MAAS alum Sean Foley (‘00) discusses his forthcoming book, Changing Saudi Arabia: Art, Culture, and Society in the Kingdom.
By Sean Foley
May 19, 2017, Air Force One arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, marking the start of President Donald J. Trump’s first trip overseas as U.S. president. The three-day visit featured a series of bilateral and multilateral meetings on strategic issues, along with events highlighting cultural and social ties. One of the most important of the cultural events, “Saudi Contemporary Art,” was held at the Diwan al-Malik, the site of Trump’s talks with King Salman and other world leaders. On the second day of the trip, the Saudi king accompanied the president and his wife, Melania, on an official tour of the exhibit, which displayed the work of forty Saudi artists. Television cameras recorded the U.S. president and his wife speaking with various male and female artists. Saudi journalists specifically focused on President Trump shaking the hand of and congratulating Abdullah al-Othman, one of the young artists featured in the show. Echoing the enthusiastic response on Saudi social media to Trump’s visit to the exhibit, Salman publicly “stressed the importance of culture and art in Saudi Arabia and his support for Saudi artists.”
For many, including Arabs and most scholars of Saudi Arabia, the rise of a visual arts movement in the kingdom comes as a great surprise. In their view, Saudis are an intolerant, highly religious people who have vigorously sought to preserve their society’s cultural and Hanbali Islamic traditions, which are analogous to those of some evangelical Christian Americans in their puritanism. Such views reinforce a vision of Saudi Arabia as devoid of art—a view that was eloquently voiced by T. E. Lawrence when he observed, “There was so little Arab art that one could say Arab art did not exist.” One hears a similar perspective among some contemporary Saudis. For example, writing in the Saudi daily newspaper As-Šarq in 2013, Abdulsalam al-Wayel declared: “If we can say that there is a ‘Saudi culture,’ and it has value, then we can also say with high confidence that the contempt for the arts lies at the heart of its values.” This observation is reminiscent of Michael Cook’s description of Wahhabism: “Wahhabism was the classic example of going to see what people were doing and telling them to stop it.”
While there are conservative elements in Saudi society—and oil revenues and the ruling bargain between the state and society do shape politics at a structural level in the Kingdom—Saudi society is a multifaceted entity that retains significant agency through its cultural production in fields as diverse as the visual arts, stand-up comedy, YouTube videos, and now film. In both their art and in social media, Saudi artists have created a vision that contains political elements but can nevertheless be presented as “apolitical.” As mirrors of society and as cultural leaders, male and female artists have often stood at the forefront of social change, offering innovative ways to approach contradiction, dissonance, and diversity. It is a dance of intellect and feeling that rouses its audience, including the masses and rulers of Saudi Arabia, to thought. Their work is less an answer to the problems of a Kingdom long seen as paradoxical than it is a fresh questioning, a constant reminder of the complexities of life in the twenty-first century.
Understanding this perspective is especially important today following the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, which has generated widespread anger at Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MbS) and the initiatives that he has championed, including exhibitions in the West featuring leading Saudi artists. Not only have some Western cultural institutions reevaluated their cooperation with Saudi artists and artistic organizations, but some analysts have dismissed the Kingdom’s recent artistic and cultural initiatives as “window dressing” for an authoritarian regime. Such criticisms overlook the fact that Saudi art is very different from the events tied to the kingdom that dominate headlines around the world. Remarkably, it was Khashoggi, recognizing art’s ability to express a multiplicity of viewpoints, who, in 2003, brought together four of the pioneering individuals whose work and ideas gave rise the movement at the heart of my book. Today, two of the late journalist’s daughters are illustrators who continue to play a role in the Saudi artistic movement.
My new book, Changing Saudi Arabia: Art, Culture, Society in the Kingdom, explores the rise of the Saudi artistic movement, which began nearly two decades earlier in Asir—a fertile and mountainous province 523 miles away from the pageantry and palaces of the Saudi capital. Through extensive in-country and online research, I show that Saudi artists succeeded by adopting a role that is analogous to Antonio Gramsci’s concept of organic intellectuals—namely, individuals who are not part of the country’s traditional intellectual elite, but who, through the language of culture, articulate feelings and experiences that the masses accept but cannot easily articulate. Artists have voiced cultural and social views that are at once both clear and sophisticated without being necessarily confrontational toward the Saudi state or political system. Their approach has little in common with the modern Western ideals of art for art’s sake or artists as godlike individuals who singularly create new culture in their studios and then share it with others at public showings. Ahmed Mater, a leading Saudi visual artist, has remarked that he seeks to inhabit the “grassroots” of Saudi society’s “ecosystem”—a phrase that brings to mind the term “organic”—and to serve as a networker, sharing ownership of ideas and images with many others.
Ultimately, Western journalists and many other observers who come to Saudi Arabia assume that the pronouncements of officialdom define the nation. In the realm of international politics there is much truth in this assumption. But the artists who populate this book are in touch with another force—the deep consciousness of the people who actually live in the country and who must deal on a day-to-day basis with the issues that emerge from living in a place and dealing with its diversity and contradictory elements. What is their country? What “Saudi Arabia” emerges from their perceptions?
Dr. Sean Foley is an Associate Professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University . His first book, The Arab Gulf States: Beyond Oil and Islam, was published by Lynne Rienner Press in 2010. His second book—Changing Saudi Arabia: Art, Culture, and Society in the Kingdom—will be published by Lynne Rienner Press in February 2019. He has conducted extensive research in Saudi Arabia and held Fulbright fellowships in Syria, Turkey, and Malaysia. He graduated from the MAAS program.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2018 CCAS Newsmagazine.