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Dana Awartani

Dana Awartani

Meet visual artist from Saudi Arabia, Dana Awartani.

 

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am a Palestinian/Saudi artist that is currently based in Jeddah, I moved back here a few years ago after studying and living in London for 7 years. I am passionate about my work and I try to revive and reinvent traditional forms of art-making, that is in threat of dying out, through collaborating with craftsmen across the world and giving this aesthetic language a place in the contemporary art world. I love to travel and my work has allowed me to go all over the world and learn about new cultures and people which allows me to constantly grow as a human being.

 

Describe the city you’re living in and what it’s like to live there.
Jeddah is such a unique city due to its history. It used to be and still is a place everyone passes through to get to Mecca or Medinah and a lot of people have settled here so you are left with such a multicultural and multiethnic community that is so rich. A lot of Saudis from Jeddah hail from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and I personally find that living in a pluralistic society is always a positive, I myself am of Palestinian, Syrian and Jordanian descent but was born and raised in Saudi Arabia and call it home. Living here does have its challenges of course, which are slowly changing as the country is opening up and we are seeing a huge shift in such a short time. But overall life in Saudi is comfortable, quiet and very family orientated.

 

Living here does have its challenges of course, which are slowly changing as the country is opening up and we are seeing a huge shift in such a short time. But overall life in Saudi is comfortable, quiet and very family orientated.

What is the best and worst thing about living in your city?
One of the best things would definitely be the sense of community that you find here, everyone makes time for one another and my friends and colleagues are family to me, you definitely feel loved and supported here and know that if you need anything people will go out of there way to help you. Even though I loved living in London for so long, that was something I couldn’t find as much, everyone was too busy getting on with their lives and trying to make ends meet. The worst thing would have to be the lack of things to do and the lack of resources. Something as basic as getting art materials is impossible here as there is no art shop so I have to buy everything abroad or order online. There are also no museums, only 2 galleries and no other resources that help you grow and get inspired as an artist, which a lot of people take for granted abroad. Also given that Saudi was never open to tourists until recently, this means they never really built upon the local infrastructure or tourism industry so its very hard to explore the country and get around, and its a shame as the country has some incredible historical sites and deserts!

 

Give us 3 words that describe what it’s like to be a creative in your city.

Challenging, invigorating and supportive.

 

How did you start your career in art?

Well, this is quite an interesting story to tell and I have my mother and Mrs. Owen, my high school art teacher to thank for this. I remember when I was quite young, around 13, my mom had to come to school for a parent-teacher meeting and she meets Mrs. Owen who told her that I had a gift for art and that she should think about sending me to Central Saint Martins in London when I am older. So it was really at that moment these two women collectively decided that I should be an artist and where I should study way before I even knew this is what I wanted to do. So forward 20 years on, I did end up studying in that exact university and my mom even guided me into which university I should go to for my Master’s degree thereafter.

 

I remember when I was quite young, around 13, my mom had to come to school for a parent-teacher meeting and she meets Mrs. Owen who told her that I had a gift for art and that she should think about sending me to Central Saint Martins in London when I am older. So it was really at that moment these two women collectively decided that I should be an artist and where I should study way before I even knew this is what I wanted to do.

Were the people around you supportive of your decision on working as a creative?
Absolutely! My parents always believed in me and pushed me to study at the best universities possible. Having a bachelors degree wasn’t enough for them as they really value education and encouraged me to pursue a Masters as well which really transformed my whole practice. On another note I don’t think my extended family really understood what it meant to be an artist and just assumed I would end up being a housewife that would paint in my free time, as at that time there really was no art scene in Saudi Arabia and people didn’t really know that being an artist is a legitimate career path.

 

What are some goals and ambitions you have for your future work?
Well, my main goal is to have my work exhibited and be part of the wider art ecology outside of Saudi Arabia. I really believe in the power of the visual arts as a medium to educate, break barriers and open up peoples perception of the Middle East. In this day and age, there is a lot of fear and hatred towards Arabs and Muslims and I believe in using art to break down these negative stereotypes and encourage a cross-cultural dialogue between people. In the near future, I also hope to open a large studio and hire a team of my own craftsmen I can work with daily, not sure if it would be here in Saudi or maybe in India or Morocco, as those are two countries I am deeply inspired by and have such strong crafts communities.

 

I really believe in the power of the visual arts as a medium to educate, break barriers and open up peoples perception of the Middle East. In this day and age, there is a lot of fear and hatred towards Arabs and Muslims and I believe in using art to break down these negative stereotypes and encourage a cross-cultural dialogue between people.

If you could collaborate with any person in the world who would it be?

Without a doubt, it would be Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian. Unfortunately, she just passed away a few weeks ago but she has always been a role model for me. She has really dedicated her whole practice to working with Iranian cut glass which is a traditional craft commonly used in architecture and has managed to elevate it to a contemporary medium that has found its place in the art world. She is also deeply inspired by sacred geometry and Sufi philosophy which are also core elements in my own work.

 

How would you describe the women around you?

Strong and independent for sure! The thing I love the most about my family is that we are so female dominated. My cousins and I make up 9 women and there are just 2 boys and we are all very outspoken and free-spirited. They are all successful in their own right and are very career driven and I think it’s something we adopted from our mothers. My mom also worked throughout her life and she just retired from her job and within a few months she has already opened up her own company, and this quality about her has really instilled the value and importance of hard work in me. I love the women around me, they are my support system, role models and we constantly lift each other up to be the best we can.

 

Were there any local female creatives that you looked up to when you were growing up?

Unfortunately, there were none. As I mentioned earlier there was really no such thing as a thriving art scene in Saudi till recently, even though there were a handful of artists around while I was growing up I was never really exposed or aware of them. It was really hard 10 or 20 years ago to be an artist here, there weren’t even any galleries then to support artists.

 

Are there any challenging aspects of being a female in your industry?
Surprisingly, no! You would think that being a female artist in Saudi would have its challenges and limitations but it really doesn’t, on the contrary, women are at the forefront of the Saudi art scene. In my opinion, some of the best artists here are women, and there is a reason why only female artists have represented Saudi at the Venice Biennale! It’s quite ironic as there has always been this problem in the west of institutions predominantly supporting male white artists and excluding women and minorities that they are just challenging and trying to change now but in Saudi its the total opposite.

 

I just want to say to them that it is possible to do what you love and have a successful career through being an artist, people’s perceptions are changing and you can impact and change society through your art if you put in the work and dedication.

Do you have any advice to young women who are aspiring to work in your field?

Yes, actually a big problem I do see that happens frequently is women in Saudi who are interested in being artists seem to end up studying architecture or design because its believed to be a safe way to guarantee a career path. I just want to say to them that it is possible to do what you love and have a successful career through being an artist, people’s perceptions are changing and you can impact and change society through your art if you put in the work and dedication. Its hard work but oh so worth it to live a life where you get to do what you love every single day!

 

 

Photos courtesy of Dana Awartani.

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