Saudi Arabia: Artists redraw 21st century identity

28 November 2017
Saudi artists use their craft to challenge society and resist political pressure to create a space for dialogue and change.
Photo: King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, 2017/Claudio Cravero


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly one of the most restrictive countries worldwide when it comes to freedom of speech. An oppressive government and Islam-driven society clash with the contemporary artists’ desire to build a 21st Century Saudi identity that demystifies oversimplified Western stereotypes and clichés. Based on a three-year first-hand experience as a museum curator in Saudi Arabia, the subject of censorship is not only dealt with its severe impositions but also from the artists’ standpoint. From the public to the private sphere, art can thus become a space of possibilities. And, it represents an act of resistance to challenge political oppression as well as breaking the boundaries of what is allowed to be said and dealt with.[1]

By Claudio Cravero    INSIGHT 

Saudi artists use their craft to challenge society and resist political pressure to create a space for dialogue and change.
21,39, Athr Gallery Opening, February 2017/Claudio Cravero


A geo-political portrait
It is pretty much commonplace to talk about Saudi Arabia as an ultraconservative country – a glance at its governmental structure can depict the Kingdom as one of the few absolute monarchies still existing nowadays. Its government is a hereditary and autocratic dictatorship administrated according to the Islamic lines of Wahhabism; namely, the religious movement referred to as Sunni Islam that complies with Sharia law (Islamic law). The Qur’an is then declared to be the country’s constitution. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia is unique among modern Muslim states because Sharia is not precisely codified, and since the legal structure is based on a free interpretation of the Holy Book, there is no system of judicial precedents.

Geographically speaking, Saudi Arabia is the second-largest state in the Arab world after Algeria and the largest one across the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia is sometimes called “the Land of the Two Holy Mosques”, in reference to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest places in Islam visited by 15 million pilgrims every year. However, apart from Muslim travellers, it is hard to obtain an entry visa, except for work permits supported by a sponsor.

The state has a total population of approximately 31 million, of which 20 million are Saudi nationals. Since the territory is, for its vast majority, characterized by desert, the population is mainly concentrated in three major cities and their conurbations: Riyadh, the administrative capital; Jeddah, in the Hejaz region along the Red Sea coast; and Dammam in the Eastern Province facing the Gulf.

Since the late 1930s, when the first oil well was discovered, Saudi Arabia has become the world’s largest oil producer and exporter. The Kingdom is categorized as a World Bank high-income economy and is the only Arab country to be part of the G-20 major economies.

However, the standpoints we often adopt to describe the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are mostly Western views of the country. Those opinions are extensively spread through the news and media to which one can have easy access from outside the Arabian Peninsula. It should also be said that what informs people about Saudi Arabia abroad is what engenders biased clichés.

In contrast, Western assumptions that depict Saudi Arabia as a restrictive and economically oil-based country are also the same characteristics that Saudi artists have been struggling to redeem over the past 15 years.

Saudi artists use their craft to challenge society and resist political pressure to create a space for dialogue and change.
A model named Khulood, arrested by police, for Snapchat video of her walking through Saudi village, Ushaiqer, in a T-shirt and short skirt, sparking outrage, 18 July 2017/Still from YouTube

For longer than a decade, Saudis have been associated with Islamic terrorism (ISIS), namely since the 9/11 terrorist attack, which involved 15 hijackers of Saudi origin. Besides, Saudi Arabia remains one of the very few countries in the world not to accept the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and this is well known when it comes to gender discrimination, notably against women.

Indeed, it was breaking news the night of 27 September 2017, when King Salman issued a decree allowing women to drive for the first time. Before the decree, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world that banned women from driving. However, it must be said that it is not a driver’s license that will change the extant male guardianship that rules the strict gender segregation applied by the government when it comes to social and public life.

As for equality in driving, we will have to wait until June 2018 – when the decree is set to be implemented – to see how this law is going to be socially respected by the dominant male drivers on local roads.

