Riyadh, Saudi Arabia based contemporary artist, curator and educator Eiman Elgibreen gives the adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ a whole new meaning in her works.
We first stumbled upon Eiman’s work on the Edge of Arabia’s website, a great repository of contemporary artists from Saudi. One particular work in which she visually compares her veiled self to the universally acclaimed guerilla artist Banksy fascinated us the most. Her works, including this one, often use mixed media, contemporary viral imagery and traditional visuals in surprising ways to raise highly relevant questions about the stereotypes that hound Saudi women and its culture.
Eiman’s background is as impressive as her work. After completing her BA and MA in Saudi Arabia, Eiman pursued a DPhil degree in Modern and Contemporary Art History at the University of Sussex. She currently teaches Art History at the Princess Nourah University in Riyadh. She also does freelance art writing for a couple of newspapers in Saudi.
Over a few emails, we had a conversation with Eiman about her life and work. Read on:
Tell us something about your childhood.
I was born in a middle class family in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. My parents cared about our education a lot. Therefore, from the time I was in the fifth grade, it was already decided that my sisters and I would pursue Doctoral degrees in whatever subjects we chose eventually. Interestingly, it was around the same time that I decided to become an artist.
And when I was about 11 years old, I made a clear decision to study art. I had a very mean art teacher at school who used to rip apart my drawings because she insisted that someone drew them for me. According to her, they were too good to be made by a fifth grader. Also, it was the same year when my eldest sister went to college, so I remember asking myself the same questions everyone asked her when she was deciding her major.
What were some of the early creative influences?
I believe that while I inherited my creative genes from my father, my mother is the one who really inspired my creativity. She had a passion for reading, and she would always lend me and my sisters her books and encouraged us to read. This, I believe, is what has sparked my imagination and has never stopped inspiring me.
You went to the University of Sussex to do your DPhil. How was that experience?
It was a wonderful experience. On a personal level, the long hours of reading and writing gave me an opportunity to reflect on my life and understand myself better. As a result, I became more abrasive of who I was and what I had. Academically, I finally found voices, especially postcolonial writings, that echoed how I really felt and what I wanted to say through my work.
Your move to the UK also gave birth to your project ‘Out of Context’. Is that right?
It’s true that ‘Out of context’ formally made an appearance after I went to the UK, but it actually started shortly before I moved. It was triggered by my conversation with a British woman I met in Riyadh during one of my exhibitions in 2009. She had tears in her eyes as she told me how moved she was by an old work called ‘We Are Different’, which she understood as a representation of Saudi women’s oppression. This of course was far from the actual message of the work, which had received some great reviews by Saudis and expats in Riyadh back then.
But it was that moment when I realized that the meaning of the work was understood differently by the Western audience. So as I tried to move on and make new work, my pride as an artist led me to think naively that I can make something that could never be misread. Of course, I eventually figured that till I am using cultural symbols, it will almost be impossible for a multicultural audience to perceive the work in the same way. This is when I decided to name the series that came afterwards ‘Out of Context’. I wanted the audience to think with me about the different readings that one image can trigger.
Your work often comments on the idea of judging people based on their appearances, which in the case of Saudi women is their veil. Is this a sort of nucleus that binds all your work together?
For a while, it was. I didn’t anticipate what’s happening in the world now which is linking such an attire to terrorism. But since there is no escape from such connotations now, I have been trying to come up with a new symbol that is both intimate and endearing for Saudi women, and yet, not as provocative as the veil.
Then I realized that till I am using cultural symbols, it will be almost impossible for a multicultural audience to perceive the work in the same way. This is when I decided to name the series that came afterwards ‘Out of Context’. I wanted the audience to think with me about the different readings that one image can trigger.
Could you pick up any one personal project and tell us about its making?
‘Mobile Home’, which is my latest project, started in a rather strange way. After the positive feedback I received for the works I exhibited at the 55th Venice Biennale, I started to question whether it was a result of the provocative symbols such as the face veil or because I had found an interesting way to touch people’s feelings. Also, I started to notice that many younger Saudi artists were now using the veil in their work, which made me even more determined to abandon this endearing subject. I tried for a year to escape it, despite the number of offers I got to produce similar work.
