‘Connected To The Whole Universe’: Saudi Women Artists Show Their Work In The U.S.

"Not everything in Saudi Arabia is black and white," says photographer Dina Alhamrani, one of 11 Saudi artists whose work is featured in an exhibition this week at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C. The exhibition, called "Women's Point of View," features the creations of students and recent graduates in visual communications from Jeddah's all-female Dar al-Hekma University.

Their photography, drawings, motion graphics designs, even clothing (a "running abaya," a full-body cloak for athletes) make up the exhibition, which runs through Friday. Amid Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman's vision of a dynamic Saudi Arabia, it is in keeping with the kingdom's efforts to portray the country as modern.

More than half the country's university graduates are female, according to embassy spokesperson Fatimah Baeshen. In recent months, Saudi women have been granted rights such as attending soccer games and holding positions at the Justice Ministry — and there's been resolution of what Dar al-Hekma University president Suhair al-Qurashi calls the "very famous issue of driving." In September, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud lifted the country's ban on women taking the wheel.

Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 economic reform and modernization plan says women are a "great asset" and vows to "develop their talents, invest in their productive capabilities and enable them to strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy."

Eleven Dar al-Hekma-educated artists — students of U.S. photographer Linda Schaefer, an assistant professor there — came to Washington to present their work at the exhibition opening, at the invitation of Ambassador Prince Khalid bin Salman, a son of the Saudi king who the New York Times described last year as "a prime example of the type of modern Saudi official the kingdom wants to show the American public. He knows his way around Instagram, enjoys political cartoons and expresses interest in American pop culture."

The ambassador, says Baeshen, "was keen to showcase [the artists' work] at the embassy, supporting women coming over and standing by their work and speaking from the first-person perspective."

Schaefer, their teacher, says, "The world doesn't really know a lot about women from Saudi Arabia. People have preconceived notions about who they are. When they meet face to face, they understand a lot more about them than the labels assigned to them."

"Women see differently," says motion graphics designer Sheitha al-Aiyash, 25. "I want to try a lot of things. I want to be a director. To do everything, to know everything — that's very nice."

Fellow motion graphics graduate Malath al-Nemari, 23, who designed a series of illustrated photos showing hijab-clad women with wings reading books, wanted to express her love of the written word. "My vision," she says, "is about books that make people feel free and connected to the world, and peaceful. I want to represent Saudi, Middle Eastern women as educated and connected to the whole universe."

Rana Fatami demonstrated her "Historical Jeddah" app, which she designed to encourage tourism in the city's historical center, a World Heritage Site. The app includes a wayfinding system, walking distances (which she measured by enlisting the help of volunteers) and maps. "Google Maps doesn't read the narrow streets," Fatami explains. "This app solves this. I hope the government will adopt it."

Bashayer Alkhayyat, a running enthusiast modeling a lightweight, gray-and-blue one-piece abaya of her own design, says, "I don't want women to feel anything is holding them back." She's also designed an app for women to find running buddies so they won't have to exercise alone. Running is becoming more of a trend among women in Jeddah, she says, but "I'm still not satisfied. I want more people to run."

Sara al-Ghamdi, 24, says she hopes her photographs of a woman wearing an orange turban will show Saudi women as "strong" and "modern."

"If they wear a hijab," she says, women "feel shy, like they can't follow their dreams. I want to tell them even if you cover your hair, it's not going to stop your dreams."

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