Manal Al Dowayan

A Journey of Belonging

Addressing the notions of belonging and isolation.

Influenced by Edward Said’s article ‘Invention, Memory and Place’, in which he eliminated the idea of belonging to a physical place, stating ‘geography can be manipulated, invented, characterized quite apart from a site’s merely physical reality.’

“I created a completely new landscape that at times I manipulated with layers of imagery ‘landscapes of the mind’, and at other times I brought to life through personification in an imagined conversation between the city and its inhabitants ‘and we had no shared dreams’. It was my attempt to understand how society can alienate a person through a combination of habit and tradition. I also wondered why there was a constant need to belong to a place that rejected me.

In Landscapes of the mind, I stepped out of the studio and photographed landscapes in my city, Dharhan.

I felt photography was too flat a medium for my concepts which were becoming increasingly complex, so I started to layer my ideas onto the photographs through silk screen printing. I began obsessively collecting saudi newspaper clippings depicting women in their photographs as faceless ghosts. At the time I was inspired by pop art movement which experimented with newspaper imagery by removing it from its context as a temporary news item that becomes obsolete the next day, and placing it within an artwork where it could be viewed and have relevance for longer periods of time.

In the later years, I continued layering onto the photograph by introducing neon lights, LED lights, spray paint and collage – elements you would find on the walls of a city. I had come across the works of Futura2000 and Stash, the founders of the 1980’s New York graffiti movement. You can see their influence on some of the artworks that I produced.

-My work is about capturing an image and being able to tell a story through the elements of an artwork.

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The state of disappearance

I began examining two subjects and setting them against each other: the arabic language that acts as a gateway to understanding and the terminology/lexicon utilized often is integral to comprehending a subject matter. At the same time, I explore the media portrayal of the saudi woman. Specifically in daily newspapers where a filtered image is fed to the masses through repetition creating a gender stereotype that can dramatically alter how women and girls are viewed in society. By setting the language against the photograph I create a tension between the power of the written word and the visual image.

I selected my words from the ancient book of Abu Mansour Al-Tha’alby Al-Naysaboury ‘Jurisprudence of a Language: The Secrets of Arabic”. This book, written in the late 10th century during the Abbassid Era stands unique over the centuries for containing a detailed organization of thousands of arabic words.

I implemented this idea of ‘repetition gives life to a word’ onto the media image that is usually selected by a small group and distributed to the larger group and within this process creating a system for preserving a manipulated image that is far from reality.

The act of labeling immediately places individuals – it is an act of erasure , rather than one of peservation. The somewhat contradictory act of documentation functions as a double-edged sword; we archived selected images and memories of individuals and of the collective, creating one version of history through a preservation which far from being objective, is specific to our selection, thereby fueling active forgetting.

In my execution, I use typical media images that I have collected over the past two years and place descriptions that have always been linked to the persona of women; love, courage, happiness and intelligence. Creating a struggle between the word and the images they lay on. They are awkwardly linked to each other highlighting the negligence in how women ae portrayed and the danger of continuously evoking this image.

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If I forget you, don’t forget me

-By constructing the memory of my late father’s generation of men and women at a different time than the one I knew him in, I wanted to create my own stories and personal narratives from the collective memories of these men and women…I wanted to own my past.

How do you photograph a memory that is forever changing? How do you capture a moment that existed 50 years ago in Saudi Arabia?

Through conversations and objects that I capture, I create a hybrid experience that blurs the borders that separate the installation, the object and the photograph. I take you through an experiential journey that intensifies your sensory reactions to what is a collective memory of a group.

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We had no shared dreams

Cities have sounds. The sound is ever-present, an expanding and contracting energy resonating within a single space. The city inhales, with difficulty, tension building, until it exhales – an intense release. With every breath the city takes, people gravitate towards it with a longing for the happiness that it promises. Little do they know, however that when a city breathes, suffocation is bound to follow.

The city as a theatrical backdrop; it sets the scene and mood of the act to come. The city gives you the details, but not the story. We are mere props, that complete the urban landscape.

As the city grows, its inhabitants slowly lose themselves, their identity and eventually blend into this backdrop. Millions of people exist in anomie, surrounded by communities that they do not identify with. Every day, they live between concrete walls and are transported en masse to other concrete locations. They live suspended between states of consciousness and unconsciousness; existence plagued by isolation within congestion.

This context has spurred underground cultures that negate its imposed harmony, cultures with anarchic spirit that refuse to be tied down by a framework or a definition. They bubble under the surface, exploring creative destruction and escapism. They try to dilute their solitude by reconnecting to their long lost love of the city. They seek emotional salvation at any cost.

This series of works depicts an imagined conversation between urban inhabitants and their cityscape. It is an unstable, symbiotic relationship in a constant state of uncertainty. It is a romance on the verge of collapse.

The artworks comprise delicate black and white prints representing the city, an elegant stage for the dialogue set forth. The conversation between the city and its inhabitants is represented with words and images that are superimposed with lights, buff-proof spray paint and ink. The rough and flashy medium of the foreground only further amplifies the people’s constant need for attention and reconciliation. The inhabitants asks ‘are you mine forever? Do you share my dreams? Do you long for me?” In response the city exhales.

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Landscapes of the mind

In Landscapes of the mind, Al Dowayan reflects upon herself as a person, a symbol, a representative of a society and nation existing within a geographical construct. In her landscapes, the mountains, roads, buildings and structures are covered with symbols that obscure their true existence, blurring the simple reality of the visual scene. This conflict is intensified by the artist’s own existence within the space rather than landscape to which she belongs. The result is a surreal landscape which allows Manal to manipulate, reinvent and repackage the reality of her geography and space without physically altering it.

Landscape is an intensely visual concept. People do not live in landscapes – they observe them. The viewer is by definition an outsider. Media images portray saudi arabia as a landscape of black figures floating in a space of absence. Interpretations of history and tradition emanating from memory are intermingled with stereotypes and preconceptions. Ultimately, it is a landscape in conflict with itself.

Al-Dowayan also reassess contexts of space and power, confronting the forces that dictate the rules of existence in her landscapes. She adds a layer of self-reflection driven by the desie to understand ho holds the power to define perspectives and stereotypes: the observed, the observer, the artist or the outsider?

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