Athr Gallery is proud to usher in the new year with renowned Saudi artist Manal Al-Dowayan’s first solo exhibition in Saudi Arabia A Journey of Belonging, introducing new work by the artist as well as seminal work from her previous series. The exhibition explores the artist’s frequent voyages into the past in search of understanding and mutual acceptance.
Photographer, visual poet, and artist Manal Al Dowayan is one of the most recognizable and critically acclaimed of the new wave of Saudi contemporary artists. She has exhibited globally, from Belgium to Bahrain, and has been acquired by collections such as the British Museum, Nadour, Barjeel and the Jordan National Museum of Fine Art, amongst many others. Her show at Athr Gallery emphasizes not only her profound achievement and success, but re-affirms the Jeddah gallery’s commitment to supporting and showcasing the most innovative and thoughtful art of the region.
With the intersecting of key works from the artist’s different series under one roof, a pattern emerges, a common thread weaves itself through the works, one that gradually alters and transforms but remains unbroken. A journey comes to light. A Journey of Belonging allows the viewer to approach Al-Dowayan’s work from a new perspective. There is a paradigm shift in focus, with controversial issues of women’s rights and identity, normally associated with the artist’s work, fading into the background, and the artist’s personal fears and obsessions coming to the fore.
The artist was raised in a land whose modus operandi revolves around the repulsion and dismissal of women. Specializing in photography, her varied series consistently present meditations on the complex textures of a paradoxically evolving and traditional society, along with a distinct, deep-rooted sense of personal and collective history. Thus, the exhibited works reveal a young woman’s obsession with preservation and remembrance, and constitutes a fight against rejection and disappearance. They are an exploration of ways to exist somewhere that doesn’t want you.
Featured series such as ‘Pointing To The Future’, ‘Look Beyond The Veil’, ‘Landscapes Of The Mind’, ‘And We Had No Shared Dreams’ and ‘Blinded By Tradition’ display Al Dowayan’s progression and creative evolution over the years. Through these discrete series of works, Al Dowayan not only explores the role of women in Saudi Arabia, but reflects upon a wider reality in which gender equality is symptomatic of power hierarchies, religious dogmas, interplays with foreign cultures and shifting domestic social attitudes. Whilst her primary medium is photography, series such as ‘Point To The Future’ further demonstrate how the artist amplifies her characteristically monochrome compositions with lyrical visual language. Enriched by this poetic slant, the added layers allow her to weave a rich tapestry of cultural and formal styles that invite deeper consideration of the central themes.
Another recurring topic in Al Dowayan’s work is the relationship of the individual to their environment. For instance, Al Dowayan explores manifestations of progress and change in the physical textures of the country’s geography in ‘Landscapes Of The Mind’, which uses various locations around the country to frame deft, simple glyphs representing the self, and the individual’s relationship with her surroundings. The artist places herself amidst these symbols, relenting her hold upon her own identity and becoming undefinable and ephemeral against monumental natural and urban settings.
Similarly, the series ‘We Had No Shared Dreams’ is a conversation between the inhabitant and the landscape in which she lives, but to which she longs to belong. The inhabitant, like an abandoned child, desperately seeks acceptance, but the city only exhales in response..
‘If I Forget You, Don’t Forget Me’ reflects on the profound shifts in Saudi society over the past fifty years, documenting the rise of the oil industry through the individuals who were there at the start of the oil boom. But in this series, Al Dowayan goes beyond a narrative re-telling of contemporary social evolution and instead looks for her own identity and self amidst the turbulent histories of immediately preceding generations, hoping to discover amidst the plenitude of the past, clues and possibilities for the uncertain future.
In her latest body of work, Al Dowayan continues to explore the practice of preservation via one of the oldest and time-tested means of documentation, language. In particular, Arabic, a language lauded for its beauty and complexity. The artist adopts as a case study Abu Mansour Al-Tha’alby Al-Naysaboury’s “Jurisprudence of a Language: The Secrets of Arabic”, a 10th century Abassid tome that contains detailed categorizations of thousands of Arabic words. In the process, she discovers that what is not rendered useful, is actively erased over time, bringing her to question even herself;
“In my fervour to document my present, am I contributing to a failed formula?”
Aldowayan’s new work investigates what Nietzsche termed “active forgetting” and is a warning against the act of labelling diverse collectives that efface the singular, for by attempting to preserve by creating our own version of history, we are in fact contributing to the erasure of others.
Al Dowayan’s work reacts vividly to the restrictions imposed upon women in 21st century Saudi Arabia. This is powerfully evident in ‘A Journey Of Belonging’. Athr Gallery have selected works that show Al Dowayan’s evolution as an artist, as a Saudi woman and as a lightening rod for sparks and flashes of progress and change within the strictures of her environment. However, ultimately, it gives a unique and candid perspective of the intense and idiosyncratic relationship that exists between a woman and her homeland, exploring feelings of alienation, belonging, identity, even self-doubt, but above all, love.