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For decades, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was barren not only in its topography but also in its art scene. Art in the Muslim world is often mistakenly referred to as Islamic art—a tool, so to speak, to serve the Muslim faith. It is actually more similar to the architecture that blossomed during periods of Muslim rule, as in Moorish Spain or Mughal India. Many examples of Islamic architecture, of which the Taj Mahal in Agra is perhaps the most famous, were crafted with unmatched artistry and have withstood the passage of time.
Yet, in the land that gave birth to Islam, such creativity has been missing for decades. Only recently has there been some progress in the public display and appreciation of the traditional arts. To understand the reasons, one must step back in time.
Following the oil-boom years of the mid-1970s, there was much upheaval and social fragmentation, especially in the family unit. The era gave rise to a powerful and rigid force within the Saudi education establishment that repudiated anything to do with art, music, or drama, as its followers believed that those arts did not conform to the teachings of Islam and was the work of the devil.
These many individuals ran the education ministry and confined the curriculum strictly to religious and scientific subjects. A decade earlier, in 1960, the then Crown Prince Faisal fought against the firmly entrenched religious establishment, defying them by opening the first school for girls. Although Faisal is widely viewed as a reformer and later as a modern King, he was astute enough to know how far he could push his closed tribal society. As a compromise, he agreed to allow the conservative element to control the girls’ curriculum, a practice that had far-reaching ramifications long after his death.
Following the oil-boom years, there was virtually no encouragement of any of form of art, in painting or music or dance, for almost three decades. All were considered sins and tools of the devil—at least that was what was drummed into the minds of many public-school students. While the closed Kingdom was opening up, the minds that controlled generation upon generation of schoolchildren were becoming ever more closed. Schools were required to be segregated, beginning with grade 1.
Residents still remember a controversy sometimes in the 1980s, when the mayor of the country’s most cosmopolitan city, Jidda, introduced some sculptures along major thoroughfares. There was much alarm and protest from the conservatives, and some pieces were removed, because they depicted living things. In such a climate, those who worked in any form of art were not inclined to share their talents publicly.
Parents who wanted more in the curriculum could not even protest, but a tragedy began to change that. In 2002, a fire broke out in a girls’ school in Mecca that stirred public wrath against this fundamentalist chokehold on the educational system. The needless deaths of 15 girls was attributed directly to the refusal of the country’s religious police to allow the girls to leave the school premises unless they were fully clothed. The indignation gave rise to much public debate and resulted in a clamp-down the religious authorities.
King Abdullah’s ascension to the throne in August 2005 furthered the erosion of powers of the religious establishment, and the education ministry was ordered to do a comprehensive review of the curriculum and introduce modern teaching methods and subjects. Suddenly, it seemed that the dam had burst, and artists who previously had showed their works privately began holding public showings in emerging art galleries.
From paintings to poetry, from photography to music, the Saudi art scene slowly began to revive. Some, such as Haifa al-Mansour, gained international recognition. Haifa wrote and directed the film Wadjda, which features a girl who desperately wants to own a bicycle. The film premiered at the 2012 Venice Film Festival and was well received internationally. Saudi film-maker Faiza Ambah wrote and directed a 44-minute film called Mariam, which was produced by a Saudi film studio and shot in France and revolves around a girl (Mariam) who is born in France of Arab parents.
Galleries, film studios, and music-appreciation courses began to spring up for those whose shackles had been broken. In June 2015 the Saudi artist Fatmah Omran showcased her paintings at a studio among international paintings and sculptures. Even the royal family is not immune from the art bug. Princess Reem al-Faisal, the granddaughter of King Faisal, whose passion was photography and whose works were displayed in many countries around the world, felt comfortable enough to introduce her photographs publicly in the Kingdom.
Other art enthusiasts have demonstrated their talents in annual contests for painting murals, writing poetry and drama, and the like. A couple of entrepreneurs have established the website SaudiArtGuide to direct interested artists to the various shows and displays around the country. At the beginning of July 2015 an art fair in which fourteen galleries from across the Middle East participated was held in Jidda for a week to showcase local and regional talent.
The dam has, indeed, been broken. As Fatmah Omran says, “When we started, we felt we were just scratching the stone. It was not an easy thing to do. Now you can see people engaging. Jidda has now become the center of art.” There is now no holding her or other budding artists back.