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First outdoor art show in conservative Saudi

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Cars drive past a streetside billboard displaying a painting by Tahani al-Mahmudi during a showcase of Saudi art on December 22, 2014 on Tahlia street in the Saudi capital Riyadh. — AFP
Cars drive past a streetside billboard displaying a painting by Tahani al-Mahmudi during a showcase of Saudi art on December 22, 2014 on Tahlia street in the Saudi capital Riyadh. — AFP

By Ian Timberlake

In highly conservative Saudi Arabia where most forms of entertainment are forbidden, art has taken to the streets.

Dozens of paintings were displayed on outdoor advertising billboards in the capital Riyadh and other cities in what organisers say is the kingdom’s first public art show.

“It is something new,” said Mohammed al-Khereiji, deputy chief executive of Al-Arabia Outdoor, the advertising firm behind the exhibition.

“For the first time, art is presented to the public,” although small indoor exhibitions have previously taken place in the kingdom, he said.

Sculptures have also been displayed in the open, including a permanent display along the corniche in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, and the country has some small galleries.

With about 3,400 billboards showing 80 paintings by Saudi artists, Khereiji called it “the biggest art gallery in the Middle East”.

Normally on Tahlia Street, the only things on show are flashy cars cruising past the boulevard’s wide sidewalks, outdoor cafes, and high-end restaurants serving Western cuisine.

The kingdom, which practises a conservative Salafist version of Islam, bans alcohol even in luxury hotels, does not allow cinemas or theatres, and strictly separates the sexes.

“The culture and the society do not encourage artists and it is difficult to be an artist in this society,” said Majed Saud al-Mefareh, in front of a billboard featuring his painting, “Story”.

It is a patchwork of abstract figures and images depicting Saudi life and traditions.

Mefareh, 38, who holds a regular job in administration, said he has been a part-time painter for about two decades because he enjoys his hobby and knows that “some people in our society like it” too.

The inaugural exhibition should help more Saudis to appreciate the visual arts, he said.

Sultan al-Adwani, a curious onlooker who works at the interior ministry, said the outdoor gallery seemed like a good idea.

“It’s better than inside the building,” he said in the chilly evening air as waiters served glasses of juice to invited guests outside a French restaurant.

A powerful image

The paintings were chosen after a call for submissions drew 3,200 entries.

Most of the colourful works are in an abstract style, some reminiscent of early-20th century Cubism made famous by Picasso.

They include a variety of subjects including urban and rural landscapes, sports, Islam’s holiest site the Kaaba, a stylised camel, and a couple in traditional dress sitting on chairs together at the seaside.

The strict Wahhabi version of Islam forbids paintings of the human form but several works in the exhibition clearly depict people, many of them women.

One painting shows a green female figure, hands on hips and head held high, emerging from a cactus in a desert landscape.

It is a powerful image in a country that does not allow women to drive and where they cover themselves in black from head to toe outside the home.

Ahlam Nassir al-Harbi, 23, said women are also a minority among the country’s artists, making up perhaps 10 or 20 percent of painters.

An art student at Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University for women, she said “it feels lovely” to have one of her paintings exhibited outside.

The work shows two female forms alongside traditional Bedouin designs.

Harbi, only her eyes visible under a black abaya robe, agreed the outdoor show would help elevate the low level of interest in art among the Saudi public.

It did not, however, generate much attention from the country’s religious police tasked with cracking down on perceived moral violations.

“The Islamic police passed by”, Khereiji said, and they had no problem with the exhibition.

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