RIYADH: As interdisciplinary Saudi artist and writer Elham Dawsari sits with an iced Spanish latte in hand, a gentle battle against the heat outside, she recalls one of her first sketches: a more young of herself sits on the porch of her house watching barefoot boys her age play in the grass, without social decorum. She holds a walkman in her hand, her personal bubble at the touch of a button.
“I drew this because I wanted to not only answer the questions, but first articulate the questions: What are spaces? About women? About sex? she told Arab News.
As she was both the subject of the sketch and the background for the boys playing, she made a visceral connection to the space around her and where the women fit into it.
Subliminally, she strives to make forgotten women the center of her work.
Dawsari works to explore a pre-internet Riyadh in the 1980s and 1990s by centering middle and lower class women, studying how this influenced their behavior and how they were shaped by the spaces around them.
“I think it’s my way of coming to terms with a lot of things that have happened in my life, including women’s stories because I’ve always carried questions for a very long time, trying to figure it out,” he said. she declared.
While Saudi culture has slowly loosened its control over societal expectations of women, some still find it difficult to think critically about the past.
She has discovered that artistic pursuits are a more acceptable way to pursue honestly without the backlash of society.
“Art is a way for me to collide, but indirectly,” Dawsari said.
Subabat, women serving coffee and desserts at women-only events, became the subject of his most popular work.
The characters evoked mystery and curiosity in viewers, which inspired the pursuit, she said.
While growing up in the United States through high school, she still went to Saudi weddings and remembers seeing her first Subabat at an early age.
“Around the age of 12, I began to associate Subabat with muted beauty,” she wrote in her essay, “Documenting Subabat: A Tribute to Sisterhood.”
While they had a certain status and prestige at weddings, their presence was obviously invisible to the attendees. Their job was to serve and never gossip.
“The classism was apparent, but they still looked like grandmas (at weddings), the way they dress. Eventually, 25 years later, I learned through research that they borrowed this style from the women they worked for,” Dawsari said.
This contrast stayed with her and her determination to document these women and their process, despite their prominent escape, culminated in her photo series, essays and short film under the title “Subabat”.
While notions of lament and nostalgia are prominent in many Saudi artworks, she chose to move away from them.
“What joy does that give anyone?” she thought. Instead of highlighting the issues of the present day, she decided to elevate the stories of the past.
In her work “Nfah”, Dawsari created a series of five miniature sculptures showing how women used their time at home. In the isolated nature of their lives, whether in their own home or someone else’s, they have carved out who they are and sought open spaces.
The work, recently presented at the Jax Arts Festival in Riyadh, aims to analyze the relationship between urban landscaping and the specific behavior of Saudi households in the 1990s.
The two sculptures that showed the voluptuous maids, one cleaning the yard and the other squatting while she did the laundry, reflect how they maintained their physical strength in rural Saudi Arabia.
Dawsari told Arab News that she hopes to start a conversation where she and her audience can consider these anchors as more than just housekeepers and parents, “to rewire us and really think about all the other things that were in their lives. , and the heavy burden of responsibility that society imposed on them.
She wanted her work to represent women and help see them in the simplest form: as humans. Labor hopes to appreciate where they are now and “hopefully include them more” in our busy, youth-focused lives, she said.
The sculptures are a personal embodiment of memories and people, designed on a smaller scale to physically and emotionally appeal to the viewer.
“‘Nfah’ is more of these collective stories of people that I listen to, that I share, that fall into the essence of the artwork… it’s about breaking down those barriers through these women,” said she declared.
Dawsari explores the theme of urban landscaping by tracing the movement of women within these traditional homes. In her work, she often wonders what these box-like spaces are supposed to protect us from.
“It’s more like some kind of emotional stronghold that you’re in that protects you, another barrier in this society…Why is that so revolting?” Why is it so depressing? she says.
It connects the effects of these spaces that we have built and how we impose ourselves on our architecture in return. What would happen to the next generation when they lived in this so-called “utopian” house of their ancestors?
“How did this affect these women who today also live in a different renaissance?” she asked.
At a time when hustle and bustle and the search for the future define our daily lives, it’s easy to disconnect from our elders who may not be running at the same pace.
“Everyone who came and interacted was touched, which means we share the same story despite our differences,” Dawsari said.
Everyone has a similar memory of a mother figure slathering lemon juice on her lap or making afternoon coffee.
An Indian viewer once came to Dawsari to express how his work reminded him of his aunts and family. The universality of his work is what speaks to the public.
“With each passing day we lose stories that are undocumented…the trick is (to create more than one) habit, people interact with more and more artwork on this generation,” said added Dawsari.