BY Gouri Sharma in Profiles | 18 APR 24

Manal AlDowayan on Keeping Pace with Change

At the Venice Biennale, the artist explores shifting her artistic focus as Saudi women embrace new opportunities amid the easing of gender-based restrictions

BY Gouri Sharma in Profiles | 18 APR 24

It was while geeking out with a group of geologists nearly two decades ago that Manal AlDowayan learnt how to record the hum of a sand dune. Requiring high-tech recording equipment and bum-sliding down dunes, she has since incorporated the experience into her upcoming installation, representing Saudi Arabia at the 60th Venice Biennale.

‘I grew up in the Aramco oil company compound, which was full of nerdy geologists,’ she tells me via video from her home in London ahead of the exhibition opening. ‘I learnt the technique a few years ago and kept the sound in mind, saying to myself that I was going to use it for an artwork one day.’

Portrait of Manal AlDowayan
Portrait of Manal AlDowayan. Courtesy: the Commissioner for the National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia

AlDowayan and her team recorded the hum in the Rub’ al Khali – or Empty Quarter – the world’s largest continuous sand desert and one of the few places where this hum exists. It forms a part of her multimedia pavilion titled ‘Shifting Sands: A Battle Song’, which explores visibility and representation. Alongside the dune tune, the show includes desert roses made of silk and a cacophony of typical terms used by Western media to describe Saudi women in seven languages. Another layer of sound includes the hum of the sand dune and synchronous chants, a work that was developed with 1,000 Saudi women and girls during three participatory workshops.

She says the piece fits well with the spirit of this year’s Biennale, Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere, which elicits questions around identity and marginalization. ‘The biggest thing that we are observing today in my country is the emergence of women [into public society],’ AlDowayan says. The permanence of a sand dune – despite constant shifts and external attempts to build over it – speaks to this process. ‘And with the song, I wanted to create something that is new and contemporary, a battle cry for women to prepare for this next phase of history.’

The only artists that I saw as a child were in Hollywood films and were typically white males covered in paint.

This next phase AlDowayan is referencing comes amid an easing in recent years of strict gender-based restrictions in Saudi society. AlDowayan’s works chronicle this period from a feminist perspective. Through collective narratives, public participation and diverse mediums such as sculpture, photography, film, sound, archival and material cultures, AlDowayan has shone a spotlight on those rendered invisible; amplifying untold stories and interrogating the power systems at play.

Manal AlDowayan workshop
Participatory workshops for Shifting Sands: A Battle Song (2024). Courtesy: Courtesy of the Visual Arts Commission and the Commissioner for the National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia. Photograph: Iman Al-Dabbagh

Her earlier works include ‘I am...’ (2005), a series of staged black and white photographs of Saudi women working – as doctors, architects, engineers – while wearing a traditional item of jewellery in a way the artist has described as ‘obstructive and unnatural’. Others include Suspended Together (2011), featuring fibreglass doves hung from a ceiling. Frozen in flight, each bird is inscribed with a travel permission slip that Saudi women shared with the artist for the project.

Since entering the international arts scene in the early 2000s, AlDowayan has often been described as one of Saudi Arabia’s most influential contemporary artists. The path towards recognizing herself as an artist, however, was less smooth. ‘For many years, I struggled with the idea of calling myself an artist because the only artists that I saw as a child were in Hollywood films and were typically white males covered in paint.’

Shifting Sands, exhibition view
Manal AlDowayan, Shifting Sands: A Battle Song, 2024, installation view, Tussar silk, ink, acrylic paint. Courtesy: the Visual Arts Commission and the Commissioner for the National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia

Yet there were members of her family who supported her creativity, including her mother, who gifted her her first camera, and who would later send money in secret while AlDowayan was studying for her Master’s degree in computer science in London so she could attend art classes. Her maternal uncle’s art supplies shop in the Eastern Province has also played an important role. ‘The shop is legendary and has existed for 50 years. It is very much family run, and you will often see members of my mother’s family walking around, getting discounts,’ she says with a laugh. ‘But I went through the traditional education system so the full onslaught of the religious establishment was on my head.’ Expected to follow family tradition and work at the Aramco oil camp in Dhahran, eastern Saudi Arabia, she recalls her father putting her employment papers in her hand on graduation day.

While she didn’t have a positive female role model in the arts growing up in 1990s Saudi Arabia, she notes how big the shifts are between her and the generation that has followed. She also recognizes her role as an inspiration and support for younger artists. They often reach out for advice, on everything from their artwork to licensing and contracts, working internationally, and how to manage a studio – all aspects that the artist is managing for herself. ‘I was wondering if I was turning into the matriarch of contemporary art, but I’m too young to be a grandmother,’ she says with a smile.

Suspended Together, 2011
Manal AlDowayan, Suspended Together, 2011, installation view, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Qatar. Courtesy: the artist

Both an observer and a part of the changes she is documenting, the easing of restrictions has affected how she creates and relates to the issues she addresses. ‘Nowadays, the poster girl image is everywhere. It’s become a bit of a make up for lost time exercise. This has impacted my work, because for many years I’ve been questioning small injustices that belong to larger injustices, and now many of these have been resolved.’

‘Artists,’ she says, ‘don’t just say everything’s fine and then move on.’ Her critical edge has not been blunted in more recent work either, with series such as ‘The Eternal Return of the Same’ (2021), which included The Emerging – body parts cast in Jesmonite which questioned ‘how women are renegotiating their bodies and the spaces they inhabit,’ AlDowayan explains.

I am a Saudi Citizen, 2005
Manal AlDowayan, I am a Saudi Citizen, 2005. Courtesy: the artist

She says the changes are also giving her more space to think about other topics, including climate change and the country’s pre-Islamic history, which in recent years has seen increased investment and excavation efforts. ‘I find myself asking, “Who were these Arabs that existed 5,000 years ago? How are they connected to me? Are they my ancestors?” It is so different because in school, I was taught a history that was very basic.’

How does AlDowayan see the future of contemporary art in Saudi evolving? Whether she considers herself to be the scene’s matriarch or not, she is committed to bearing critical witness. ‘As an artist embedded into this community and internationally, I don’t want to feed into this idea of the “other”. Women around the world constantly need to reassess, build, change and find sisterhood and avoid this fragmentation that is being pushed on us by patriarchy. As we see the Saudi woman entering history, the archives and global society, the big question on my mind is what her visual representation will look like’.

Main image: Manal AlDowayan, Shifting Sands: A Battle Song, 2024, installation view, Tussar silk, ink, acrylic paint. Courtesy: the Visual Arts Commission and the Commissioner for the National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia

Gouri Sharma is a freelance journalist and writer based in Berlin contributing to international media outlets such as Al Jazeera, South China Morning Post and MIT Tech Review. With roots in Lahore, Punjab, Kenya, London and now Berlin, Gouri's main areas of interest include culture, migration, history, race and gender.