Over the past few months, Saudi Arabia has quietly launched a short-term artist residency program in New York City. Just days after the first women residents arrived, I emerged from the subway to a homey art studio in the trendy Tribeca neighborhood, passing various halal food carts, hijabi fashionistas and a playful balloon shop that specializes in quirky, old-fashioned toys. It was the perfect walk to space which aims to connect East and West. Aptly named the Majlis Studio Residency program in New York [majlis is an Arabic word often referring to a private space in which one uses to greet guests], the initiative was founded by King Abdulaziz’s Center for World Culture, or Ithra, in Saudi Arabia, in coordination with the U.S.-based Culturunners, a traveling portal that uses art as a bridge between Saudi Arabia and the U.S.
As a Saudi woman, I know that being an artist in the Kingdom can be complicated; there are the cultural sensitivities to keep in mind, social pressures to be aware of and logistics to be mindful of. But Ithra had a vision and it wasn’t ready to exclude half of the population.
“There was never any doubt that women would be participating,” Lila Nazemian, the U.S. projects director of Culturunners told me when I asked if sending Saudi women artists to the U.S was in the original plan. Since New York was seen as the center of art and culture in the U.S., it was chosen as the location for the residency. The Majlis launched in early 2017, with the accomplished Yusef Alahmad serving as the first artist (of either gender) to inaugurate the program. Shortly after his residency ended in March, the three Saudi women journeyed there.
All of the Majlis artists were carefully selected by merit and are a mixture of emerging and seasoned artists, who use different media and styles, and are segregated by gender, Nazemian said. Marwah Al Mugait, from Riyadh, who refers to herself as “human,” uses technology such as video to capture the essence of fleeting moments. Mawadah Muhtasib, a shy but confident university student from Jeddah, specializes in what she calls Calligraffiti — a combination of calligraphy and graffiti, written in Arabic — and in reverse. She created her own typeface in 2013 and her pieces are hard to decipher but easy to read. And Nouf Semari, a creative person who might be best described as “cool chic,” is from the east coast. She paints whimsical scenes of clustered people she witnessed in a crowd and sometimes paints phrases she has overheard, translated from English into Arabic.
The women represent the eastern, central and western regions of Saudi Arabia and the artists literally live with their work — their studios are spacious enough to include bedrooms.
Saudi artist Mawadah Muhtasib displays her work during a party at the Majlis Studio Residency in New York City. (Maryan Khomych)
Like true New Yorkers, the women learned how to maximize their stipends, provided by Ithra, and be thrifty spenders. They navigated the subway, experimented with “cheaper” materials and compared prices before buying art supplies. They learned to be patient while waiting for R train to arrive, lug their laundry to the nearby laundromat and keep an eye out for unexpected things — both good and bad. They took a lot of photos and asked a lot of questions.
“These artists are thoughtful, researched — they go beyond just making. Western art has a heavier emphasis on concept, in the Middle East, we put much more emphasis on craft. To be clear, it’s not summer camp! This is an independent program and opportunity. Art is a powerful tool,” Nazemian said. Before coming to New York, the artists in the program had seen the world projected through their phones, now they’re getting a chance to use paintbrushes and video clips to amplify their unique Saudi perspectives for others to see.
Because they knew that time was limited — the residency time ranges from a few weeks to a few months — the artists were forced to edit their wishlists and pick and choose what to do (or not do) with their time. They took walks around the neighborhood, visited galleries, tagged walls with local graffiti artists and interacted directly and indirectly with their surroundings. Living and staying in the space provided a kind of incubator in which the artists could safely experiment. None of them particularly created work that would be labeled as “Arab” or “Muslim,” but those elements seeped seamlessly into their creations; they built conversations with layers of paint, moving frames and static text.