In the end, equality in driving somehow represented the top priority to tick off from the list to silence foreign political pressure. In fact, despite the royal proclamation, it represents a meaningful step towards gender equality, but it seems to be only the tip of the iceberg of a long series of deeply-rooted social issues to get solved.

Incontestable and taken-for-granted behaviours that are considered the norm elsewhere, in the Kingdom are strictly forbidden. It is also evident how the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, commonly known as the religious police in Arabic called Mutawa, has recently been slightly disempowered from its function to report any immoral actions against local cultural mores.

At any rate, behind any defiance against human freedom on a social-behavioural level, freedom of speech does not seem to be ranked among the top priorities of foundational human rights. People’s fear to freely express themselves complies with a sort of implicit obedience.

However, despite the presence of either regulated or self-proclaimed forms of censorship in the cultural field, which bans images and words, contemporary art comes into play as a space of possibilities. In a still very under-structured museum system, visual arts can be considered a confined battlefield on which to challenge public censorship.

Banning images in the public sphere
In Islam it is known that the long-standing question on figurative images is what most pressures the art domain and, consequently, the artist’s freedom. What is erroneously called “Muslim iconoclasm”, which the Swiss philosopher Titus Burckhardt (1908-1984) would rather call “Aniconism”, [3] coincides with the prohibition of any icons that might become a form of idolatry. As such, since the spread of Islam, images have been replaced with sacred writing, which is, as it were, the visible embodiment of the Divine Word.

Although there are a few ways through which contemporary artists strive to sneak out of this prohibition, the ban extensively concerns and influences everyday life. From shopping malls to glossy magazines, mannequins and posters showing human bodies are censored both for religious reasons and for promoting a misleading model of beauty that is against local mores. Fashion posters are considered immoral due to the revealing clothes the models wear, their provocative postures and their display of excessive luxury.

Saudi artists use their craft to challenge society and resist political pressure to create a space for dialogue and change.
Photo: Magazine cover with woman’s cleavage blacked out, Public library Dhahran, 2015 (left); Ad with male model’s hands and face blurred, Al-Rashid Mall, Khobar, 2017 (centre); Commercial billboard with female models’ faces blurred out, Red Sea Mall, Jeddah, 2016 (right)/Claudio Cravero


In fact, in advertisements and commercials in the public sphere, ads depicting faces are digitally blurred to hide make-up and cover cleavage, hands, and jewellery. This ban complies with the interpretation of the Qur’an that modesty and decorum are religious mandates, and it is applied to every kind of public image, regardless of gender, except for those depicting children.

What about the museum perspective? How can these oppressive governmental policies allow international exhibition standards?

In this regard, the handful of museums and art centres in Saudi Arabia have to stick to the rules in place across the Muslim countries governing exhibitions and showcases. Art institutions tend to integrate official guidelines with the international ethical standards developed by ICOM (International Council of Museums). However, what differs from case to case is the internal museum policies to avoid upsetting local sensitivities.

Saudi artists use their craft to challenge society and resist political pressure to create a space for dialogue and change.
Photo: King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, 2017/Claudio Cravero

Although this preventative measure would guarantee a certain level of artistic tolerance at least within the museum field, every public institution feels intimidated by the official censorship and its consequences, to the extent that museums end up establishing even stricter forms of self-censorship out of fear.

Besides the veto of human body depictions and any representational forms of art (e.g., portraiture, cross-shaped motifs or non-Islamic Sunni inscriptions), museum policies also apply to the art writing that goes alongside the artwork on display. Therefore, wall panels, essays and labels are being thoroughly reviewed and edited by specific museum departments in order to remove words that might be considered inappropriate.

Whereas some expressions could quickly match the current jargon in the art lingo, in Saudi Arabia, words like “creation”, “emancipation”, “evolution” and “magical”, or even the verb “to evoke”, are subject to be re-phrased. Artists, then, are not meant “to create”, but realize, illustrate and paint works of art instead. “To create” would mean to interfere with the Islamic religious beliefs for which creating is uniquely associated with some divine power. Also, “evoking” is a forbidden verb because it is equivalent to saying that an artist subtly refers to a second hidden concept. Therefore, “to recall something” is the preferred term. The catalogue of words curators cannot use to describe a work goes on and on.

