June 5, 2017

Never Never Land: Saudi Women Screaming for Entertainment

A woman rides a bumper car at an amusement park in Abha, Saudi Arabia. ("Never Never Land," Arwa Al Neami)

Arwa Al Neami is a self-taught artist who was born in the mountainous village of Rijal Alma in Saudi Arabia’s southern Asir province. She won Saudi Arabia’s prestigious Southern Region Arts Award in 2005. Her work “Never Never Land,” a series of still photos and videos of women in the Abha amusement park, was exhibited in an Edge of Arabia group exhibition featuring Gulf artists in 2014. A sign in the amusement park, which asked women not to scream or have their legs exposed on rides, is what inspired her to create this series. “I hid my camera inside of my abaya wanting to capture how women felt while having fun on rides.” AGSIW spoke with Arwa about her series, the challenges facing women artists, and the changes in arts and entertainment in Saudi Arabia.

This sign at an amusement park in Abha, Saudi Arabia reads, “It is strictly prohibited to lift the abaya and show pants and to scream during rides. Whoever violates these rules will be taken off the ride before completing it.” (“Never Never Land,” Arwa Al Neami)

AGSIW: Tell us more about your series at the Abha amusement park, “Never Never Land.”

Arwa: My project is based on observations I recoded when visiting amusement parks in Abha and elsewhere in Saudi Arabia throughout the years. Back in 2006, my brother and I would go to the amusement park in Abha together and sit on the same ride. In 2010, I went there again and was surprised to find that there was gender segregation. In 2013, I noticed a sign, which reads: “It is strictly prohibited to lift the abaya and show the pants and to scream during the rides, and whoever violates these rules will be taken off the ride before completing it.” This is where the idea for Never Never Land came from.

As I walked in the amusement park after reading the sign, I noticed that there was a black leather cover on all rides to conceal women’s legs, preventing their pants from showing. Ever since this visit, I started to make annual trips to Abha’s amusement park to document changes occurring there. With all these mounting restrictions, women are still having fun. They now have “fun” challenges to make sure their pants aren’t showing as well as to try and not scream, even when they are in a ride like drop zone, which is impossible. Women are screaming, singing, and basically giving the religious police a hard time, as they cannot tell which woman is responsible for screaming out of all the women in black abayas and niqabs.

AGSIW: How has your background being born and raised in Abha in Saudi Arabia’s southern Asir region inspired your work?

Arwa: In the past, Asir was one of the most culturally open provinces in Saudi Arabia in terms of gender inclusiveness. Women were involved in agriculture alongside men; women would sell goods in souqs, and women would overall work with men whether in agriculture, business, even in building houses and artistically decorating them. Asir was such a rich place culturally and socially filled with music and traditional arts festivals. Post-1979, a considerable change in Asir happened mainly due to Islamist movements. Women gradually started to appear less in public. You now find older women more open minded than young women. This experience made me track societal changes in my artwork in “Never Never Land” and other projects that I’ve worked on.

Women on a ship ride at Abha amusement park. (“Never Never Land,” Arwa Al Neami)

AGSIW: Reuters has reported that Six Flags is aiming to open its first Saudi park by 2021. This is just one of many news articles promising the expansion of entertainment in Saudi Arabia. How do you view this expansion?

Arwa: This is a great move as, for millennials, there are no other “fun” activities but to hang out in malls. Entertainment in Saudi Arabia needs time. It is going to be difficult for people to adjust quickly to the recent changes and advances in entertainment. The younger generations will have a better chance at adapting than older generations as they are exposed to music and the arts on social media and through other mediums. Saudi Arabia has a wealth of singers, artists, and actors. We had a thriving theater scene, such as Al-Muftaha theater in Abha, which hosted one of the first musical concerts in Saudi Arabia. It is the same theater where the famous Saudi singer Talal Maddah died while performing on stage.

There needs to be a change in attitudes toward entertainment; for entertainment to progress there has to be a conscious effort on behalf of the people. People have to try and give entertainment a chance instead of opposing entertainment initiatives and advances.

AGSIW: What social restrictions do you face as a woman who works as an artist in a society still governed by tradition?

Arwa: As a woman, many Saudis do not recognize or acknowledge you as an independent artist. Working as a female artist is something that much of Saudi society cannot fathom, as there is no real appreciation for women in the arts. Some, not all, view art as something that is not primary but secondary and minor. The reason why is because we still lack art galleries, museums, and education that highlights the role of art. For example, I have encountered many difficulties in explaining my work to others; contemporary art is still not fully understood, among other forms of art, let alone explaining that this is my profession.

Women on a spinning ride at Abha amusement park in Saudi Arabia. (“Never Never Land,” Arwa Al Neami)

AGSIW: In your opinion, what is the current state of the arts in Saudi Arabia, especially under a government that appears more supportive?

Arwa: Saudi Arabia is now witnessing a revolution in the arts. There is a recent realization of the arts in Saudi society, thanks to social media. This has led many people to call themselves “artists.” While everyone has the right to become an artist, much of what I am seeing is just a repetition of other works, something that I would call “copy and paste.” The art I am seeing nowadays is characterized by confusion and lack of clarity, lack of artistic taste. However, there remain a considerable number of artworks that are genuine and unique. I project that Saudi Arabia, under the current administration, will have a wonderful future for people in the arts, but this will require some time.

To view Arwa’s artwork, visit her website or follow her on Instagram.

Mai Alfarhan is a research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.