Najla AlKhalifa’s lens on Saudi Arabia
Washington - The Arab Gulf States Institute used its Washington offices to host 1001 Lights, an exhibit by internationally recognised Saudi photographer Najla AlKhalifa, who wore an abaya and hijab, “on purpose”.
With her one-woman cultural diplomacy show, AlKhalifa said she feels blessed that she can travel and convey the message of the Saudi people and that “how I look in Saudi Arabia did not stop me from completing my master’s in English literature”.
“The abaya is on my body,” she continued, “but not [on] my mind. You can find people all over the world who don’t have objectives for their lives… I have this dream; the limitations are [only] inside. I’m a mother, daughter and wife and my family [are] supporting me to express myself… My role is to show lesser-known aspects of Saudi Arabia.”
Asked to comment on the rise of radicals, she said they “do not represent the Islamic world or religion, I think art can build bridges of understanding we’re all the same.”
AlKhalifa’s photographs open a window into rarely seen natural, archaeological, architectural and geological features. Besides her artistic vocation, she works at the Saudi Ministry of Tourism whose tagline reads: “Saudi Tourism: Experience to Discover.”
People don’t associate Saudi Arabia with secular tourism; the country’s reputation evokes more don’ts than do’s but tourists are invited to “magical Saudi Arabia” to dive amid sea coral and lounge on breathtaking beaches, visit archaeological sites and enjoy adventures. AlKhalifa explores and wins awards for her photographs while seamlessly promoting tourism.
The exhibit was arranged in seven groups, featuring the kingdom’s archaeological heritage, geological wonders, architecture and displays on Japan and England. Clearly AlKhalifa is captivated by the striking contrasts, patterns and colours: from thriving Japanese bamboo to the desert and remarkable rock formations. A fascinating series focused on the Waba crater, an ancient crystal-covered volcanic basin.
Anyone who has seen the Treasury at Petra in Jordan will recognise the architecture of Mada’in Saleh (Al Hijr). The World Heritage site features similar ninth-century buildings, constructed by the Nabateans, who ruled from Petra in the north to Mada’in Saleh, their southern trading capital.
Saudi Ambassador to the United States Prince Abdullah bin Faisal bin Turki bin Abdullah Al Saud praised AlKhalifa for her talent and accomplishments, noting the importance of cultural expression.
“I hope we can catch up,” he said, explaining that Saudi art has typically taken the form of “words and colloquial poetry”.
He commented surprisingly candidly on the challenge of moving the society forward to embrace the arts and remarked how “other countries feel art is important for humanity.” With a bit of humour, he pointed to “those at home who purchased Western art — sometimes paintings to match their sofas and curtains,” saying, “In fact, we didn’t have these traditions, so far” but he was optimistic. AlKhalifa spoke enthusiastically about the arts scene, saying that artistic expression and training are rapidly increasing and that, as far as the gender-barrier, she is among several leading women photographers and PhDs at the ministry. She said she hopes to produce a book about the country’s diverse Saudi architecture.
“I didn’t bring [such photos] here” she said, “because people will [focus] on the old part of our heritage.” She explained that many old houses have been turned into museums and eco-lodges.
Born in the United States, AlKhalifa was raised in Riyadh and spent most of her life in Saudi Arabia. A wife and mother of two, she has more than 35 awards to her name.
In July, she became the first woman to receive the coveted French Px3 Competition gold award. She’d previously won Px3’s bronze and silver awards.
AlKhalifa said she wanted to show Americans that a woman in traditional dress can still be free in her own mind. “The only restrictions are in themselves. It’s in your personality where you are. The limitations are inside everyone. People have to pursue their dreams,” she said.
When AlKhalifa declined to have her picture taken with the AGSI president and ambassador, he quipped: “You see, it’s the women who do this to themselves!” Adamant to not be in focus herself, she asked “everyone here to try to find a lens to tell your story”.