7 Aug 2018

Never Never Land: Art exhibition reveals women's lives in Saudi Arabia

From Afternoons, 1:36 pm on 7 August 2018

Influential female Saudi Arabian artist Arwa Al Neami’s work is being exhibited in Wellington from this weekend, marking 125 years of women’s suffrage in New Zealand.

While New Zealand gave women the vote in 1893, Saudi Arabia did so in 2015. 

Exhibition curator Moya Lawson says the exhibition serves as a reminder of the ongoing cause of feminism today, and helps illuminate details of the tensions around women’s freedom in the restrictive kingdom. 

“It draws attention to the fact that the feminist cause in the most general terms is a really encompassing and global and multifaceted effort which is working in varying context against varying forces to very different ends,” she says. 

“It’s really great to bring this artist to New Zealand because I think quite a few people might have quite simple views about how women act and are allowed to act in this part of the world [Saudi Arabia].” 

She says the exhibition, Never Never Land, is a series of photographs and videos of an amusement park in Abha, southern Saudi Arabia. 

“It’s a wry personal commentary on a local fundamentalist authority in the area who have been gaining traction for the past few decades. 

“It kind of documents the way that women are obliged to behave themselves, which is according to a strict set of rules, which include rules like not being allowed to scream on the rides or expose the pants.” 

She says it includes two video works and a selection from the hundreds of photos Alneami has taken. 

“It’s interesting, the way that she makes these works. To avoid any attention from the authorities she walks around with her camera beneath her abaya robe - hiding it and faking a baby bump. 

“She’s very excited to be having her work shown so far away and in such a different context.” 

One video from 2014 is of women in bumper cars, which is pointed given women in Saudi Arabia were only allowed to drive in June

“It’s interesting watching them drive these bumper cars,” Lawson says. 

“They’re really trying to test out their skills, and Alma has told me personally that they’re really not trying to bump into you, despite the game.”

She says Alneami’s work exists in an interesting space, where she is considered an artist - not an activist. 

“I think the interesting neutrality that visual art plays, especially in Saudi Arabia at the moment, means that she as an artist is able to circumvent being pinned as an activist or as dissenting the system.

“Other activists and feminists in the country … they can’t.”