Photo exhibition depicting the lives of British Muslim women tours the globe

A touring photographic exhibition depicting the lives of British Muslim women is shaking up attitudes in the Middle East. Arifa Akbar gauges the reaction in Riyadh

An Arab man dressed in a chequered dishdash looks quizzically at a picture of an Asian "rap artist" from Leeds, wearing a basketball vest and a diamante medallion with the word "Allah" inscribed in Arabic. Nearby hangs a portrait of two British-Asian girls, wearing headscarves and jeans, playing a game of pool; one chalks her cue as the other lines up a shot. The photograph is met with expressions of surprise by a huddle of Arab journalists.

These everyday images of Muslim life in Britain are to the Arab audience at the British Council's Common Ground exhibition in Saudi Arabia's capital, Riyadh, nothing short of groundbreaking. In many of the strict Islamic Gulf states where it is touring - and where the concept of figurative art is still contested by orthodox scholars - the show is a sign that the region is nudging towards greater liberalisation. The exhibition has already been to Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, and is moving on to Oman before reaching Yemen in September. Its impact on Arab viewers cannot be overestimated. For Saudi Arabia, it is the first significant collection to be imported from the West in more than three decades.

The Common Ground project, consisting of 280 works by 21 artists, began in 2001 as commissions for UK artists on issues relating to Muslim identity. Two years later, artists in Malaysia and Indonesia joined, followed by the Gulf states and Middle East. The aim is to provide a platform for the "exchange of experiences, ideas and concepts among photographers", according to the British Council. In reality, it is the first significant creative exchange between the West and the Middle East. Iyad Madani, the kingdom's Minister of Culture and Information, believes the country is loosening up after two decades of austerity, and "regaining part of the real soul that Saudis have always had".

According to Alan Smart, the director of the British Council in Saudi Arabia, the images present a challenge to Middle Eastern audiences, but not necessarily in an inflammatory manner. "The picture of the woman holding the steering wheel [part of Manal Al Dowayan's set of eight photographs, entitled Looking Beyond the Veil] is very significant in terms of being a big issue in Saudi Arabia," he says. "But I would be interested to see the reaction to some of the British pictures across the Gulf."

Some of the subjects chosen by the photographers will already be familiar to Arab audiences, such as the various portraits of veiled Arab women. Others, however, promise to be utterly revelatory. It is hoped that "culturally hybrid" images - which include those of a mixed-race couple standing fondly next to each other in a council flat; Asian women draped in Union Jack flags and colourful saris; as well as East London artist Rehan Jamil's gritty portrait of an Asian heroin addict wearing a shalwar kameez - will present a less monolithic version of Muslim identity to Arab viewers.

Suki Dhanda, a photographer from Hackney, in London, who has created a picture-diary of a 14-year-old Muslim girl from Whitechapel (variously shown praying with her mother, playing pool and chatting in a chip shop with friends, in her many "cultural manifestations"), says the response from Saudi visitors has so far been encouraging, with the reaction one of curiosity rather than outrage - one man asks Dhanda whether the independent Asian girl she has photographed "is happy or not".

"My work is all about one girl, Shapna," says Dhanda. "She wears the hijab and she also wears trainers, mixing her cultural heritage with aspects from the West. She is independent and making her own choices. The Arab women who saw her images really like her."

A group of men debate women's position in Arab society with Manal Al Dowayan, who is exhibiting portraits of half-veiled women, as well as photographs of a henna-painted arm draped over a steering wheel. These could be particularly sensitive: women are allowed to drive in many Gulf states, but the issue has come to symbolise the clash between the progressive and conservative factions in the nation.

For Al Dowayan, who was born in the eastern province of Dehran and has exhibited in London, it was a chance to celebrate her Arab identity as well as challenge traditional notions embedded within it. "This collection is really about my life as a woman, a Saudi, a Muslim, and all the frustrations and happy moments that encapsulates," she says.

The image of the steering wheel, she says, has "caught a lot of people's attention. It means a lot to our country. My work takes me to many areas and I need to move from one area to another. I'm not speaking on behalf of all Saudi women. This is just one aspect of being me."

Another portrait of a veiled woman wearing ornate gold chains and a head-dress, traditional dress in the Eastern province, was meant as a metaphor for the limits on women's freedoms in the kingdom, reveals the artist. "When these chains turn into a cage, when they hold you down, as beautiful as they might appear on women, I'm just saying we need to question them.

"The Saudis who have seen my work have come up to me and they have said they want to understand it. Some of it is about traditions that don't make sense and I am ready to talk to them about this," says Al Dowayan, adding, "I like to think it has inspired some reaction. I am very optimistic, this is a time of hope in the kingdom."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
This weekend's 'Big Hero 6' by Disney Animation Studios
arts + ents
News
i100
News
Budapest, 1989. Sleepware and panties.
newsDavid Hlynsky's images of Soviet Union shop windows shine a light on our consumerist culture
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
News
In humans, the ability to regulate the expression of genes through thoughts alone could open up an entirely new avenue for medicine.
science
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Associate - London

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL FIRM - A...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Law Costs - London City

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - EXCELLENT FIRM - We have an outstandin...

Austen Lloyd: In-House Solicitor / Company Secretary - London

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: IN-HOUSE - NATIONAL CHARITY - An exciting and...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - A great new opportunity with real pot...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee