The woman who led the fine arts movement in Saudi Arabia

The best way to learn about a culture is through the art created by its people. This couldn’t be more true for the works of 82-year-old Safeya Binzagr. In a country not known for celebrating individuality, Binzagr took risks and was rewarded tenfold. His art, which carefully reflects the communal and festive aspects of Saudi life, has single-handedly changed Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the fine arts.

His art reflects both the communal and festive aspects of Saudi life.

Born in Jeddah in 1940, Binzagr had the privilege of traveling the world at a young age. Her family moved to Cairo when she was seven and she eventually made her way to England to attend a leaving school and later Saint Martin’s School of Art in London. This time spent abroad has given Binzagr a new perspective and a drive to document and cherish the rich culture and people of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s national character primarily revolves around its inherently religious roots, and although Binzagr recognizes the importance of Islam to the Saudi people, his work focuses on the soul and senses of Saudi Arabia. .

In 1968, the artist took the bold step of organizing an art exhibition with her artist friend Mounirah Mosly, also considered a pioneer of the Saudi art movement. At the time, the country lacked art galleries or spaces to showcase creative endeavours. In fact, even finding high-quality art supplies in the Saudi market was difficult.

But that didn’t stop Binzagr. Instead, she chose to hold the exhibition at a girls’ school in Jeddah. Understandably, the female performers were anxious about the screening. “I thought, I’ll do the show; they will receive it or they will oppose it. If they do, I’ll try again,” she recalled in a 2020 interview with Vogue Arabia.

The show was a success. And that launched his memorable career as an internationally acclaimed entertainer. Binzagr was the first Saudi artist to have exhibitions in Paris, Geneva and London, as well as long-term and permanent collections in several respected institutions.

The paintings all look unique but still manage to form a complete representation of Saudi society.

His exhibition at the British Museum is particularly noteworthy. Sketches of locals evoke the bustling streets, while his full-length portraits showcase the colors, textures and textiles of Saudi life. Each illustrated individual is covered in layers of folded, flowing fabric adorned with rich patterns and hues of historic and contemporary significance. The paintings all look explicitly unique, but still manage to form a complete representation and mirror of the Saudi people and society.

In 2000, Binzagr’s gallery, “Darat Safeya Binzagr” opened, with the support of Prince Abdul Majeed bin Abdulaziz. But “Darat Safeya Binzagr” was not only a place to admire art, it hosted activities, workshops and conferences.

By this time, Binzagr had already cemented her reputation as an innovator of the Saudi art movement. Politicians, educators and other artists have continually praised his work. For many, Binzagr’s art was synonymous with Saudi life. People trusted him to portray them on his internationally acclaimed canvases.

“A serious approach, originality and representation of Saudi social traditions and customs have characterized his work.”

She received praise from Prince Faysal bin Fahd bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, who expressed deep appreciation for Binzagr’s work. “A serious approach, originality and representation of Saudi social traditions and customs have characterized his work,” the prince said.

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But it’s not just the depiction that has earned Binzagr his well-deserved fame, the range of subject matter and sentiment exemplified by his colorful brushstrokes is particularly remarkable.

Paintings of traditional buildings fitted with meticulously carved wooden shutters and bright whitewashed walls house the countless Saudi faces she loves to paint. Elaborate wood, stone and plaster emphasize that every window, door and wall is an occasion of opulence, of celebration. Binzagr was fond of portraying the wide range of architectural creativity found in Saudi Arabia, demonstrating through his illustrations that the Western conception of a dull Middle East is far from accurate.

The Western conception of a dull Middle East is far from accurate.

Painting by Safeya Binzagr – Courtesy of Darat Safeya Binzagr

Of all Binzagr’s paintings, those depicting daily life are the most distinctive. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of looking at an image that perfectly represents the viewer’s hometown vibe. This feeling intensifies if the viewer is homesick or homesick.

You don’t have to be from Saudi Arabia to understand how personal, delicate and proud the emotions conveyed by Binzagr’s paintings are. Images of women reclining on low sofas in the living room, chatting for hours, or men doing business in the scorching but familiar Saudi sun must convey such wonderful feelings of comfort, warmth and security.

Binzagr deserves another accolade for earning her reputation not only as an artist but also as a woman.

It’s hard to talk about female representation in Saudi Arabia without acknowledging the country’s long and hard fight against gender equality. While Binzagr’s work speaks for itself on many levels, she deserves another accolade for taking risks and earning her distinguished reputation not only as an artist but also as a woman.

The Western world only represents Saudi women as faceless ghosts, featureless shapes, black silhouettes. Binzagr’s paintings challenge these images by offering a rich palette full of life and color play. The women are painted with large dark eyes and high cheekbones. Their olive skin looks smooth and sun-kissed.

Given the nature of Saudi culture and Islamic influence, all women are modestly dressed – but they don’t look plain or austere. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and Binzagr obviously sees her Saudi counterparts as nothing short of enchanting.

Binzagr may have been one of the first Saudi artists to receive immense local and international recognition, but she is far from the last. Alia Fattouh, director of the Athr gallery in Jeddah, is optimistic about the future of Saudi artists. “The art scene in Jeddah is full of independent and underground initiatives…the future holds a major place for art and culture in Arabia, with a significant presence internationally,” she told GQ Middle East.

It’s always exciting to watch a society navigate contemporary means of expression and representation. Given the heartfelt praise and adoration the Saudi people have for Binzagr and his work, it’s hard not to have high expectations for the new generation of Saudi artists and what they will bring to the table.

Christopher S. Washington