WA’AD AL-MUJALLI, 245 am, 2015, computer-generated print on photo paper, 50 × 50 cm. Courtesy the artist. 


Quincy House
Saudi Arabia

“Miracle,” a group show curated by Saudi artist Hana al-Moqbil at Quincy House, the United States Ambassador’s Residence in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, falls on the typical regional crutch of reinforcing gender stereotypes and, in doing, so limits the participants’ artistic capacity.

Whether by curatorial oversight, or lack of genuine development among young female Saudi artists, the overall exhibition failed to meet its potential.

Gendered language can affect one’s perceptions, and the exhibition’s title, “Miracle,” merely reinforces the romanticized notion that woman are, as stated in its catalog, “worthy of affection, mercy, and generosity.” It’s a trite platitude that is at best pedestrian and at worst renders women as delicate, lace-frilled subjects of masculine gaze. The same can be seen in the majority of the artworks in the exhibition.

This was an opportunity to really push concepts and explore the idea of women in Saudi society: the venue affords a certain liberty, and there is a wide array of dynamic female artists that are active locally. Instead, the exhibition falls flat.

This is merely another show full of artworks that rely on typical clichés that are all too often seen in the region’s gender-specific exhibitions: a heavy-handed reliance on abayas, obscured faces, chiaroscuro, darkness, foreboding photographs overlaid with Islamic geometry and other symbols of “oppressed” Muslim women.

Installation view of “Miracle,” at Quincy House, Riyadh, 2015. Photo by and courtesy Abdulmajeed al-Rweidan. 

I have yet to encounter an exhibition in Saudi Arabia built around the artist’s physical gender that showcases a collection of powerful, evocative work. Most of the time the featured pieces are a regurgitation of overused symbolism and convey a general lack of original thought.

The idea of women being “miraculous” relies on gender-specific language and dovetails all too neatly with the barely veiled misogyny of the region’s most ardent conservatives, who claim that  women are “princesses” and then use this notion as a pretext for restricting their every freedom. Women are no more “miraculous” than men, or any other human for that matter. Yet I say this is not as an attempt at erasure. The experiences of women in this region are fundamentally different to those of their male counterparts. They are unique, but are undermined by being continuously portrayed with a broad brushstroke by the very people who claim to represent those multitude of experiences.

The only exception are the artworks by Wa’ad al-Mujalli, who is showing two prints and an associated short film. Her work is almost like a moving manifestation of Korean artist Yong Ho Ji’s sculptures, sharing the same suggestive eeriness through distorted body shapes. Al-Mujalli’s computer-generated animation strips down the human body and overlays voice waves to corespondent with the figure’s movement.

A recent trend in Saudi Arabia has been an over-saturation of gender-specific exhibitions that tend to fall flat, and yet gallerists, curators and other creative incubators fail to alter the clichéd approach. The heavy reliance on this trend produces middling duplications and no new ideas. That such exhibitions are so singularly dismal is of little surprise when one considers that for such an exhibition to go ahead, any notion of artistic merit has been made frivolous and replaced with nothing more than the artists’ sex. Building exhibitions around deeper concepts, and not abayas, is critical in furthering the regional creative scene.

“Miracle” is on view at the Quincy House, Riyadh, until June 11, 2015.