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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
video
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Amis: Taken to task over rash decisions and ill-judged statements
booksThe Zone of Interest just doesn't work, says James Runcie
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Travel
travelFrom Notting Hill Carnival to Zombeavers at FrightFest
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Service Delivery and Support Manager

£55000 - £75000 per annum + excellent benefits: Harrington Starr: Service Deli...

Corporate Tax Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL ...

Relationship Manager

£500 - £600 per day: Orgtel: Relationship Manager, London, Banking, Accountant...

Marketing & PR Assistant - NW London

£15 - £17 per hour: Ashdown Group: Marketing & PR Assistant - Kentish Town are...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home