Collecting Saudi art
A question that often arises when one mentions censorship in Saudi Arabia is how much freedom artists have to express themselves. Although the Saudi government still oscillates between timid support for artists and the strict public censorship it enforces, in the private sphere artists are silently stretching the boundaries of what is considered art in the country by dealing directly with collectors.

Even though being an artist was considered a side job up until a decade ago – except for the traditional field of calligraphy – contemporary artists are now considered professionals of the creative industry. This new social status has been granted only recently, thanks to a wave of emerging collectors who primarily belong to the broader circle surrounding the royal family. Artists thus enjoy a certain degree of protection from their collectors.

Although artistic awareness and understanding are low both in the private and public spheres, it must be said that this form of dialogue between patrons and artists allows artists to gain a small amount of freedom to express themselves.

Besides, this exclusive niche is conducive to another unusual demographic phenomenon in the art domain: unlike the global flexibility that artists have conquered over the last twenty years thanks to the increase in low-cost traveling opportunities, very few Saudi artists have moved abroad.

Saudi artists use their craft to challenge society and resist political pressure to create a space for dialogue and change.
Photo: Ashraf Fayadh and Dana Awartani, Athr Gallery, Jeddah, 2015/Ashraf Fayadh Instagram

In Saudi Arabia, then, collectors and patrons represent for artists a sort of comfort zone in which their voices can somehow be heard, despite all forms of governmental restrictions. In this protected nest, artists can also deal with subjects like religion and politics, as long as their viewpoints do not take the form of offense and defamation. Indeed, being at the same time both art buyers and patrons, collectors also have implicit control over censorship, at least in their private sphere of influence.

Needless to say, this friendly partnership appears to be a very much rewarding win-win scenario. On the one hand, artists fulfil the patrons’ desire to show off a promising Saudi identity façade in line with the most progressive countries against which they compete; on the other hand, patrons have become for artists authentic “bridges” to connect them abroad by promoting and sponsoring exhibitions and supporting fine arts grants and scholarships.

In other words, out of Sharia law, in this elitist group, there is no need to establish rules as to what to deal with in an artwork, but rather “how to do it”. After all, artists are part of the same religious society in which they live, so they are aware of Saudi injustices, bigotry and repression, to the extent that they can distinguish what can be considered inoffensive from the subversive.

Though this may look like a renovated form of ancient artistic patronage, everything comes at a price. Artists have to pay the price for being admitted into the mainstream. Though there is a margin of tolerance, artists have to be careful not to antagonize their patrons and censor themselves by omitting details regarding the subjects they deal with. Any artistic statement against a sponsor may result in severe punishment, as was seen with the case in 2015 of Ashraf Fayadh, the Palestinian poet whose death sentence for apostasy was commuted only on 2 February 2016 by a Saudi court to eight years in prison and 800 lashes.

Recovering time
Besides the new wave of collectors and the power they exert and a still poorly-codified art system, it is pretty easy to imagine how Saudi artists can reach a global audience and create international connections on their own. In fact, of the favourable circumstances in which Saudi artists have been operating since the late 1990s, the internet has been a watershed in the cultural and social history of the country.

Although nowadays internet in Saudi Arabia is still filtered and access to specific websites is being denied, the online sphere has become the parallel Saudi world in which what is officially unauthorized or morally illicit is now taking place. On the other hand, the internet has contributed to outlining a more critical sense of local identity, because, for many Saudis, it represented a sort of mirror through which they could observe themselves through an external lens.[4]

Most importantly, thanks to the internet and the access to the flux of information that previously would stop at the border, it seems that the Saudi people have rediscovered who they are in the eyes of the world. And with this, the Kingdom is also now being called an Arab internet-based society.

