In Madrid, a Saudi Artist Plays Cultural Interpreter and Provocateur

Aug 4, 2016 7:46PM

Since opening her eponymous gallery in Madrid in 2011, Sabrina Amrani has established herself as an important liaison between East and West. “I feel I belong to two different worlds,” the French-Algerian gallerist has said. “Most of the artists I work with are in the diaspora, studied or live abroad and have this same double-culture sentiment.”

Spain, where her gallery is located, historically represents the boundary between Europe and North Africa—“a natural doorway to Arab culture and art,” Amrani calls it. As such, her gallery roster includes artists from Tunisia, Palestine, Pakistan, Morocco, and elsewhere in the region. The latest addition to her roster, Manal AlDowayan, hails from Saudi Arabia and currently lives and works in Dubai.

AlDowayan’s multimedia practice is notable not only for its varied material—sculpture, video, photography, neon, large-scale participatory installations, etc.—but for the themes it navigates. In particular, AlDowayan engages directly with the state of Saudi women and their representation in society. The topic is especially important for AlDowayan, given that her native country is one of few places in the world where a dress code is legally enforced: Women typically wear an abaya (long cloak), hijab (headscarf), or burqa (a garment that covers the entire body, leaving only the eyes, if anything, visible).

AlDowayan played with cultural roles and expectations in her black-and-white photography series “I Am” (2007), which depicted beautiful, traditionally dressed Saudi women in a variety of professional roles. The deceptively simple declarative sentences—I Am a Computer Scientist, I Am an Architect—set the stage for a series of disarming images that juxtapose tradition with professionalism, all while shining a light on women’s roles in the workplace and in society at large.

The oil industry, crucial to Saudi culture, is a recurring motif in AlDowayan’s practice, and in her life: She comes from an oil family. In her 2012 project “If I Forget You Don’t Forget Me,” she documented the “oil men and women” of Saudi Arabia as well as artifacts from their past lives. In doing so, she raised questions about collective memory and personal identity.

“How do you photograph a memory that is forever changing?” AlDowayan wrote of the series. “How do you capture a moment that existed fifty years ago in Saudi Arabia? I document the journey of the oil men and women, one generation before me, who came from different facets of life and met each other at a single point where they took off to the future together.”

Just as Amrani, the gallerist, bridges the gap between East and West, AlDowayan presents to the world a multifaceted vision of her native country in all its beauty and complexity. She’s both cultural interpreter and provocateur, and now an exciting new addition to Amrani’s impressive roster of artists.

—Bridget Gleeson

See more artists from Sabrina Amrani on Artsy.