Arwa and Ahmed: An Interview with Two Saudi Art Stars

CNN included Ahmed Mater and Arwa Al Neami in its list of Saudi Arabia’s rising art stars a few years ago. Active artists when they met—and now husband and wife—Mater and Al Neami have continued to ascend. Al Neami became the first woman to photograph the Prophet’s Mosque, considered the Islamic world’s second-holiest site, in 2014. She also made international waves with her Never Never Land series, a moving look at how Saudi women manage to enjoy amusement parks despite the heavy restrictions imposed upon them.

Women in abayas on bumper cars.

Mater, considered among the most influential Saudi artists, attracted his own global attention with his piece Magnetism, an abstract interpretation of the hajj that was exhibited at the British Museum. And this year, Mater debuted Symbolic Cities in our galleries, the first US museum exhibition dedicated solely to his work. To mark the occasion, both artists visited Washington, DC, and sat down with me to chat about their work and their lives together.

Does your background as a medical doctor continue to influence your work?

Ahmed Mater: Yes, of course, because it’s about my life and journey. I think medicine falls between subjectivity and objectivity. Art does the same in my life. In my latest project, I try to explore the “intervention” with the cities, and I also call it the “prognosis” of the cities. I treat all of my projects and artwork maybe subconsciously from a medical approach. It’s a holistic approach.

Why do you think you were drawn to both art and medicine?

AM: I think it’s part of my journey. Maybe I chose it, or maybe it’s like destiny. But I manage both of them within one mission.

Why is it important for the public to see your images—particularly an American audience?

AM: I really believe in the common cultural product. When you go to Saudi Arabia, you see a lot of American life there, which is imported through the media, through commercials . . . It’s a common concern, the materialistic new life we are living now. We share that concern.

What is your favorite piece of the ones you’ve created recently?

AM: Maybe Leaves Fall in All Seasons, a film that was in the Berlin Film Festival and got a lot of attention from the critics and audiences. There is an experimental part where the film is taken by the workers themselves. I collected all of the clips from their mobile phones. [The film] has a new perspective from the people inside the construction in Mecca.

What kind of reaction did audiences have to the Never Never Land series? 

Arwa Al Neami: The first time they saw the video and the images, they loved it and were surprised. When they looked a second time, they felt sad. It’s sad because of all the rules [imposed on the women] . . . Many ladies have said to me, “Keep going, we are with you.” It changed my life because it made me think deeply about their emotion—how the rules are [increasing] and how the ladies still try to find a way to have fun. All of my artwork now is about the feelings of [women in Saudi Arabia]—how to be sexy and beautiful, how they have power even when they are covered.

Where is your art taking you now?

AAN: I have a new video called Red Lipstick. If you cover something, it becomes more sexy. If you cover just one finger and show the rest of the body naked, you want to try to see what’s on that one finger. I covered the face of my friend—she’s a Christian; it was her first time wearing the niqab . . . I put red lipstick on her, then covered her face. A fan blows up [the niqab], and you see the red lipstick becoming more and more sexy.

The other project is [based on] a fictional story. I wake up and I smell cardamom, like how my grandmother would crush it and put it in coffee in the morning. And there’s the sound of the crushing of the beans—the sound is really strong and beautiful. When you enter [the installation], you cannot see anything; you can just smell the cardamom and hear [women’s] voices. Many ladies enter and come out crying. They remember their grandmothers. The smell has a lot of memories for the Saudis.

What is daily life like in a home with two active artists?

AM: We share a studio, and we help other artists together. We started in the studio, Arwa and me, we started with this idea . . . Why don’t we find an old villa from the 1970s and renovate it and make it a hub for artists, for ladies and men together? . . . There’s a kitchen on the second floor, we make coffee, tea; sometimes we all make dinner together.

AAN: We spend all day in the studio. I have a couch, and people stay and sleep . . . We have between fifteen and twenty people every day, from local people to ambassadors.

AM: We have a small warehouse where people can debate, do standup comedy—they can test their work. . . . We call it Disney for artists.

What is the relationship between your work?

AM: It’s complementary. She talks about the issues that she feels [strongly about] and I try to cover those issues.

AAN: We try to find different approaches, which makes it more rich. . . .  It’s very important because some artists, when they work together for a long time, they clash.

AM: We try to make ourselves open to new approaches and exploration.

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