Despite the novelty of the contemporary art phenomena in Saudi Arabia, female artists are resilient and determined to break into the regional and global art scene. Through three interrelated narratives that challenge the realities of contemporary Saudi culture, Sarah Abu Abdallah, Sarah Mohanna Al-Abdali and Manal Al Dowayan use diverse styles to probe and reflect on questions of identity and freedom in Soft Power, which opened 13 October at Alaan Artspace’s inaugural exhibition.
As Riyadh’s first contemporary art space, Alaan ("Now") Artspace, strives to inject a dose of contemporary art into Saudi Arabia’s religious society, through offering a vibrant platform that encourages artful discourse.
The edgy Soft Power artists are part of a contemporary art movement in Saudi Arabia that draws influences from global art and infuses cultural reflections into their authentic artwork, making it internationally competitive.
Breaking into the contemporary Arab art scene , Saudi Arabia is currently expanding its artistic repertoire and showcasing more and more works by up-and-coming local artists . Alaan Art Space is not the first gallery to emerge in conservative Saudi Arabia. Another major advocate of Saudi art is Athr Gallery, which was established in 2009 in Jeddah. The Dubai-based Ayyam gallery is also a due to open a new space in Jeddah in November. Art is branching out from the kingdom as well; Saudi artworks have recently appeared at the British Museum, at the Venice Biennale, emerging with social critiques and snapshots of Arab life.
Soft Power curator and head of curatorial programmes and education at Alaan Artspace, Sara Raza, who has been working with art in the Gulf for a number of years; in Sharjah and Dubai, as well as Asia, says the Saudi art movement is still at a grassroots level, with only a handful of individuals diligently working to develop the scene, but it is rapidly growing.
"Through the dedication of organisations such as Edge of Arabia, Athr Gallery and artists such as Abdulnasser Gharem and Manal Al Dowayan, Saudi Arabian contemporary art has been placed on both a regional and international map," Raza told Ahram Online.
Raza explains that despite the notable lack of art education in the kingdom, "technological advancements and the activities in the Gulf region Saudi artists are more exposed to new forms of art and are incorporating them into their practices."
At the Alaan Artspace the women present striking installations, photos, videos and mixed media artworks that display a range of art practices that derail from the traditional crafts and graphic design taught at Saudi universities. Each bearing her own thought-provoking visual language, the Soft Power artists attempt to explore and perhaps even subvert clichés and impressions of modern Saudi society by juxtaposing images of daily life with artistic statements.
At Alaan Artspace, a groundbreaking set of photos, installations and videos by Sarah Abu Abdalla simultaneously shock and excite. Through placing fully-veiled women in different domestic and outdoor settings she explores the politics of social space. In Misfit (2012), a photographic series that juxtaposes a woman in a black burqa with a series of chaotic backgrounds, Abu Abdalla negotiates the place of the Saudi female protagonist, whose body language alludes to incongruity with the environment.
Sarah Al-Abdali’s mixed media works tackle marriage rituals and Four Wives swiftly becomes a social critique. Al-Abdali combines intricate drawings and geometric designs with stencilled graffiti, resulting in a multi-dimensional body of work that deliver a sort of visual poetry. Most notably, in this project the artist shaves her protagonists' heads, eliminating the pressure of wearing the veil.
The third participating artist is one of Saudi’s most prominent; Manal Al Dowayan is a globally-recognised artist whose artwork has exhibited across the Middle East and in international art spaces. Al Dowayan challenges the cultural taboo of speaking women’s names in public through an installation entitled Esmi, which is a large-scale group of rosary-like string of beads, used by Muslims to count the times they praise God, with each bead bearing the names of Saudi women who were invited by the artist to a workshop. Through creating this emblem of religiosity and associating the names of women with it, Al Dowayan protests the cultural mandates that silence the names of women in contemporary Arab society. The work is meant to encourage women to embrace their identity and instils a sense of empowerment.
Sarah Abu Abdallah, Sarah Mohanna Al-Abdali and Manal Al Dowayan are featured in Soft Power not merely as artists; they become visual cultural critics, relaying through their artwork a sense of the evolving fabric of contemporary Saudi society. They are not afraid to speak (or rather paint) their minds.
"Contemporary art is a new phenomenon in Saudi Arabia, yet the artists that I have encountered are eager and resilient to forge ahead with being both experimental and visually critical," says the curator.
Sara Raza explains that curating the all-women debut of Alaan Artspace was the plan from the start. "I had been following the Saudi scene and the culture in general and was surprised at how resilient women were in the face of both actual and perceived inequality and how they negotiated their positions as women and artists," says Raza. "So Soft Power really was born out of that; it was not an exhibition with any militancy, but humour and solidarity."
The exhibition emerges to raise questions and spark debate on visual culture. Alaan artspace creates a space for dialogue and exchange inside Riyadh,  bridging the gap between artists and audiences in the city. "Art is an important metaphor for change," says Raza.
By Sara Elkamel