Manal Al Dowayan is a strong character and has a distinct voice. She is a fierce fighter for the ongoing struggle by women for equality and uses her art as a form of protest against Saudi Arabia’s strict religiously-inspired traditions.
In addition to challenging the status quo, “Crash” goes a step further and challenges the basic definition of what art is by presenting the research process as the work itself.
“And my voice must be hushed so as not to offend. So what will remain of me?”
Al-Dowayan grew up in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia on an Aramco compound.
The compound was a removed and Westernized environment and once she left its confines she was faced with the truth about women within Saudi society.
The women she saw were controlled, passive, and expected to behave within the confines of their marital chores and duties. Through her art, she delves deep behind the veil which wraps itself around these women and suggests an alternative.
“My name is being erased because of the shame of pronouncing it publicly”
In her most popular series I Am, Al-Dowayan is influenced by the feminist photography of Cindy Sherman and Shirin Neshat where she explores the roles of women in Saudi society, from journalists and doctors to United Nations officers and petroleum engineers.
Al-Dowayan also uses participatory projects such as Esmi (My Name), where she presents a collection of giant rosaries with women’s names written on each bead, inscribed by Saudi women who chose to take part in the artwork, as a platform to involve women in her community to take part in her art and its vision.
“I care about transmitting the message contained in my work as much as I care about the aesthetic,” she says.
Al-Dowayan’s latest research-based artwork exhibition, Crash, brings to light the disturbing number of car accidents in Saudi Arabia in which female teachers are injured or killed.
For these women, the combination of low pay, a ban on driving, and unsafe roads and drivers, has created a highly dangerous and unstable situation.The accidents are regularly reported in Saudi newspapers, but because of Saudi tradition the names of the women are never revealed. Their faces are never seen and their names are not mentioned.
“These women are poorly paid, banned from driving and assigned to teach in remote areas far away from their homes. This forces them to pool funds and travel in groups. But the long distances, unsafe roads and the bad drivers they have to rely on become the cause of many accidents. In the newspaper reports of these accidents, there is no trace of the identity of the victims.
People cannot mourn for victims who have no face or name, so this repeated reportage of anonymous crash victims just makes them numb towards the situation. I want to change the way society reacts to this grave situation by presenting the human stories behind the crashes,” Al Dowayan says.
The artworks on display present information on the crashes through newspaper clippings, along with Al-Dowayan’s own notes which give details of the crash. She also displays tweets from the women prior to the accident.
In one area of the exhibition, a series of framed road maps are presented with three data points marked by three simple pins. The locations marked on the maps were the teacher’s homes, the schools to which they were assigned, and the crash sites. These maps bring to light the long distances the women had to travel and the risks they were forced to take.
The irony here is how the Saudi government commissioned expert engineers to create these maps which were then used by Manal to plot this archaic cultural atrocity.
The artist asks, “How do you mourn if the suffering have no face or name?”
In Crash, Al-Dowayan challenges us to be conscious of the images shown to us in the media by purposely presenting the information stripped of aesthetics and displayed matter-of-factly. Al-Dowayan then makes the emotional impact of these tragedies percievable by displaying tweets sent by the women before the accidents, along with a very touching video with narrations in first person of the stories of the victims.
The videos show the victims as young women with hopes and aspirations, casually sharing their problems and joys, and describing the simple mundane events of their day up to the moment of the crashes which abruptly took their lives.