On first glance, Ghada al-Rabea comes off as orthodox and austere. The 40-year-old Saudi artist dresses from head to toe in an abaya, the traditional Muslim cloak, and masks her entire face save the area around her kohl-lined eyes with a niqab. But one look at her paintings, crafted meticulously with candy and chocolate wrappers, and there is no question as to how playful and amusing she actually is.
“Using chocolate wrappers came to me while I was sipping tea and nibbling on chocolate in my living room,” al-Rabea says. “I knew it was the perfect choice of medium for me, as it reflects my childlike spirit and my humorous approach to art.”
Born and raised in Medina, Saudi Arabia, a country where the art scene is starting to flourish thanks to the Ministry of Culture and patronage initiatives, Al-Rabea always knew she wanted to be an artist. Her mother was the first to encourage that passion, and her husband would later challenge her to carve out her own niche, supporting her morally and financially while she did so.
Al-Rabea, a graduate of Taibah University with a degree in home economics and the fine arts, has exhibited in local art shows, most recently at Athr Gallery in Jeddah. Her solo exhibition Sidi Shahin, showcased 17 artworks and attracted more than 2,000 visitors of varying ages and genders. “It is rare to see a show that can speak to people from all generations,” says Afia bin Taleb, Athr’s exhibition manager and artist liaison. “The show was covered extensively by local and regional media outlets, in both English and Arabic.” According to Basma al-Sulaiman, founder of the virtual museum Basmoca and a Saudi art patron, “Ghada’s style is unique. It could be identified as contemporary pop art, and she stands alone in that field.”
Al-Rabea’s creative license goes beyond upcycling candy wrappers as a novel art medium. The mother of four who recently became a grandmother is acclaimed for applying a Saudi lens to iconic Western art.
Can you picture Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa sporting a veil? How about Grant Wood’s American Gothic couple donning traditional Saudi headdresses? Al-Rabea evokes the Renaissance and post-impressionism with a Saudi slant, swapping the French bourgeoisie with the Arab kingdom’s modern-day middle class in Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. “I have always imagined what these iconic pieces would look like if the artists came from the [Arab] region,” al-Rabea says. Her intention was never to offend, but simply to “put a smile on people’s faces.”
Could her depictions of human figures be construed as defying Islam or unflattering to Saudi culture? If there has been criticism, al-Rabea says she hasn’t heard any. “This is a limited point of view; art has nothing to do with religion,” al-Sulaiman argues. On the contrary, al-Rabea’s artwork inspires onlookers to be “happy and joyful,” al-Sulaiman says, tugging at their nostalgia through the use of familiar candy wrappers.
Al-Rabea’s collages of familiar settings in a present-day Saudi context combined with the incorporation of the discarded and forgotten — whether material or cultural — have amassed an international following with collectors as far west as the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, Maine.
Long dominated by arch-conservative Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia has taken steps toward modernity and increased recognition of women in the past year under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But al-Rabea admits that as a female artist, particularly a conservative one, her ability to meet people, curators and art collectors is impeded in a country where women were only recently allowed to drive.
While bin Taleb, the exhibition manager, believes that male and female artists in Saudi Arabia face identical challenges, she “cannot deny that the most powerful positions are dominated by males,” even though women outnumber men in the field. Art patron al-Sulaiman, meanwhile, claims “judgment is always on the quality of work, not on the gender of the artist.” Further, she insists that women can occupy both administrative and technical roles in art institutes, and that the Ministry of Culture supports all artists equally.
The candy wrapper artist urges the West not to judge her part of the world based on shallow media coverage that provides only empty calories. “The reality here is very different from what it is perceived to be. Women everywhere face obstacles,” al-Rabea says. While those obstacles might vary from continent to continent, “we should all embrace and accept each other’s differences … and they should not be generalized.” Bin Taleb argues that “women are gaining more power and more recognition, and it is all because of consciousness and feminist movements.”
As the Arab-Muslim world shifts, Saudi women are scrambling to define their roles in society. Just ask al-Rabea, whose favorite among her creations is her self-portrait fashioned from Lindt wrappers. “As a niqabi, it was not clear how I could create a self-portrait,” she says, alluding to the fact that she is almost completely veiled. “However, I took it upon myself as a challenge to show others that there aren’t any restrictions but the ones you plant in your head.”
5 Questions for Ghada al-Rabea
- What’s the last book you read? The Holy Quran.
- What do you worry about? Leaving this world without learning all the things I want to learn.
- What’s the one thing you cannot live without? Two things: the Quran and my family.
- Who’s your hero? My husband and kids.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? To present one of my works at the Louvre Museum. Because I’m proudly veiled, I can’t go to France, so I hope to place a part of me there.
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