Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 9th July 2017

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Saudi female artists champion preservation of traditional houses

The exhibition provides insight into art practices emerging on the young contemporary Saudi art scene.


Unique insight. From a video titled 'I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembered I'd forgotten you. I was dreaming.' by Dana Awartani, 2017.

Unique insight. From a video titled “I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembered I’d forgotten you. I was dreaming.” by Dana Awartani, 2017. (The Mosaic Rooms)

London - “Shift,” the first British exhibition featuring three Saudi female artists, laments the destruction of tradition and pleads for its preservation for future generations. It features the creations of Dana Awartani, Zahrah al-Ghamdi and Reem al-Nasser, whose visit to London was sponsored by the Mosaic Rooms, where the exhibition is staged.

There are two interesting parts to Awartani’s work: “I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembered I’d forgotten you. I was dreaming.” The first part is a film shot in old Jeddah, showing a ray of sunlight through the window of an abandoned house with a traditional Islamic tiled floor. The floor is an installation of hand-dyed sand, which the artist sweeps away in the film.

The floor of sand is recreated in a small gallery next to the main exhibition space in the Mosaic Rooms. The two works summarise the effect of urban development in Jeddah, where traditions are sacrificed to what is seen as progress.

Through her installations, Ghamdi, who is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Art and Design at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, translates traditional architectural styles from south-western Saudi Arabia into modern art.

“Through my work I would like to explain that traditional architecture is being destroyed and is disappearing because the inhabitants leave their houses for modern homes and now this traditional architecture is (struggling) to find life,” Ghamdi said.

“I want to tell the story and preserve the memory of traditional architecture. I want to apologise for its loss. All my work reflects the traditions and the emotions of the past. I know the past is gone but I want to remember the traditional house I grew up in in Saudi Arabia. I want to wake the people up and ask them to preserve the past because if the past goes away it cannot be replaced.”

Ghamdi’s work consists of a large wall installation built at the Mosaic Rooms gallery especially for the “Shift” exhibition. It is made of multiple layers of mixed sand, clay and cloth, which evoke the material memory of a traditional Saudi city, bringing the past into the present, which is dominated by industrial and highly finished contemporary edifices. Ghamdi created a similar installation July 2 in the Great Court of the British Museum.

Taking part in Shubbak, London’s biennial festival of Arab art and culture, was a dream come true for Ghamdi. “It is like a window for me to see London,” she said, unable to contain her excitement. “When I was asked to show my work at Shubbak, I couldn’t believe it. Saudi Arabia has a different culture to London and I wanted the people here to see Saudi art.”

In the downstairs gallery at the Mosaic Rooms, Nasser’s “Silver Plate,” a resonant multimedia installation, represents a woman’s experience of her past, present and future.

The visitor encounters a dual screen video installation of two opposing states in conversation with one another. One video shows fingers drumming on a silver plate, a traditional celebratory act at weddings. On the other, water slowly drips onto a small plate, a simple phenomenon that increasingly begins to suggest something unsettling. The videos play on a continual loop and the repetition reinforces the oppressive atmosphere, which is representative of the past.

Multimedia producer and curator Frederique Cifuentes said Ghamdi, being a university lecturer and an artist, wants to emphasise the need for all Saudi women, regardless of their socio-economic background, to be empowered through art.

“This means that those who cannot afford a private driver to move around should benefit from a more accessible and affordable means of transport to reach their studio or gallery to showcase their work or simply go to museums to see artwork or to travel abroad to attend residency programmes or festivals without being prevented by their guardian,” she said.

“I also hope that those privileged women will pave the way for their female colleagues, by giving them access to their network.”

The exhibition provides insight into some of the exciting art practices emerging in the young contemporary Saudi art scene.

“‘Shift’ demonstrates the importance of art as a space which these young artists are using to start conversations on contemporary circumstances and issues and to look towards the future,” the Mosaic Rooms said in a statement.

“The artists respond to their experience of accelerated change in their country, in the built environment of their cities and in domestic spaces. Caught between a future driven by globalisation and rapid urban development and a past at risk of erasure, the artists consider their own position and reflect on what is important to them as individuals and as part of a wider collective.”

The “Shift” exhibition is to take place through September 2 at the Mosaic Rooms in London.