Manal AlDowayan, a multidisciplinary contemporary Saudi artist who lives in Dubai and London, will be the subject of a solo presentation in the Positions section of Art Basel Miami Beach, presented by Madrid’s Sabrina Amrani gallery. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Tell me about the works from your solo presentation at Art Basel in Miami. What are you bringing?
The artworks that will be shown in Miami are part of the original collection “Watch Before You Fall,” which debuted at the gallery in Madrid in January 2019. It was a product of a few years of research, but it reflects my practice for the last 15 years, where I deal with the issues of women’s visibility and invisibility.
I made these pieces in response to the massive changes in my country, where women are increasingly moving from the private sphere to the public one. In the 1990s, only 3 percent of women in Saudi were in the work force, and today it’s something like 23 percent and it keeps growing. Things are changing too fast for people to even come up with the numbers that reflect reality. Women are moving from the private sphere to the public sphere, and I felt it was important to readdress now our bodies our voices, our presence in these new spaces.
A lot of your work in this series seems to be very text based, with Arabic texts printed or written onto scrolls or sculptural objects. How do you use the words?
They’re not my words or my handwriting; they’re scans from books. I’ve used newspapers and texts from newspapers in the past, but in this project, I just used books that speak about women’s lives. They are talking about how women should engage with the public outside, how to dress, how to have a certain tone of voice, what spaces are safe and unsafe for a woman, and a lot of descriptions about the hidden dangers in the public for women.
That’s why the title is “Watch Before You Fall.” It struck me that there’s a kind of prophecy that you’re going to fall, it’s inevitable, it’s coming. When you really examine this word, “fall,” over and over again, you start to feel that maybe you would like to fall. The fear might be a space where there’s empowerment.
Can you tell us about one work in particular from this collection that you feel is emblematic of the whole group?
There’s a piece called “The Emerging,” which are a series of ceramic black clay knees coming up out of the ground like hills, and they go with a painting which has the same forms in it. It took me a while to come up with this form because I was just playing and playing until I had this feeling I got, like something that emerges from the water or the ground; it’s not fully out there, but it is so easy to push it down again.
The image reflects this massive emergence. This project is really about moving from the private sphere to the public sphere, what it means for women specifically, and how they will have to readdress their bodies and voices, their language and interactions, and where do they stand in that new space and where do they belong and how do they create a sense of belonging? This work is really about being on the cusp of change right now and about me being part of it, what are my struggles, or my thoughts.
Do you think the art market is particularly receptive to art that has a feminist or female focus these days?
It comes in waves. There was a big focus on feminist art and museums putting together punchy exhibitions of women’s art in the early 2000s, when galleries and museums started looking at their collections to ask why aren’t more women included. And maybe now there is a new interest. Now there’s this whole new discovery of older women who have always existed, but now they’re becoming more appreciated. You see it reflected in the Venice Biennale and in some major museum exhibitions.
Was it hard to become a female artist in Saudi Arabia?
It was not hard because I was a woman; it’s hard for artists of both genders because there just wasn’t an art infrastructure in Saudi. We just opened our first museum that can host contemporary art and there are only two commercial galleries there that operate internationally.
When I started 15 years ago, there were no art galleries, and no museums, and no ecosystem for artists. I got two master’s degrees — I studied systems analysis and design, along with art. I had to have a job for many years while making my art. About 10 years ago I was able to just start working full time as an artist, because of Dubai, which turned into an art hub, and then Abu Dhabi started to participate as well.
I moved to Dubai because I had a gallery that represented me there, and I have a gallery in Madrid. It slowly unfolded, really, because all of us, artists and gallerists, were trying to figure out what was going on. Thankfully I stayed afloat and continued to make art and stay relevant.
But if women were not allowed in the public sphere at all when you were younger, how were you able to become an artist at all?
My father allowed me to study art because he was a big feminist. It is to his credit. Both my father and mother believed in raising their daughters to have jobs. I have two other sisters, and my community was all families from modest backgrounds and that encouraged looking toward the future.
My father wanted his daughters to be financially independent. But he wanted me to study computer science. That was logical because he didn’t look around him and see any artists who were making a living off of it. But by the time I had finished my master’s degree in art, I had already worked for 10 years in an oil company, Saudi Aramco, as the creative director, ultimately overseeing the company’s visual image and branding.
I was part of the 3 percent. I financed my own education, my own studio — and this is very rare, even in the Western world. The whole time I was studying art privately. I would go and take weekend or evening courses. It was my passion; it was meant to happen. It was just a matter of time.
Is this the first time you’re showing these works in America?
They haven’t been shown anywhere in the U.S. yet. I opened them in Madrid in the gallery’s new space there; they created interesting debates and now I wait to see what happens when they come to the U.S. I’m very curious to see how they’ll play in America.