Manal al Dowayan: Speaking the Individual and Collective Voice

I Am A Saudi Citizen, silver gelatin print (2007)
Saudi Arabian conceptual artist, Manal al Dowayan works with photography and installation to present both personal and larger narratives; whether exploring the Saudi women's experience or abstracting personal stories, her photography and installations powerfully impact the viewers, inviting them to directly access the heart of her works and contemplate their essence. Having been included in numerous international exhibitions and participated in several residences, she communicates a multi-nuanced collective voice through her singular artistic one, which is embedded in her layered photographic series or enquiring, engaging interactive works. 

 Her Blueprint spoke to Manal to find out more about her journey.

What drew you to art in the first place? What is it that continues to compel you to create?

Well, I am not a writer. I am not a poet. I cannot compose music. I also do not paint. I found myself in the medium of photography and later on, in installation art that interacted with people and spaces. 
Landscape of the Mind, mixed media on paper (2009)
How do you go about conceptualizing a project? What do you mine inspiration from: an anecdote, a dream, a conversation? Or is it a byproduct of an issue/concern that you've been feeling strongly about and meditating upon over the years and which finds its release in the form of the project? 

The art I produce is usually a direct reflection of my life and the ups and downs that exist within it. So while you may find that my main focus is the Saudi women’s experience, some collections such as Landscapes of the Mind and And We Had No Shared Dreams see me exploring more personal subjects. The basis of my works is black and white photography but I recently have begun to introduce more layers to the photograph and the ideas behind it. These layers come in different forms such as silkscreen prints, collage, spray paint, and neon and LED lights. 

Esmi: My Name, Mixed Media Large Scale Installation (2012)
You have invited women to actively participate and engage with your projects such as Esmi-My Name. How would you define their contribution to them? What do they make of it? 

Creating platforms for expression is an exercise that I have explored in several of my projects. It is intensely rewarding to see a large gathering of women of different ages and backgrounds coming together for the purpose of artistic expression and making a collective social statement using culture as their medium of exchange. My participatory art projects have evolved organically from early days when I used to photograph my friends; this process later became the foundation for collective projects in which I invited hundreds of women to collaborate with me. In the participatory art works, Suspended Together and Esmi (My Name) I was searching for the group voice within my community while creating a platform for women to voice their opinion alongside my own. I have always found strength in the collective voice. The participants were also using social media to proudly share their participation, eventually encouraging women from around the world to virtually participate. I was energized by having a group of individuals interact with the artwork and contribute to the concept behind the work through their participation. 

During the Esmi (My Name) project, many participants stayed on in the workshop room until we had turned off the lights and were closing the doors as they wanted the experience to last for as long as possible. The energy in these gatherings was profound and is very difficult to put into words. 

Tree of Guardians (2013)
Moving to specific projects, could you please elaborate about the story behind Tree of Guardians?

My constant questioning of the state of disappearance led me to its counterbalance: the necessary act of preservation. In my previous works, I have explored the issues of preservation of a woman’s name (Esmi), incursions and limitation on the autonomy she traditionally enjoyed (Suspended Together), and the juxtaposition of her conventional representation in Arab society and the reality of her current professional identity and personal potential (I Am). In its fullest sense, however, the act of preservation must transcend the identity of the single, identifiable individual and encompass previous generations of unnamed and sometimes forgotten women that serve as the cultural and social roots for the hopes, dreams and aspirations of today’s women. Therefore, this sculptural installation is both a marker of the individual women that are named on the leaves and captured in the oral histories and a celebration of the many generations of unnamed women who served as the protectors and messengers of authenticity. Suspended Together is a powerful installation that gives the impression of movement and freedom. However, a closer look at the 200 doves allows the viewer to realize that the doves are actually frozen and suspended with no hope of flight. If you examine it even more minutely, it shows that each dove carries on its body a permission document that allows a Saudi woman to travel. Notwithstanding their circumstances, all Saudi women are required to have this document, issued by their appointed male guardian. 

How did you migrate into installation from photography? What was the experience of working on this installation and its overall impact?

Suspended Together is a large installation that was a culmination of multiple years working on the same subject. The dove made its first appearance in my artwork in 2009’s Landscapes of the Mind. Later, I captured them in flight around pieces made for And We Had No Shared Dreams collection in 2010. In Edge of Arabia: TERMINAL I, launched a three-dimensional dove. In all of these artworks, the doves symbolize the issue of movement and imposed guardianship on women in Saudi Arabia. All women in my country need a permission document to be issued by an appointed guardian when she needs to travel so I located this document upon the body of the doves. I asked many leading women from Saudi Arabia (scientists, educators, engineers, and artists) to donate their permission document to this project and the result was a flock of doves that appear to be in-flight but in reality they were suspended and not moving. This installation was a new experience for me and allowed me to explore a new, alternative way of expressing myself. Although the photograph remains the basis of my work, I enjoy experimenting with interesting mediums and techniques and enlarging the scope of my creative expression through installation. The State of Disappearance juxtaposes the ideas of preservation/disappearance and representation of Saudi women. 
Unheard Sounds, archival photo paper on dibond with plexiglass lettering (2013)
When you make statements about gender through your projects, do you feel that you are radically pushing the envelope? What has been the response to your art in Saudi Arabia, as in terms of general feedback and more specifically,  gendered responses? 

Generally speaking, I don't observe or wait for the viewer's response. I start a conversation with my artwork and then walk out of the room, so to speak. 

The notion of documenting the past and also, being mindful of appreciating how the past was constructed is obviously very important to you, as we can see in projects such as If I Forget You, Don't Forget Me. What significance does the project hold both in terms of a personal and larger national narrative? 

The project was dedicated to the documentation of my late father's memory through the collective memory of his peers, both men and women. The project therefore holds huge emotional and sentimental significance to me. It was a very personal journey and the only link to the national narrative was that my father's generation was finally documented. 

Find out more about Manal al Dowayan's work here.

Images courtesy Manal al Dowayan and Cuadro Fine Art Gallery.