Our Mother’s House: Saudi Arabia

THE PERMANENT MISSION of Saudi Arabia to the United Nations (UN) is hosting Our Mother’s House a showcase of works by the Asiri women of mountainous Rijal Alma, Saudi Arabia. Initially presented from 16 to 26 November, in conjunction with Art Jameel and Edge of Arabia, a mural has been permanently gifted to the UN, hand-painted in person in New York. Moderated discussion by the Middle East Institute was also facilitated in an effort to preserve the Asiri art as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The geometric precision of decisive patterns and primary colours is at once technical and welcoming. The designs adorn the interiors of the stone homes of Asir, a region known worldwide for the beauty of the distinctive wall paintings, and for the comforting atmosphere lent to the intimate space. As such, painted ceramics are also available, and pops of colour greet at entrances. Doorways, awnings, and verandas are all decorated, with blues and yellows popping out in displayed photographs of the village landscape.

The tradition of house-painting is unique to women in the region, as the home is considered the female domain. The role of the woman is so exclusively homebound, in fact, that the talented artists are photographed working with their faces hidden from the camera, leaving their identities to privacy and modesty. However, local artist Fatimah Jaber spoke in New York during the exhibition debut. Jaber’s hand-painted mural is on view at the curved wall of the UN Building in New York in reference to the traditional motifs.

In terms of a historical narrative, it is important to note that the long-revered historical lineage of women in Asiri home paintings precedes a more recent contemporary Renaissance throughout the Saudi Arabian art scene. The collaborative groups on board for this show, Edge of Arabia and Art Jameel, were founded in 2003 and 2006 respectively, whereas Alaan Art space opened in Riyadh in 2012, is run and presented disproportionately by women. These developments could potentially be suggestive of a changing tide in the political attitudes of a notoriously right-wing country, especially with the backing of the Saudi Arabian Mission at the United Nations.

The current politically charged climate facing Saudi Arabia is as artistically brilliant as it is politically complex, and the UN’s decision to take this moment to recognise Saudi women is provocative. Despite diplomatic relations, the current political climate facing Saudi Arabia is tepid at best. Ongoing military support of war in neighbouring Yemen has been met with hostility as the war reached a toll of 6,000 deaths and 26,568 injuries since the conflict began seven months ago, and women’s equality at home has been constantly challenged and disputed. As Yemenite hospital visitor Ali Abdul Hamad bluntly told The Economist earlier this year, ‘Saudi Arabia says they are protecting us, but they are killing us’.

Saudi Arabia has also faced reproach for lacking formal acceptance of refugees, a byproduct of the ongoing violence in the region. However, Saudi Arabian representatives have denied a lack of support, claiming that they have welcomed 2.5 million Syrians since 2011, as reported by Al Jazeera and Reuters. The Edge of Arabia, a collaborator on the Our Mother’s House Showcase, was linked to a show on New York’s vanished Little Syria Freeway to explore New York’s vanished Little Syria earlier this year.

Ultimately Saudi Arabia is tackling a public realations problem with art. The concept of home in itself as entrenched in a maze of global diplomacy and diaspora is deeply relevant, representative of the need to address displacement and disadvantages facing humanity the world over as rooted in the power of a safe and beautiful home.

ALEXANDRA BREGMAN