Najla AlKhalifa’s lens on Saudi Arabia

Friday 01/04/2016
Untitled, by Najla AlKhalifa.

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”.