“Contemporary art is becoming a global language. Art is a great way to connect people to people, to share and exchange their views and cultures,” Tareq AlGhamdi, director of Ithra told me. “The program helps artists see, first-hand, the interactions and reactions to their artworks and provide them a further perspective that could influence their art later on. Art is a gift but also an experience, and an opportunity to engage with peers on a global platform.”
The value in the program is not limited in the space to be creative or the resources allocated, but also in granting the women permission to experiment. Women artists globally aren’t often permitted by the public to make professional mistakes, so this was a chance for the artists to try new things without judgment. Since Saudi Arabia does not currently have a pedestrian culture, the majority of social gatherings are limited to private spaces or those that take place within some other controlled environment. Having access to public art and interacting organically with strangers on the streets of New York, creates a vast and curated database for the artists that goes beyond the studio space.
Al Mugait, a photographer in her mid-30s, has a sort of elegance about her when she moves. Her introduction to photography happened in Prague, Czech Republic when she found herself transfixed by doors, which she finds meaning in as a metaphor for opportunities that open or close. Armed with a business degree earned in Saudi Arabia and a master’s in photojournalism in the U.K., Al Mugait uses pixels and frames to build a story.
Marwah Al Mugait posted one of her works on empty wall space in New York City. It reads, ‘Send an empty message to someone who has forgotten you.’ (Mawadah Muhtasib)
Perhaps the biggest shift was seeing 22-year-old Mawadah Muhtasib, the youngest in the group, blossom. During our first interaction, she sat attentively in a far corner, letting others speak. She was no stranger to collaboration, in 2014, she participated in the creation of the longest graffiti scroll in Dubai, documented in the Guinness Book of World Records. But on our last interaction, just before her final day in the city, she sat next to me, bubbling with enthusiasm, her face flush with excitement while speaking about her solo work. Her original art piece had just been selected to be shown at the United Nations and the news made her giddy. Her work started out as very structured, but by the end of the residency, she was diving into her pieces without so much as drawing a sketch. She let her hands do the thinking.
Nouf Semari, who is in her early 30s, has been exhibiting her work throughout the Gulf region for nearly a decade. In 2014, she was the winner of Clyde & Co Community Art Project. Semari was the first to show me work produced while at the residency — she experienced difficulty sleeping one night and literally painted outside her bedroom door with figures. She later purchased panels of wood and continued with the series. She was the only resident who also has a full-time job at home, and, therefore, was the first to end her residency and fly back to the Kingdom at the beginning of May.
When President Donald Trump and Saudi’s King Salman recently strolled through the framed walls during Trump’s visit to the capital, Semari and Muhtasib were among the 17 artists whose work was showcased in that exhibit. Semari was present when the interaction happened. She praised the Saudi government for acknowledging the work of modern contemporary Saudi artists in a context not clouded by politics. She gushed about her residency and reveled in the fact that “nothing and everything has changed” after her experience.
Painting of Nouf Semari on display at the Majlis Studio Residency in New York City
“The most interesting part of New York is the randomness that you get to feel in the streets, for example. I’ve been always fascinated by the story of Alice in Wonderland and one day I was walking on the sidewalk and suddenly paid attention to the ground. There was a drawing of a hole, with a writing that says: ‘Alice is here.’ It was few days before I came back to Saudi so it felt like I was going back through that hole,” she said.
The next resident to leave was Al Mugait. She said the residency not only provided an incubator for the women to evolve as artists but it created an atmosphere where they were encouraged to venture out into the city and be inspired by the Big Apple. Muhtasib is set to leave a few days after Al Mugait and a whole new set of artists — men this time, then women again — will fly in to replace them.
“New York helps you stretch out yourself. I knew that this trip would change me. New York ingrained unforgettable memories, not just attached to the city, but to each conversation. To have a group of creative individuals see my work with fresh eyes — you don’t get that a lot as a student or as an artist. I localized myself, I stopped being a tourist and went to the core. Intense, casual, diverse — New York is an artwork on itself,” Al Mugait concluded.