According to social media research in 2013 of Saudi Arabia, Twitter usage rates are amongst the highest in the world, the country has the most YouTube views per capita (with 90 million downloads every 24 hours), and Instagram and Snapchat are shared and commented on repeatedly.

The internet also allowed artists to learn about the global art world without traveling abroad. This phenomenon represented a significant opportunity, particularly for those artists who were self-taught or who had only completed calligraphy art classes in their native regions.

Apart from the internet, which represents both a tool and a factor in the Saudi Arabian contemporary cultural renaissance, other social factors have influenced the empowerment of artistic production. These factors include: higher education offered by universities (although they lack specific fine arts programs); a greater vision of prosperity envisioned by the Saudi government (embodied in the political plan “Saudi Vision 2030” championed by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman); and the inclusion in national public life of a remarkable number of female citizens.

Additionally, the negative image of being a terrorist country that dominated the media for years has motivated artists to challenge themselves on their own terms. In this sense, they struggle to demystify the oversimplified cultural stereotypes that the West may still wish to see for some inexplicable ethnographic reason.

It is again important to emphasize how the arrival of the internet overwhelmed the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia, unlike other countries, stepped into the technological era abruptly with decades and decades of gaps to recover.

Artists are fully aware that those gaps need to be filled and overridden. In fact, Saudi artist Nugamshi stresses that “artists feel sorry for being late”.[5] Artists apologise for their backward knowledge about art history, for the belated Saudi presence within the international art criticism debate, and sometimes also for not being fluent in English, which hinders their ability to get their message across. Therefore, as a response, art comes out of need, and the recovery of time has become an unapologetic matter of urgency.

Locally engaged and internationally ambitious
Such a combination of forces, and the urge for emancipation, have significantly encouraged artists to draw a new Saudi Arabian identity at the dawn of the 21st century. Rethinking identity is key.

The common theme, then, goes along with the artists’ desire to talk about themselves as Saudi citizens, and it encompasses diverse subjects, including various forms of gender studies; the interpretation of the concept of the sacred concerning both religion and society; and the urban transformation of traditional cities along with their loss of heritage.

On the other hand, the international art lessons made accessible by museum websites, online art magazines and blogs have also influenced Saudi artists, informing them about current art theory and tendencies. And though local artists have inevitably observed such foreign trends, they have not imitated their styles. Instead, they have internalized their methodology in terms of art, questioning and dealing with the content in a more in-depth manner. [6]

Saudi artists use their craft to challenge society and resist political pressure to create a space for dialogue and change.
Photo: Abdulnasser Gharem, Message/Messenger, in “Parallel Kingdom”, Station Museum, Huston, 2016/King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, Bridges Program; Dhafer Alsheri


“The artwork of Ahmed Mater, Abdulnasser Gharem and Manal Al-Dowayan are full of nervous optimism”,[7] Stephen Stapleton, who co-founded the London-based non-profit organization Edge of Arabia in 2008, said.

Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem also stresses how “local artists need to be around each other. No one is going to support them if they don’t support each other”.

As a consequence of lack of institutional spaces and art training programs, in 2015 the artist founded Gharem Studio, a Riyadh community-based organisation for the promotion of young creative talents.

Back in 2011, siblings Shadia and Raja Alem, the former an artist and the second a writer, were chosen to represent Saudi Arabia at the Venice Biennale, which is recorded as the isolated case of official Saudi participation in such an international art venue.

Their installation, “The Black Arch”, which comprised a stainless steel cube surrounded by 3000 polished silver spheres, was an explicit reference to the Holy Ka’ba and the ritual of the Hajj pilgrimage. Among the points of reference, they intended to revisit elementary and pure geometrical forms as essential roots of timeless Saudi values still recurrent in today’s ever-changing society.

