How This Saudi Artist Is Exploring The Kingdom's Cultural Heritage Within Her Work

BY Cynthia Jreige / Jun 14 2020 / 12:00 PM

There is a great deal of nostalgia in Zahrah Al Ghamdi’s work, paradoxically balanced by a quest of linking the past to present and future

How This Saudi Artist Is Exploring The Kingdom's Cultural Heritage Within Her Work
Zahrah Al Ghamdi. After Illusion. 2019. Installation

Fuelled by an almost spiritual endeavour to embody memories, Zahrah Al Ghamdi’s art which explores themes of “identity, storytelling and loss,” incites introspection. Born in the city of Al Bahah in Southwest Saudi Arabia, Al Ghamdi shares a very organic and inspired relationship with her country and its land, at the source of many of her creations that are rightfully described as “land art.”

Intertwining observations on urban architecture and the upsurge of emotions has proven to be the artist’s forte, citing the translation of “the concepts of identity and culture” as the roots of her inspiration.

Artist Zahrah Al Ghamdi 

After earning an undergraduate degree in Islamic Arts from King Abdulaziz University, a Master’s degree specialising in contemporary craft and a  P.H.D in design and visual art from Coventry University in England, Al Ghamdi now lives in Jeddah where she is a faculty member of Jeddah University.

Saudi and its rich cultural heritage alongside the traditional aseeri architecture have played and still play an immense role in her artistic career, it being in or out of her studio. A fervent observer of the relationship between mankind and the earth, Al Ghamdi expresses the imperceptible reality of it: “I always think a lot about how this earth lives while we are on it.”

Zahrah Al Ghamdi. What Lies Behind the Sun. 2019. Dried branches on sponge and wood 300c, diametre

Through art, she unravels these questionings with her own perception. In her 2016 installation Cinders and Embers, she depicts the abusive behaviour humans foster towards the environment and their conflicting attitude with their surroundings. 

Her choice of materials serves as a visual interpretation of the meaning behind her concepts; in this very artwork, some layers of gauze are ceaselessly “wrapped, stretched and bound”,  then soaked in black paint which evokes “the scorched earth we relentlessly keep scarring.” Put in a broader perspective, it highlights the “blurred line drawn between life and death.”

Not only exceptionally poetic for land art, Al Ghamdi’s attention to detail and notably in her choice of materials supposes an aesthetic that can be observed as feminine. But is this approach conscious? “Yes, I would say that [...] I try to unleash my emotions, so to speak, during the conception and production process, allowing them to guide me as I create,” she answers.

“Because of the extent to which my work is connected to my emotions, once the work is produced, it will forever remain an essential part of me.”

Zahrah Al Ghamdi. Labyrinth and Time. 2017. Installation

The notion of feelings and emotions is one that the artist undoubtedly emphasises on and has been communicating successfully, as she notices:  “I have been lucky enough to observe some people’s reactions to my work throughout my career and generally speaking, the work tends to evoke those emotions, which is exactly what I’m looking for.”

Some of the most recent works in her portfolio, as to know Mycelium Running, After Illusion and Inanimate Village all have as inspiration her inexhaustible attraction to recollecting the past: “The connection between my work comes from the inspiration behind them and my general artistic process,” she explains.

“You can trace how I engage with the notion of embodied memory in all of my work.” An essential to her productions, the presence of urban architecture, history and traditions, especially in Saudi Arabia, is never too far either; she acknowledges: “throughout my career, I have tried to translate the concepts of identity and culture through my work.”

Zahrah Al Ghamdi. Mycelium Running. 2018. Installation

In this optic, the presentation of her work in AlUla, in the context of Desert x AlUla, a site responsive exhibition that ran from end of January to early March 2020, seemed like the most perfect confluence, even if Al Ghamdi took the opportunity with utmost humility: “When I presented my work in AlUla, it was not my goal to decorate or elevate the position of AlUla,” she says. “We know that AlUla with all its attractive nature, history, culture and civilisations has no equivalent throughout the ages.  AlUla does not need an artwork to draw attention to it.”

In all modesty, her installation Glimpses of the Past celebrated the AlUla region and its agricultural wealth, notably here the planting of dates that is a characteristic of this part of Saudi. No less than 6,000 repurposed date containers were laid out across 80 metres forming the installation, a material of choice “that expresses a language that the people of AlUla understand and the reader can read because it is one of the raw materials that touches our culture.”

Filled with five different shades of sand and mirrors, the date tanks are assembled in what resembles “a sparkling, flowing river with multiple tributaries”, here acting as a metaphor of AlUla’s reputation of being “a crossroads of civilisations in history and a cultural hub today attracting visitors from around the world.”

Zahrah Al Ghamdi.  Glimpses of the Past. 2020. Installation

Always about mixing heritage, history and land with feelings of emotions, what first glorifies date farming eventually procures, as the artist explains, “a deep sense of nostalgia as the mountains and sky reflect off the shiny surfaces of the containers and mirrors within.”

Saudi and Al Ghamdi’s art are indissoluble. She has observed an evident revolution in the country’s art scene and noted the emergence of many artists that, she says, are “talented, passionate about their art, hard-working, and truly doing their best to improve at what they are doing.”

Undergoing important changes, Saudi Arabia is putting efforts and dedication in developing its local talents on local and international scenes. Al Ghamdi, who’s currently between focusing on her art and her academic research, plays her part in shaping the future of her country’s cultural scene, being very focused with her students “and trying to help them improve their creative process, developing their skills”, as well as making sure they become “the best artists they can be.”

Zahrah Al Ghamdi. 2017. Experiment in Val Roseg during Artists in Labs Residency

As per herself, the writing of her own scientific art-based research papers is high on the checklist. The ambitious person she is, Al Ghamdi would want to “help push the educational standards at the university level even higher.”

And whether she incorporates them in her work or metaphorically sets them as goals, it’s safe to say that for her, there is no mountain high enough. 

Images courtesy of the artist

From the summer 2020 issue of Harper's Bazaar Art