Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde Dubai presents Manal Al Dowayan in London - GulfToday

Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde Dubai presents Manal Al Dowayan in London

Manal art 1

Saudi artist Manal Al Dowayan’s artwork.

Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer

Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai, has presented Saudi artist Manal Al Dowayan’s first solo exhibition in London titled The Eternal Return of the Same (June 2 – 9) at Cromwell Place, with the support of Abu Dhabi Art and the Department for Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi.

The exhibition introduced some of the key works that will be part of the artist’s solo show in Dubai in November. The works not only deepen Al Dowayan’s nuanced interrogation of women’s shifting status within a metamorphosing Saudi society, but also intensifies her exploration of new material. A nod to Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence, the title captures gestures of repetition and iteration undergirding the works. While the exhibition may have provided a moment of reflection on the need for reckoning, it also bears Al Dowayan’s hallmark critical assessment of a world rife with inequity and uncertainty.


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She slyly employs materials that almost contradict the object depicted. The Emerging (2021) is a series of thirty jesmonite casts. Unevenly textured, pocked with finger marks and smoothed over by hand, the cluster of distinct floor-bound appendages of body parts question how women are renegotiating their bodies and the spaces they inhabit. As they are increasingly joining the Saudi public sphere, away from the ‘counterpublic’ or exclusively female enclaves of empowerment, women are forced to (re)claim a stake in the patriarchal arena.

More than a mere celebration of ‘our time has come,’ the repeated single, imperfectly cast bodily eruptions in The Emerging, suggest that the movement from one space to another, while forceful, is still tenuous: women in the Kingdom must reprocess not only positions, but their bodies and voices within them. The leg recurs in The Recline (2020), a large tapestry in which the limb morphs and mirrors itself, conjuring a reclining female form, poised above a cascade of loose, unravelled (or not yet woven) linen threads. The work exemplifies not only the notion of repetition — the leg emerging over and over in diverse media — but also the artist’s challenge to the traditional craft of weaving.

Manal art 2  Artwork from Manal Al Dowayan exhibited at Cromwell Place.

The Recline, like the other works in the exhibition, exudes at once a political vitality and a sensual poetics of materiality. Just as The Emerging frames an exuberant individuality against a crushing societal sameness, O Sister (2021) confronts the blanket ‘instruction manual’ mentality of religious injunctions with an individualist feminine energy. Modelled on the desert rose — hardened, petal-like crystalline formations occurring in deserts where sand meets salt — O Sister spreads its soft, collapsible, darkly burnished flaps in an ironic embrace. It evokes some oversized bodily cavity, all multi-layered biological complexity and beckoning openness. Resistant and refined, the natural silk of the sculpture is printed with instructions penned by religious men determining women’s use of their bodies.

The inky texts blur on the ridged fabric surface, their legibility confounded by strokes of charcoal. Part of a generation deeply impacted by conservative laws against women in Saudi Arabia, Al Dowayan teases out a new tension in O Sister, raising questions about physical emancipation at the very moment the kingdom ostensibly moves towards greater social freedoms. Like many artists, Al Dowayan has viewed recent life through the prism of the singular, inescapable space of her London home. Her awareness of the day-in-day-out repetition of actions and gestures has gathered intensity.

Few artists have understood metamorphosis as keenly as Al Dowayan. Long invested in probing the gender-biased customs that impact the condition of women in Saudi Arabia, she is a sensitive yet critical witness to the cultural transformations engulfing the Kingdom. Her practice, formally speaking, regularly shifts and evolves — from the assertive black and white photographic portraits of highly skilled working women in her early I Am series (2005), to the research-driven Crash (2014), documenting media silence on fatal road accidents involving commuting female schoolteachers. Equally recognised for her work in sound, neon and sculpture, Al Dowayan is perhaps best known for the participatory installations Suspended Together (2011) and Esmi - My Name (2012), the result of workshops offering channels for thousands of women in the Kingdom to address unjust social customs, and more recently, Now You See Me, Now You Don’t (2020), land art composed for Desert X AlUla.

Yet her works are consistently galvanising, sparking identification and engagement, particularly among women around the world. Her voice is strong, and it resonates.

Unsurprisingly, her gaze unravels the expected tensions running through the fibre of Saudi society — public vs private, traditional vs modern, community vs world.

But as the Kingdom races towards further change, Al Dowayan’s artistic engagement with this new metamorphosis promises to be bolder and more incisive than ever.

She has exhibited extensively, including at 21,39 Jeddah Arts (2020 and 2017), Boghossian Foundation, Brussels (2018), The Aga Khan Museum (2018), Crude, the inaugural exhibition of Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai (2019), Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and in Humlebæk (Denmark, 2016).

A selection of prints from her 2012 artwork If I Forget You Don’t Forget Me is currently on display in Reflections: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa at the British Museum (May 17 – Aug. 15). Her works are held in the collections of The British Museum, London; King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, Dhahran; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) and many others. She currently lives and works between London, Dhahran and Dubai.

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