Cultural heritage of rural Southern Saudi Arabia in danger of being lost forever. 

The United Nations hosts geometric murals from Rijal Alma in “Our Mother’s House” (16-27 November 2015), seeking to bring equal representation to women throughout the MENAT region and successfully win a bid to become a UNESCO World Heritage site.

"Our Mother's House", painted mural by Fatema Hassan, 122 x 9 cm. Image courtesy Edge of Arabia and Art Jameel.

“Our Mother’s House”, painted mural by Fatema Hassan, 122 x 9 cm. Image courtesy Edge of Arabia and Art Jameel.

“Our Mother’s House” is a multifaceted initiative by Art Jameel and the Permanent Mission of Saudi Arabia to the UN, organised by Edge of Arabia, and supported by The Middle East Institute. Additional involvement comes from Saudi visual artists Arwa Alnaemi, Ahmed Mater and Fatimah Jaber and cultural historian Ali Moghawi.

A creative arm of Community Jameel, Art Jameel supports contemporary art and cultural enrichment programmes throughout the MENAT (Middle East, North Africa and Turkey) region and beyond. In partnership with London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the prestigious Jameel Art Prize is awarded biannually to the best contemporary art and design “inspired by Islamic traditions”. Additional programmes include the Art Jameel Photography Award and the Jeddah Sculpture Museum. Currently, the organisation is collaborating with several other firms to establish art complexes and cultural exchange programmes.

Edge of Arabia, an organisation founded in March 2003 by Abdulnasser Gharem, Ahmed Mater and Stephen Stapleton, was launched to foster education, networking opportunities and promotion of Middle Eastern contemporary artists in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as well as within the region and abroad. Most recently, the organisation has co-founded CULTURUNNERS, a “grassroots Middle East artist’s tour across the United States” alongside Art Jameel.

The United Nations, located on the eastern shore of New York City’s Manhattan Island, was established by fifty-one nations in 1945 to support international peace and security. Annually, 1 million visitors visit exhibitions open to the public at the iconic site. The murals are located in the complex’s Curved Wall, Conference Building 1.

Houses in Rijal AlmaHeritage Village. Image courtesy Edge of Arabia and Art Jameel.

Houses in Rijal Alma Heritage Village. Image courtesy Edge of Arabia and Art Jameel.

The three murals exhibited at the UN range in size from 220 by 717 centimetres to 220 by 1000 centimetres and are utilising hundreds-year-old painting methods found in a rural village located in the Asir region of Southwest Saudi Arabia. The sizes of these pieces of art can widely vary, depending upon the shape and size of individual rooms and are the specialty of women living in Rijal Alma. These guardians of local history, like many other women in rural Saudi Arabia, are facing increased marginalisation within their communities. The initiative hopes to find a solution to this disconnect before it’s too late.

As Stephen Stapleton, Co-Founder of the Edge of Arabia told Art Radar, the scope of the project was generational and “very urgent”:

The challenge is to engage the new generation, to take on this issue. There needs to be a handover between generations and this need is reflected in our project where 23 artists, from across the generations were involved in making the murals.

Exterior of ahome intheRijalAlma Heritage Village. Image courtesy Edge of Arabia and Art Jameel.

Exterior of a home in the Rijal Alma Heritage Village. Image courtesy Edge of Arabia and Art Jameel.

In addition to bringing awareness about women throughout the Kingdom and the MENAT region, the initiative is seeking to win a bid for the Rijal Alma Heritage Village to become a UNESCO World Heritage site, which would bring international, regional and national attention to the village. In the case of the Rijal Alma Heritage Village, these artisans do not just represent a creative outlet, as Stapleton relayed, they impact more of the community than what one sees initially:

This tradition of painting is not just a cultural issue, it is also a local economy and an archive of local history. To marginalise the artisans would close the door on a wonderful opportunity to empower the women, and the wider community through the preservation of their identity, their economy and their history. 

Lisa Pollman


Related Topics: art and the community, event alert, historical art, identity art, news, Saudi artists, events in New York, event alert

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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