In my previous artistic work, I have questioned the state of disappearance and active erasing of communities in a historical and current context, which led me to its counterbalance - visibility, in all its variations. I Am explores a gendered history that does not (yet) physically exist because it was discontinued, fractured, or forgotten.
In an oil rich region and a country ranked as the highest exporter of crude oil, half of the population is under a serious threat of poverty. This was not always the case. Take crafts as an example, Sadu weaving was the domain of Bedouin women while the men were working the fields herding camels or sheep. The women weavers wove the walls of their tents, floor coverings, riding gear for their animals and made some money for the family by selling these items to other members of their tribes. Nagsh, on the other hand, developed in the mountainous south west of Saudi Arabia where tribes were not constantly moving because they were agricultural communities. They invested in decorating the interiors of their homes with designs that skilled women drew because they were able to move between homes without compromising the homeowner's privacy. These were natural social structures that existed in the past that allowed women to earn money and have financial independence, or at least contribute to the family livelihood alongside men.
The fast pace of change brought on by oil-fueled modernity has, in one generation, made these jobs obsolete for women. Bedouins have been urbanized and Nagsh has all but stopped with the death of the last generation of great artisans who led large groups of women painters. Although their communities in the past allowed women and men to be equal earners and financial contributors, today it is the women who live in poverty or have become totally dependent on the earnings of the male members of their families.
In 2005 King Abdulla AlSaud gave his inaugural speech as he took the throne in Saudi Arabia. He called upon all Saudi’s to come together to build the country, including specifically the importance of women’s participation in this call for unity. This was an unprecedented mention of women and employment in such a direct way. That speech caused huge hope and excitement among women’s rights activist, but it also caught the attention of the conservatives who raised the question, what kind of jobs are women going to be “allowed” to do? The King’s speech, was later interpreted and clarified by the press and other conservative opinion leaders, that women will only participate in jobs that “suit their nature” as women. Which led me to question “who defines my nature as a woman? And what suits it?” these questions form the basis of the I Am collection.
I chose to address women’s historical contribution to the development of their society through the stories of the women in these contemporary photographs, a visual response using a participatory art project. I had invited women from my community, who were ignoring the theoretical discussion on their ability to work, and were actually working. The resulting images were designed as a collaboration of ideas and feelings of these women towards the dialogue on their nature and what suits it. The collection of black and white photographs hosts a variety of Saudi Arabian women who perform everyday roles in Saudi society. At the same time, each photograph has a piece of traditional jewelry placed in an obstructive and unnatural way, questioning cultural traditions that prevent Saudi women from expanding their societal roles.
I Am was produced in 2005 when less than 3% of Saudi Arabian women formal employmentwere formally employed. Today that number has risen to 16%. Regardless of the modest rise in numbers, the main challenges have not changed from when I took these photographs. Politicians and religious figures in Saudi Arabia have, for years, hijacked the dialogue on women’s rights. They have turned women’s right to work in a public sphere into an issue that threatens Saudi identity, the structures of family, and the religious principles that underpin Muslim society. Many continue to aggressively speak out against women’s right to leave the home, to work, to mix with men as equals, and to gain financial independence.
(Text was updated in 2017)
Produced in 2005 - Medium: Silver Gelatin Print. Size: 16 x 22 inch. Editions 10 + AP