The best way to learn about a culture is through the art made by its people. This couldn’t be truer for the works of 82-year-old Safeya Binzagr. In a country not known for celebrating individuality, Binzagr took risks and was rewarded for them ten-fold. Her art, which carefully reflects both the common and festive aspects of Saudi life, single-handedly changed Saudi Arabia’s relationship with fine art.
Her art reflects both the common and festive aspects of Saudi life.
Born in Jeddah in 1940, Binzagr was privileged enough to travel 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 finishing school and later the Saint Martin’s School of Art in London. That time spent abroad gave Binzagr a fresh perspective and willingness to document and cherish Saudi Arabia’s rich culture and people.
Saudi Arabia’s national character primarily revolves around its inherently religious roots, and while Binzagr acknowledges how important Islam is to the Saudi people, her work focuses on Saudi Arabia’s soul and senses.
In 1968, the artist made the bold decision to hold an art exhibition with her artist friend Mounirah Mosly, who is also considered a pioneer of the Saudi art movement. At the time, the country was void of any art galleries or spaces to showcase creative endeavors. In fact, even finding high-quality art supplies on the Saudi market was difficult.
But this didn’t stop Binzagr. Instead, she chose to hold the exhibition at a girls’ school in Jeddah. Naturally, the female artists were anxious about the showing. “I thought, I will do the exhibition; they will receive it or they will object. If they do, I will try again,” she recollects in a 2020 interview with Vogue Arabia.
The show was a success. And it kickstarted her momentous career as an internationally recognized artist. Binzagr was the first Saudi artist to have exhibits in Paris, Geneva, and London, along with long-term and permanent collections in several respected institutions.
The paintings all look unique yet still manage to form a complete representation of Saudi society.
Her exhibition at the British Museum is particularly noteworthy. The sketches of locals are evocative of bustling streets, while her full-length portraits highlight the colors, textures, and textiles of Saudi life. Each illustrated individual is blanketed with layers of folded and flowy fabric adorned with patterns and hues rich with historical and contemporary significance. The paintings all look explicitly unique yet somehow still manage to form a complete representation and mirror of the Saudi people and society.
In 2000, Binzagr’s gallery, “Darat Safeya Binzagr” first opened its doors, with the support of Prince Abdul Majeed bin Abdulaziz. But “Darat Safeya Binzagr” wasn’t just a place to admire art, it hosted activities, workshops, and lectures.
By that time, Binzagr had already cemented her reputation as an innovator of the Saudi art movement. Politicians, educators, and fellow artists continually praised her work. For many, Binzagr’s art was synonymous with Saudi life. People trusted her to represent them on her internationally celebrated canvases.
“A serious approach, originality, and representation of Saudi traditions and social customs have characterized her work.”
She earned praise from Prince Faysal bin Fahd bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, who expressed his deep gratitude for Binzagr’s work. “A serious approach, originality, and representation of Saudi traditions and social customs have characterized her work,” the Prince declared.
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But it’s not only representation that brought Binzagr her well-deserved fame. The range of subjects and feelings exemplified through her colorful brush strokes is especially remarkable.
Paintings of traditional buildings fitted with meticulously carved wooden shutters and blanched, bright walls give a home to the countless Saudi faces she loves to paint. Elaborate wood, stone, and plasterwork highlight that every window, door, and wall is an opportunity for opulence, for celebration. Binzagr enjoyed depicting the wide breadth of architectural creativity found in Saudi Arabia, demonstrating through her 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.
Of all Binzagr’s paintings, the ones representing day-to-day life are the most distinctive. There is nothing quite like the feeling of looking at a picture that perfectly represents the viewer’s hometown vibe. That sensation intensifies if the onlooker is feeling homesick or nostalgic.
You don’t need to be from Saudi Arabia to understand how personal – how delicate and proud – the emotions conveyed in Binzagr’s paintings are. Images of women lounging on low-sitting sofas in the living room, conversing the hours away, or men doing business in the blistering but oh-so-familiar Saudi sun must bring such wonderful feelings of comfort, warmth, and safety.
Binzagr deserves a further accolade for earning her reputation not only as an artist but also as a woman.
It is challenging to talk about female representation in Saudi Arabia without acknowledging the country’s long and unkind battle with gender equality. While Binzagr’s artwork speaks for itself on many levels, she deserves a further accolade for taking risks and earning her distinguished reputation not only as an artist but also as a woman.
The Western world only pictures Saudi women as faceless ghosts, featureless forms, black silhouettes. Binzagr’s paintings defy these images by offering a rich palette full of life and color schemes. Women are painted with large, dark eyes and high cheekbones. Their olive skin looks smooth and sun-kissed.
Given the nature of Saudi Arabian culture and Islamic influence, all the women are dressed modestly – but they don’t look plain or austere. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and Binzagr obviously sees her fellow Saudi sisters as nothing less than 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 Athr Gallery in Jeddah, is optimistic about what the future holds for Saudi artists. “Jeddah’s art scene is full of independent and underground initiatives…the future holds a major place for art and culture in Saudi, hopefully with a significant presence on an international level,” she tells GQ Middle East.
It’s always exciting to watch a society navigate contemporary means of expression and representation. Looking at the sincere praise and adoration the Saudi people have for Binzagr and her work, it’s hard not to have high expectations for the new generation of Saudi artists and what they’ll bring to the table.