The fruit of more than one year of investigation and reflection, the exhibition not only deepens AlDowayan’s nuanced interrogation of women’s shifting status within a metamorphosing Saudi society, but also intensifies her exploration of new material. A nod to Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence, the title The Eternal Return of the Same captures gestures of repetition and iteration undergirding the works, while offering a commentary on AlDowayan’s experience of the creative constraints of lockdown and confinement. Above all, The Eternal Return of the Same is about reckoning: the artist has carved a space to process the twin upheavals ushered in by accelerated social change in Saudi Arabia, and worldwide lives forced to grind to a halt. While the exhibition may provide a moment of reflection, even healing, it nonetheless bears AlDowayan’s hallmark critical assessment of a world rife with inequity and uncertainty.
AlDowayan slyly employs materials that almost contradict the object depicted. The Emerging (2021) is a series of thirty jesmonite casts, a material the artist substituted for ceramic when lockdown made functioning kilns scarce. Unevenly textured, pocked with finger marks and smoothed over by hand, the cluster of uniquely distinct floor-bound appendages question how women are renegotiating their bodies and the spaces they inhabit. As they are increasingly coerced into the Saudi public sphere, away from the ‘counterpublic,’ exclusively female enclaves of empowerment, women are forced to (re)claim a stake in the patriarchal arena. More than an innocent ‘our time has come’ celebration, the repeated single, imperfectly cast bodily eruptions in The Emerging suggest that the movement from one space to another, while forceful, is still tenuous: women in the Kingdom must re-process not only spaces, but their bodies and voices within them.
The leg recurs in The Recline (2020), a large tapestry in which the appendage morphs and mirrors itself, conjuring a reclining female form, poised above a cascade of loose, unravelled (or never even woven) linen threads. The work exemplifies not only the notion of repetition—the leg emerging over and over in diverse media—but also the artist’s challenge to traditionally ‘feminine’ crafts such as weaving. The Recline, like the other works in the exhibition, exudes at once a political vitality and a sensual poetics of materiality.
Just as The Emerging framed an exuberant individuality against a crushing societal sameness, O Sister (2021) confronts the blanket ‘instruction manual’ mentality of religious injunctions with an individualist feminine energy. Modelled after the so-called desert rose—hardened, petal-like sand formations occurring in deserts across the Gulf countries — O Sister (2021) spreads its soft, collapsible, darkly burnished flaps in an ironic embrace. The form evokes some oversized bodily cavity, all multi-layered biological complexity and beckoning openness. Resistant yet refined, the natural silk of the sculpture is printed with instructions penned by religious men determining women’s ‘use’ of their bodies. The inky texts blur on the ridged fabric surface, their legibility confounded by strokes of charcoal. Part of a generation deeply impacted by conservative laws against women in Saudi Arabia, AlDowayan teases out a new tension in O Sister, raising questions about bodily emancipation at the very moment the Kingdom ostensibly moves towards greater social freedoms.
Like many artists, AlDowayan has viewed recent life through the prism of the singular, inescapable space of her London studio. Her awareness of the day-in-day-out repetition of actions and gestures intensified. The Eternal Return of the Same conflates this recurrence of the mundane, the growing opacity of time through ritualisation, an uneasy sense of settled uncertainty, with the process of reckoning Saudi women of her generation must undertake, given the seismic changes in the Kingdom. Yet repetition, the exhibition implies, in its gentle shifting and distortion of the familiar, can become a site of newness.
Image: Manal AlDowayan, O Sister, 2021. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde.
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