led cultural organisation led by renowned Saudi artist Ahmed Mater.
These state-backed initiatives are creating lucrative career opportunities in the art and culture spheres, which are opening up the field to both sexes, but rather than threaten the influence of women in the sector, women can now have real earning power in the creative sector rather than functioning pro bono. Previous ground breaking activities by women are finally being recognised and given the necessary support. This combined effort of top down support for the culture sector and female empowerment not only ensures the continued role women have to play in art and culture but helps to build the sustainability and success of their efforts.