Berlin, Apr. 2010: (Part 1 of a 2-Part Interview) - Jowhara AlSaud alters her dreamy snapshots of friends and family in unavoidable deference to the general censorship rules of her native Saudi Arabia. Yet in spite of the absence of identifiable features or details, the images appear intimate and inviting, even charming and carefree, while still demonstrating the complex cultural constraints that govern the depiction of people in Saudi art.
A graduate of Wellesley College with a BA in Film Theory and an MFA from Tufts University, the thirty-one year old artist has exhibited her work in Saudi Arabia and the United States. In the upcoming year, AlSaud has solo shows scheduled in Amsterdam and Kuwait, as well as group shows in Jeddah, Chicago, New York City and Shanghai.
ArtSlant’s writer, Ana Finel Honigman, talked with Jowhara about the scope, limitations and possibilities of her imagery, Saudi culture and Saudi contemporary art.
Ana Finel Honigman: How would you describe the Saudi art scene?
Jowhara AlSaud: It is finally emerging. And by that, I don't mean the artists themselves. For some time now, Saudi has had some wonderful, professional, and increasingly well-established artists whose works are only now being "discovered."
AFH: Was the reason internal within Saudi or negligence from the international art world?
JAS: The reason why this acknowledgement is coming so late is because there were previously no venues or institutions to properly showcase Saudi artists’ work.
AFH: How much is this interest in Saudi art related to overall interest in the region?
JAS: I credit Dubai's crazy art boom for sparking this new interest in the arts in Saudi. However, the visual arts have never been a priority in Saudi Arabia. We're all about the written word. Writing is where we excel and what we celebrate. But lately, the landscape has been changing. There are now some ambitious new galleries opening. I have even heard rumors that there will be some museums for contemporary art opening. They have real drive and aim to promote the work of Saudi artists on both local and international levels. There are also some new publications dedicated to the arts. But most importantly, there is now an audience that seems genuinely interested in art.
AFH: Is this unprecedented?
JAS:I couldn't s ay any of those things three years ago. Although I know we have a long way to go, I'm feeling quite optimistic that we're on the right track.
AFH: Your work directly engages censorship in Saudi Arabia, can you describe the legal perimeters of what can and cannot be shown?
JAS: Actually, testing the answer to that question was my focus. Censorship was definitely the starting point and the goal was to discover the boundaries of exactly how much can be shown. I still have not having shown here yet. So, I still don't actually have an answer. I'll keep you posted.
AFH: You must have a sense of the general forbidden zones, right?
JAS: There are some very clear lines. No nudity and no non-Islamic religious iconography are the most obvious. But anything beyond that is left to the discretion of customs officials and the Ministry of Information. The inconsistency in what gets censored and what doesn't leads me to believe that there is no finite legislation on the subject.
AFH: Outside of what is legal, what is simply frowned upon?
JAS: There are social taboos. In Saudi, these lines are perhaps a far more interesting topic. They are equally inconsistent and transient and always a source of inspiration.
AFH: The narratives that you portray are relatively innocuous to Western eyes and your aesthetic seems light and charming. How is this aesthetic and focus related to the content of your criticism?
JAS: The lightness or playfulness that you describe actually relates to more low-brow pop culture. Pop is a point of departure for me, aesthetically speaking. And, I’ve noticed that the more low-brow you go, the more you can get away with.
AFH: I would think it would be the opposite. Isn’t lowbrow pop culture associated with the more toxic aspects of Western supremacy?
JAS: People don't take things as seriously, which means that they can convey a lot of forbidden messages under the radar. Think of how political sci-fi movies are. Or consider the Judeo-Christian underpinnings to so many horror films. And don't even get me started on fairy tales...These genres can preach problematic themes because society also considers them innocuous. But I'm not so quick to dismiss them because they have influenced me so heavily.
AFH: Your work is more intimate than appropriationist, right?
JAS: The work is derived from candid shots of close friends and family. The images are usually taken in private when all guards are down. But the images that initially appear benign and inviting, don't seem quite right upon closer examination. This is my way of asking the viewer to contribute to the process and meet me half way.
AFH: Do you feel that the pared-down look of your images and their streamlined narratives render them universal?
JAS: While I'm uncomfortable speaking in absolutes. I do make an effort to create work that is as universal as possible. But I can't claim that the work is “universal.” I prefer to use the word “relate-able” or accessible.
AFH: “Accessible” seems perfect. But how can you achieve imagery that is accessible across cultures and other substantive divides?
JAS: I feel that I've been able to transcend at least some cultural and linguistic barriers and generate a platform to discuss and deconstruct these barriers. That is what is most rewarding for me.
AFH: How have you achieved this accessibility?
JAS: When an image gets bogged down with loaded symbols and culturally specific icons then it runs the risk of becoming exclusionary or didactic. A viewer is then likely to allow their previous associations to color their interpretation. This is why I choose to withhold as much information as possible. I want to invite the audience to complete the image themselves. They would do this regardless, but my attitude hopefully leaves room for inquiry. At the end of the day, this process of questioning comes down to language, translation and what gets lost or added along the way.
AFH: Why did you select photography as your medium? Was it the association between photography and the documentation of reality or some assumption of truthfulness in the medium? Or were you more attracted to its look?
JAS: The idea "documentary" has never sat right with me. Photography is a wonderful medium. But I wish that people would stop demanding unrealistic things from the medium.
AFH: What do you think are the unrealistic demands put on the medium of photography?
JAS: What's more poetic than a camera? It is a tool that mimics our own eyes. That is amazing but limited. What I cannot understand is how anyone would assume that a camera can capture something more "Truthful" or "Objective" than what our brains record. How can it be more realistic than our memories? That demand is beyond me.
Everything is a question of perspective. When I was much younger I met a man who refused to watch films. For him, video was fine but not film. His criticism was that film’s 24 frames per second, in contrast to video's 29.9/30 frames-per-second, meant that he could spot the black between frames. His optical nerve processed things faster than an average person’s. And he could never suspend his disbelief in the way we are all conditioned to do with film or photography. I would love to have seen through his eyes for a week. But I also understand that, regardless of an overly efficient optical nerve, we all experience what we see differently.
ArtSlant would like to thank Jowhara AlSaud for her assistance in making this interview possible.
(All images courtesy of Jowhara AlSaud)