At the same time, I was greatly suffering from home sickness as my thesis work did not allow any time for me to visit my home country. So in the little free time I had, I started searching for old images of my country in the archives of the UK. As I browsed through, I started asking myself why my ancestors never had this hysterical feeling of being lost although they were constantly on the move. Suddenly it struck me that they actually carried their homes with them wherever they went. Everywhere they go is home for them. Their tents, howdahs, veils, etc. are all mobile homes, and this is why it all means so much to them. I also finally understood why I was attached to the veil myself although I was not wearing it.
Then I found an image of a woman called ‘Turkeyya’, the only identifiable female figure from my homeland in the archives. What was interesting for me was that while her image had circulated in the Saudi media in the late 1990s, it was mistaken for another historical figure. No one really knew her real name in the mainstream media. This got me highly interested in her life story, so I kept doing more research, and I found that she was an immigrant who was struggling to fit in without losing her original identity. So she became my new protagonist in ‘Mobile Homes’. I believe that women are not only the transmitters of cultures; their bodies are representative of the true meaning of the home, our sense of belonging.
I believe that women are not only the transmitters of cultures; their bodies are representative of the true meaning of the home, our sense of belonging.
Your work featuring Banksy is very fascinating too. What was the trigger for that?
Like many people, I admire the cunning nature of Banksy’s work. But I never imagined that I will have to tag his work until I moved to England. As I was trying to argue against some second wave feminist writings – in defense of the “conservative” women in my country who choose to cover themselves but are still highly influential, which makes them even more powerful I feel – I found myself citing Banksy as an example of how some people gain more freedom to do things when they keep their physical appearance and their identity concealed.
So I decided to make a series of works for people to see and think for themselves about the double standards our society has when it comes to judging women’s choices in life. Being a white, western male can make a huge difference on how your work will be perceived, and that’s what I wanted people to think about. We need to respect other people’s choices, and try and see them from a different perspective.
I found myself citing Banksy as an example of how some people sometimes gain more freedom to do things when they keep their physical appearance and their identity concealed.
How does Saudi Arabia inspire you and your work?
Like many people, I cannot escape being influenced by my country as it is the main source of my identity. However, one of the biggest challenge here is that the art market is very weak, although people spent ridiculous amounts of money in other sectors. Saudis love art, but they do not invest in it. This is why we have a limited number of art galleries, and most of the time they go out of business very soon unless they sell the work through art fairs abroad, which also turns out to be an expensive affair.
Have you ever thought about living elsewhere?
How do you see the contemporary art scene in Saudi Arabia evolving?
I am not very happy with the current art scene as it has started to become less diverse and highly predictable in terms of the subject matters. Many Saudi artists, in my humble opinion, have fallen into the trap of catering to the expectations of the international audience, which in turn is heavily influenced by the media. So their subject matters are drifting away from their lives and no longer have this intimate factor which makes the art more genuine. However, I do believe that this is a temporary phase that will eventually go away.
Who are the artists around the world that you really admire?
I tend to admire works rather than the creator. This is mainly because I am very moody when it comes to enjoying art so my taste changes drastically from time to time. But there is a Saudi female photographer who never fails to please me regardless of my mood – Marwah Almugait.
Basically, I like work that takes me to a different world; it does not matter if it takes me to a sad or happy place. The fact that it has this power mesmerizes and inspires me greatly.
What’s on your mind currently?
I am currently working on three different projects: two are artworks and the third one is the curation of a group exhibition. It is a very stressful stage in my career as I am changing my style drastically, and I am afraid that people will not like it. Though I am praying that they will.
Also, whenever I am in the middle of the production of a artworks, I am usually very distracted as I go through these different emotions to try and understand what is it exactly that drives me to make something new. Obviously, there is something going on in my mind, but I can’t figure out what it is at this stage.
A lot of people believe in art for art’s sake and then there are artists who believe that art must bring about a change in society. Where does your work fall in this spectrum?
I honestly never think about it, but if there is one thing I believe in it’s that when you put rules into your art production, it does not end up being as genuine as it should be.
Many Saudi artists, in my humble opinion, have fallen into the trap of catering to the expectations of the international audience, which in turn is heavily influenced by the media. So their subject matters are drifting away from their lives and no longer have this intimate factor which makes the art more genuine.
FEATURED IMAGE CAPTION:
All the artworks are by Eiman Elgibreen.©