Expressionism in Saudi Fine Arts: it's time to document

Lebanon’s daily Al-Akhbar featured an account of Ahmad Flamban’s initiative to document the history of Saudi art. Flamban’s book – Saudi Plastic Arts - profiles 400 men and women artists in an attempt to shed some light on the milestones of the Arabic Expressionist movement – which is surprisingly half a century old.
saudi artists
Ola Hijazi, one of the figureheads of the Saudi Arabian Expressionist movement. R.R.

BEIRUT, November 6, 2008 (AL-AKHABAR) - Modern art in Saudi Arabia is considered one of the new movements in the Arab arts scene. But as Saudi artist and historian Ahmad Flamban reveals in his new book, Saudi Plastic Arts, Arabic expressionism actually began during an artist exchange more than 50 years ago.

It was in the year 1956 that teaching art education was officially approved in boys schools in the Kingdom, then in the 1960’s Saudi Arabia sanctioned the first scholarly arts exchange.

From the Saudi Kingdom to Europe, Egypt and America, Flamban says this first batch of modern Saudi artists were the pioneers. The 57-year old artist’s book was designed to document that period.

Flamban’s book was published by the Arab Saudi Culture and Arts Association and is the first of its kind, and is an introductory catalogue of Saudi plastic artists featuring one work by each artist; this is probably due to the large number of artists presented by the book which excedes 400 artists. 

The feminine presence in the Saudi arts scene is remarkable, and a movement started exploding in the past few years. The book introduces more than 130 Saudi women artists, most of them having studied fine arts academically.

It's important to point out the artistic collectives founded by women's efforts like the Artistic Trends Group founded in Khobar in 2003, including 10 women artists featured in the book among them Ghada Khaled, Amina taqi, Amal Al-Dousary and Madawi Al-Baz. 

The book traces individual and collective exhibitions held before 1973, the year the "Saudi Associaition" was founded, which was born out of the fine arts department.

The author contends the first fine art exhibition in Saudi was by artist Muhammad Saed Rasim (1909-1973) and was in Jadda in 1935. Painter Muhammad Rasim, who studied fine arts in Turkey, is considered by the author as an important pillar that can be referred to as “the oldest Saudi painter” at a time fine art was non-existent in the kingdom.

But this in no way means Saudi plastic arts movement started at that date, the book rather talks about individual efforts on behalf of Rasim, a fact most artistic and critical studies agree about regarding the history of Saudi plastic art. 

We mention here what the Egyptian critic Mukhtar al-Attar said in his book "Art Pioneers- Studies in Fine Arts Critique, third part", published by the Egyptian General Book Council in 1998.

In a chapter entitled "Entry to Saudi Fine Art", "we notice that early pioneer works reflected the warmth of daily life, linked to desert themes, as in Muhammad Salim's work, or inspired by popular symbols, like in Abdel Halim Radawi's works".

Books like Ahmad Flamban’s are  rare in Saudi Arabia as are most Saudi art history book, and it’s fair to say that The Kingdom has failed to provide an adequate reference section in its national library where international art history is concerned.


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