Jun 22, 2013

Politics of Saudi Street Art

Prior to the Arab uprisings, street art in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait was seen as a funky, yet westernized, form of expression. Over the past two years, street art has become the new wave of expression, after photography and graphic design became too popular. There is a certain power to this emerging phenomenon as it gives visibility to certain issues and shows discontent among the youth.
In Kuwait, street art targets issues of undocumented migrants and gender tensions, but there’s also plenty apolitical, individualistic works. In Saudi Arabia, pictures of street art circulate and are feverishly documented before they are erased by the state.
The works in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were clearly influenced by Egyptian street artists. The figure of Sad Panda, for example, appears inJeddah. The images of celebrities are used to send messages, most famously Um Kulthoum as a feminist figure. A few years ago in Beirut, the Mashrou’ Leila singer did the widely-known Um Kulthoum “Boos al-wawa” graffiti. Similar depictions of Um Kulthoum illustrated the clash between eras.

Jeddah seems to be hosting a lot of distinguished street art. While browsing the Saudi Street Art tumblr, one can notice the dominance of class and gender issues in the minds of those young and mostly anonymous street artists. The following are some examples:
These two pieces from Jeddah are good examples of the rejection of corruption and class division, as well as the gentrification in a city that was not equipped with infrastructure to protect from floods that killed dozens and destroyed homes. The second work is powerful in its simplicity, stating: “This is God’s sea,” meaning nature is not the creation of man or a product to purchase. The rich taking over the beaches of Jeddah deprives the city of its few open spaces, where the population feels that nature is put up for sale in the grand oil state.
These works from the capital Riyadh deal directly with politics. The first draws the face of Hamza Kashgari, the forgotten young man imprisoned for his tweets that supposedly insulted Islam and the prophet. Despite being a controversial case, Saudi youth were brave and open in their support of Hamza, drawing comparisons with cases of corruption and immorality. Perhaps the warmly received visit to Saudi of an Islamophobic Dutchman who had converted to Islam is an example of how the kingdom acts flexibly with Westerners, but not with locals.
The second work addresses the history of targeted freedoms in the kingdom. “Sahir” does not only refer to street surveillance for traffic violations, but also to the fatality brought about by the Ministry of Interior, known for its torture cases, arrests, and disappearances. It also speaks of a country that is now monitored thanks to oil wealth. “Sahir” is the name of the oppressor of individual and political freedoms.
There are many works on women and gender in Saudi streets. These two examples of graffitti were widely circulated. The first reads, “life cycle of a woman,” critiquing the social paths of Saudi women where she is controlled in appearance and function. The second is another work that borrows from the feminist literature of Um Kalthoum, as the woman quotes her song, “Give me my freedom, release my hands.”
Considering the lack of mobility and the systematic gender segregation imposed in Saudi Arabia through state and religious police, street art becomes a powerful way to challenge state dominance of public space. Those young artists are taking the first steps to reclaim this public space and not just express their rage and opinions on social media. Painting the walls with those daring messages informs authorities and reluctant societies that the young are willing to make their voices heard through art.

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