Berlin, Apr. 2010 - This is part #2 of a two-part interview between ArtSlant's writer, Ana Finel Honigman, and Jowhara AlSaud. Ana and Jowhara discuss the scope, limitations and possibilities of her imagery, Saudi culture and Saudi contemporary art.
Jowhara AlSaud, Jowhara AlSaud headshot; Courtesy of the artist
Ana Finel Honigman: How do you select your subjects?
Jowhara AlSaud: My subjects are all friends and family. All of my "drawings" are made from snapshots of people I know, some found, most I've taken. I gravitate towards photos that carry some sort of emotional weight even when stripped down. The pieces I find most successful are at once ambiguous and familiar, they are portraits, but no longer of me and mine alone.
AFH: Your work reminds me of French cinema. Would you say that the appearance of your work is more influenced by Western art or imagery within the Middle East?
JAS: It is an amalgam of many things. While you're right that I am heavily influenced by film, my work draws from many movements and techniques. I am also influenced by a plethora of different cultural references that I've been exposed to all my life. Eastern, Middle Eastern and Western culture all influence my work.
AFH: Is French cinema a component of the work?
JAS: I guess I could cite French Cinema’s use of narrative and storytelling in general. I could cite Stan Brakhage or Maya Deren for their experimental use of film. Julio Cortazar will have my undying gratitude for his short story "Blow Up," which was later made into a film by Michelangelo Antonioni. In both works, the protagonist, who is a translator and amateur photographer, relies on his unreliable photographs to interpret an ambiguous encounter he witnessed. I can also point to rotoscoping, an old animation technique where the animator would trace live action film to create the final animation like the work done in Disney's Snow White. I am also highly interested in photography itself, semiotics, graphic novels, television. My work comes from a place where all these things overlap. And if there is such a thing as a "collective subconscious," a concept which, I think, stems from a very Human desire to connect on some Universal level, I believe that t
his is where it would exist.
AFH: On the topic of universality, do you think that there is a signature Saudi aesthetic or s
eries of concerns which you feel are especially prevalent in Saudi art?
JAS: No. Although, I feel that the West wants there to be one. I mean, do you think there's a signature American aesthetic? Or a signature American concern? Or perhaps a British, French or Chinese one?
AFH: Well, actually there are distinct and signature styles for each culture which reflect the cultural context. “Cynical realism” is a style that could only have emerged in China now, just as Pop art defined America and seems unlikely to have emerged from elsewhere.
JAS: I believed that there were certain trends but you can’t define the human spirit with borders or nationalities. Sadly, I have been introduced to more Saudi art via Western, or West-based, curators and institutions. Now that these young Saudi galleries and publications are around, I'm seeing how aesthetically and conceptually diverse Saudi artists are. The issues we grapple with as Saudi artists are simply variations on the same themes as everywhere. There only seems to be a "signature" because of what the West chooses to promote. I'll leave the rest of this conversation to Edward Said, he's infinitely more eloquent than me.
AFH: How does your work relate to what other Saudi contemporary artists are making?
JAS: There's not really a network that I've experienced between Saudi artists although we have been finding each other over the past few years via exhibits and press. I'm sure there's a wealth of work out there that I'm not familiar with, so I don't really feel properly equipped to answer this question. I can tell you about what I've seen, but do understand that my perspective is limited. I apologize that I can't be more specific, but your question is extremely general and I'm not comfortable generalizing when I am aware that, even with my limited exposure, I’ve already experienced such diversity within this tiny scene.
Jowhara AlSaud, Bed, 2008, 30x40'', C-41 Print; Courtesy of the artist
AFH: Are there commonalities among the artists you know?
JAS: The common ground that I've found, so far, is isolation. Each has his or her own concepts, aesthetic and reasons for their isolation, but most seem to be operating solo. There is one thing that I can say "in general," which is that throughout all the works there's a respect, almost a veneration, for our history and contemporary culture. Even if we don't choose to address it overtly in the work, we don't seem to go against it. I believe this comes from a very mature understanding that shock-value only benefits the press in the Middle East and not the work. The artists that I'm familiar with seem to understand how to work the system, and so far so good.
AFH: How does your work relate?
JAS: The only fundamental difference I've seen between my work and what I've seen of my Saudi peers is that I find myself a little obsessed with my medium. I'm also a TV baby and find my aesthetics more aligned with youth culture from the West or Far East because of my fascination with television and my having been away so long for school.
AFH: How is your work perceived differently within and outside the Middle East?
JAS: While I’ve had varied responses to the work in both the East and West, viewers seem to relate to the photographs mostly on a personal level. I’ve heard people on both sides say “that’s me.” they easily project themselves into a piece. The Middle East seems to recognize the pertinence of the social commentary. In contrast, the work resonates with Western audiences in that it demystifies this “orient” that’s been so private and misrepresented over the years. The difference is that the west is more likely to place the work in a more academic context and recognize the comment made on photography and representation which a middle eastern lay audience is less likely to be versed in.
AFH: How does the work of Saudi artists reflect or relate to the larger Middle Eastern culture and art market?
JAS: This new found visibility for Saudi artists has given a voice to a culture that has until now been at the mercy of the west’s definition, at times even within our own borders. These artists are raising questions that even in the Middle East have been lurking in the shadows for years, unaddressed. While the west may find the work conservative or safe, in a Middle Eastern context, some works I’ve seen are surprisingly progressive and extremely brave. It has forced conversations that would normally happen behind closed doors, into a public arena. It also provides the west with an alternative perspective and allows them to reevaluate their perception of Middle Eastern society and hopefully relate to it on a more human, less political, level.
ArtSlant would like to thank Jowhara AlSaud for her assistance in making this interview possible.
--Ana Finel Honigman