There exists a generation of woman who were, at one point, known artisans among their communities and through the fast paced modernization of Saudi Arabia and the active urbanization of Bedouins, have lost their craft and fallen into poverty. I aim to highlight the unique beauty of their craft but juxtapose it against the neglect that these women have suffered.
In my artistic practice I work extensively with the idea of active forgetting and disappearance of communities and groups. I explore new ways of producing a portrait of an individual or a group. For example, in “If I forget you, don't forget me” a project that documents a small community of oilmen and women who witnessed the transformation of Saudi Arabia from extreme poverty to extreme wealth. I also collected sound files of folktales, poems, and conversations of women who participated in “The Tree of Guardians” which focused on the development of women- only family trees to negate the traditional patriarchal family tree. But there were two projects that I had worked on in the past that have led me to develop this proposal. The first was “Esmi – My Name” where I had Bedouin Sadu weavers help me build ropes and design elements for the installation that resulted from this participatory art work and secondly, a small story that I was commissioned to photograph for Saudi Aramco World magazine documenting the art of Nagsh in Abha.
I am constantly drawn to the inclusion of crafts in my research and eventually in my artworks. This is because I have found that in the Arabian Peninsula, crafts are mainly designated as work done exclusively by women, not because it suited their nature or because an authority deemed it to be, it was because the social fabric she belonged to found a balance of duties that included women as equal contributors to the livelihood of the family or the larger tribe.
For 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 on the side 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 farming communities with an agricultural heritage. 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 the 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. Although crafts, when they are functional and in demand, allow for a balance of opportunities among both genders, but when the system that supports this balance is altered by outside influences the first group of people that are negatively impacted are women.
This story will never be told because it doesn't fit into our colorful tourism brochures, nor will it give joy to the western- based readers of our heritage themed websites and publications. Our Arab traditions see shame in documenting the demise of an individual- especially an individual that belongs to our glorified past, that defines who we are today. Therefore this story has become a decaying skeleton in our closets, a depressing family secret that many hope with time, will disappear.
The women I found in the villages were in desperate need of money and healthcare. Their craft had been taken over by foreign Asian workers and the new restrictions placed on their mobility and interaction with communities they belong to has practically placed them in a state of house arrest. They navigate these restrictions discretely by building small museums or galleries in their homes. They teach younger women in their tribes their skills in a final attempt at self- preservation, and they spend their days lobbying local charities for donations in return for selling their products in local tourist markets.
These pockets of women exist across Saudi Arabia with varying styles of crafts but identical stories of demise. Sidelines aims to highlight a generation of women who witnessed a societal transformation that in one generation has pushed them from the center to the sidelines of their communities.
Produced in 2016 - Medium: Twill cotton with treated wool thread and aluminum frame