Saudi artists use their craft to challenge society and resist political pressure to create a space for dialogue and change.
Photo: Ahmed Mater, Magnetism, 2008-2011/Ahmed Mater

Alem’s approach to drawing forms inspired by traditional stories and everyday objects is also shared by Gharem. The 2011 sale of Gharem’s “Message/Messenger” in Dubai became legendary. His three-meter-wide wood and copper dome sculpture, symbolizing the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, was sold at a Christie’s auction for a world record price of USD $842,000, establishing the highest price ever paid for a living Arab artist.

Finally, and probably more subversive, is artist and doctor Ahmed Mater’s “Magnetism” (2008-2011) – the popular image depicting the theme of Tawaf, the circumambulation around the Ka’ba.

Before printing the photographic series, the artist shaped a small-size installation consisting of a black magnet at the core of the sculpture. This minute prism is surrounded by a vortex of constantly-in-tension iron shavings attracted by magnetic force. If the work evokes the Holy Mecca, Ahmed Mater wants to epitomize the quintessence of faith with its strength, but also his personal concerns about the intimidating power wielded by any religious institutions.

A more recent work by Gharem, “Aniconism” (2015), tackles the taboo subject of female nudity in the Arab World. The performative work shows 22 Saudi artists using a plastic model of a naked woman for a life drawing class.

Saudi artists use their craft to challenge society and resist political pressure to create a space for dialogue and change.
Photo: Abdulnasser Gharem, Aniconism, 2015, still from video/Abdulnasser Gharem

Challenging the Saudi ban on depicting the human body because it would represent a form of idolatry, Gharem first bought the mannequin in Dubai and then sliced it into sections to get it through Saudi Arabian customs. Once it had been reassembled in his Riyadh studio, it became the heart of an art lesson.

Dressed in traditional clothes, a group of artists is shown playing with Western popular art history repertoires (e.g., Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and even some reminder of the Christian iconography of The Last Supper), which demonstrates the will of artists in the country to overcome barriers and engage with aesthetics at the core of art history.

In this sense, there are no apologies for being Saudi when art represents an act of resistance. To artists like Al Dowayan, Mater, Gharem and many others, art is a means to make a change.

Claudio Cravero is an Italian-born curator. Since 2014, he has worked at The King Abdulaziz Center, where he has been investigating the relationship between cultural identity and public censorship across the Gulf Region. Earlier, he worked in Italy at the Castello of Rivoli-Museum of Contemporary Art, Turin (2004-2006), and at PAV-Centre for Contemporary Art, Turin (2008-2014). At PAV, his research explored the broader field of cultural ecology through socially engaged and community-based art projects. He also curated the 20th edition of the Onufri Prize, the annual contemporary art contest promoted by The National Gallery of Fine Arts, Tirana, Albania (2014). Cravero is also an author of articles for art magazines, blogs and a series of essays collected in more than 15 publications. He has served as a member of international juries and art collection committees (Coal, Paris; Domaine de Chamarande, Paris; Cape Town Art Fair, Cape Town), and has presented in public lectures on museum best practices and contemporary art from the Middle East.


This article is part of a Freemuse  INSIGHT  series edited by Marie Korpe. It was published in November 2017. The views and opinions presented in the article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of Freemuse.




[1] The content has been presented as a whole panel within Venice Biennial and The Arab World, a two-day conference at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice (October 19-20, 2017), organized by Roberta Marin and Cristina Tonghini (DSAAM)

[3] Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam, Language and Meaning, Commemorative Edition World Wisdom, Bloomington, 2009 (first published in 1976), p. 29

[4] Robert Kluijver, Contemporary Art in the Gulf: Context and Perspectives, self-published, online at Gulf Art Guide, March 2013, p. 18

[5] Nugamshi, recorded interview with Claudio Cravero, Riyadh, 2 Feb. 2016

[6] Abdulnasser Gharem, recorded interview with Claudio Cravero, Riyadh, 12/12/2014

[7] Stephen Stapleton, in Contemporary Kingdom: The Saudi Art Scene Now, Canvas Central, Dubai, 2014, p. 23

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