In this project Manal Al-Dowayan, an artist, and May Al-Dabbagh, an academic, will document and organize a visual and textual archive of Saudi Arabian women’s stories in the form of a contemporary art project.
Manal and May grew up in Dhahran in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Both have been involved in documenting and exploring women’s issues in Saudi Arabia in their respective fields.
In Manal’s previous work, she constantly questioned the state of disappearance of women in historical and current contexts, which led to its counterbalance - the necessary act of preservation. In artworks like “My Name”, “If I Forget You Don't Forget Me”, and “The State of Disappearance”, Manal explores a history that does not exist physically because it was discontinued, fractured, or forgotten. May’s research has focused on documenting the experiences of stress and well-being among working women in Saudi Arabia, exploring intergroup leadership among women’s groups across the country, and analyzing how the younger generation of Saudi women negotiate their careers in the context of globalization.
Manal and May chose to collaborate on this research project for the next 6 months. This is the first installment in a series of Blog posts that will reflect their personal narrative as they move forward with their work. The following is an email exchange between them that was used as their first Blog post:
ENTRY #1: Negotiating Spaces: Navigating a Collaborative Art and Research Project
Manal: Hi May, I just wanted to catch up with you after our June interviews in the Eastern Province. The group of women we went to visit was inspirational and the objects that were presented to us were very unexpected. I am very pleased with what we have collected so far: almost 6 hours of video, about 100 photographs, and some very good spontaneous iPhone videos.
I also wanted to mention that after two years of talking about this project as friends we are finally project partners. I am very excited about this venture, which I know will carry its own stories and experiences. I was just checking in to see how you are doing after our two weeks in Saudi and ask you how you felt about this project and our collaboration so far?
May: Hala Manal. I am also really inspired by the set of interviews we had in shargiyya. I really enjoyed the process: The anticipation before the interview and the unfolding of the interviews in the most unexpected of ways! I feel we are both so privileged to be able to hear the stories and to reflect on them together. You know, Alice Walker once said "The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any". So I guess, for me, this collaboration is about power. It is about documenting women's stories. It is about dissecting what it means to be a woman in the midst of a "modernity project": Mystified and hyper-visible at the same time. Most importantly, this collaboration is about a friendship with someone I have always admired and cherished.
Manal: I hope you still admire and cherish me once this is over ya May!
So what is collaboration? Is it any different from a partnership, a friendship, a sort of marriage? If a collaboration gives you power can it also take it away? Or will it teach us the art of negotiation? So what will the dynamics of our partnership be during this time of shared work? I think we will definitely explore our personal stories alongside the stories we will be collecting!
May: Our friendship far predates our collaboration. But I think our collaboration will challenge it and strengthen it. Basically, my dear, I have faith that our friendship will survive our negotiations! I've been a "subject" in some of your artwork and I've featured your art in some of my writing. Co-creating something, is a different ball game altogether. I really look forward to that.
Through our collaboration (read: conversations, arguments, moments of insight, and consistent chaos) I hope we can deepen our self-reflexivity and find new ways of seeing things that appear familiar. Through our exchanges, I look forward to developing my own feminist understanding, which is constantly evolving.
Indeed it is all about faith and friendship in the end!
May, I really like your statement “find new ways of seeing things that are familiar”. We will definitely face a few personal challenges during our research because we are delving into the new and unknown. Like using a visual language to present research; will it be accepted as both art and research? I am also still conflicted about what we choose to document and how will we present it. Should it be a mirror image of what we physically see or do we place it through the filter of our thought process and produce a more ethereal interpretation for our “modern archive”?
I too look forward to developing my work further; I will continue to build my work around the tension created between the concepts linked to preservation and active forgetting. More specifically I will try to build an archive that captures a contemporary interpretation of specific group within an undefined context. Meaning the structure of the archive and its contents will be defined by the organic flow of the elements we collect during our visits to the women across the country.
Those are just a few of the struggles I am grappling with and we have just begun! What do you think will be your challenges during this project?
May: It seems we are both keen to not take the obvious for granted! You know, you called our project an archive. I agree but I am also keen to emphasize that our "archive" is an emergent process not a final outcome. It is subject to a complex process of inclusion/exclusion. How will our archive be different from previous attempts to create "lists" or encyclopedias or even a museum of "Saudi women"? Conceptually, how can our project go beyond the typical ways in which women's issues are used to stand in for politics? To drive or not to drive? Let's just fill up that space so we are not able to discuss anything else! Ha ha.
You and I have often joked about that awkward moment that occurs after someone discusses our work they want to know: "as a Saudi woman" what do you think of this? Or "you must be so brave to work on gender issues in Saudi!"
I find this discursively violent. It puts you in a position of answering for a collective or needing to justify why you don't fit a preconceived frame. It also assumes that any work on Saudi women is necessarily heroic.
I hope that this project will allow us to bring some of these contradictory experiences to the fore. Of occupying multiple worlds, often simultaneously, and of potentially using humor to show the absurdity of it all.
Narrating stories puts women's voices first. With all of its diversity and contradictions. Including ours. Making obvious our assumptions/positionality not only in relation to the women in our interview, but the wider community who reads about our work. Our attempt at an archive or collection, is not definitive or fixed, but a reflection of who we are today and our activism against multiple forms of hegemony.
Manal: I want to discuss our more general concept of the project, our experiences with the subjects of our archive and maybe delve into the personal impact that this project brings with it … But ‘Id holidays are just around the corner. So I wish you very happy holiday May and lets reconnect after the break!
Until next time,
May: Eidik Mbarak, Manool. Please give my best to your family. Talk to you soon. x