The Saudi street artist who speaks the truth about women
The Saudi street artist who speaks the truth about women
Ms Saffaa is a Saudi street artist. She uses her wall art to talk about Saudi Arabia’s brave women activists. She speaks to Alessio Perrone about creating a different story for Saudi women and the important part of art in her life and in helping to fight fear.
Alessio: People first noticed you when you showed the paintings of women wearing traditional male headdresses. They were called “I am my own guardian”. This was a protest against Saudi laws that make women have a male guardian. What gave you the idea?
Ms Saffaa: I come from an open-minded family. I didn’t feel the effect of the guardian laws until I came to Sydney, Australia. I got a scholarship from the Saudi government, and one of the conditions is that women must have a male guardian with them. I didn’t have one with me. So they said they would only give me my scholarship when my male guardian arrived in Sydney. That’s what gave me the idea for the art. The only other time the guardian laws affected me was after my picture went viral on the internet and they reported me to the Saudi authorities. I tried to get a new passport in 2016, and they told me to go back to Saudi Arabia to do it. By then I was a political activist, and they were probably trying to get me back to stop me from travelling or put me in prison.
Alessio: Many activists on social media shared ‘I am my own guardian’. It even helped name a 2016 feminist movement against the guardian laws. How do you think the movement is doing after three years
It was quite interesting because, in Saudi Arabia, protesting in the street is illegal – they say protests are against God. But this was online.
It brought guardian laws to the attention of the West. For a long time, the driving ban was the big symbol of the oppression of women in Saudi. But after ‘I am my own guardian’, people started understanding that there are more important issues. I always believed that stopping guardian laws is more important than allowing women to drive.
If I can drive, but then my male guardian says no and I go to jail. What good is driving for me?
Recently, they put in prison and tortured Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, and Aziza al-Yousef. They are the women involved in the movement to allow women to drive. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch documented this.
Has this made social media the most important part of your art?
Absolutely. Social media gave my work a platform. I live in Australia but speak to a mixed geopolitical audience, and I’m far away from Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. How else could I express my ideas?
Social media allows me to talk to people and bypass those who control media. I don’t like to show my art in galleries any more, I only do a couple of shows per year.
What makes a good subject for you?
I like showing women who had big problems in their lives or have an interesting story.
You said in the past that ‘if art is not challenging how things are now, I’m not interested’. Can you tell us why?
If it’s not challenging how things are now, if you’re not creating something new, or imagining a better life from the bad situation we have now, what are you doing? You’re just showing life as it is That’s not interesting to me. I can see life as it is now, I can see how bad it is. I want something that helps me imagine a better world – women with more power or communities.
Art should make people angry. If your work is not making people angry, I don’t think it’s good work!
You also said that your art is a way of showing that you exist. Why do you need to prove it?
It’s a way of showing that there are different kinds of Saudi women.
Just a few years ago, you only saw Saudi women dressed in black in Western media. Now you google ‘Saudi women’ and you see some of my pictures! And you will see that there’s a lot more colour when Saudi women show themselves in art.
There are a lot of women who dress in black because they’re forced to dress that way or because they choose to. But that isn’t me! My head is shaved, I dress in colours, I wear shorts and sunglasses, I skate, I hula-hoop – I do a lot of different things. And every time I googled Saudi women I didn’t see myself there. As if I didn’t exist.
Is there something that feminists in other parts of the world can learn from Saudi feminists?
I don’t know if they can learn from us, but I think we need to start speaking to each other. We need to start communicating, and to stop criticizing each other.
You paint women, but you also usually work with other female artists. What makes you do it?
I can’t paint everyone. I’m not African American, I can’t paint African-American women! I can’t even paint all Saudi women – I can’t paint Saudi disabled women or trans women.
So I ask people from these groups to paint their own problems – their own women. Working with other artists from different backgrounds, countries, ages, and orientations makes my work deeper.
What makes street art the art you prefer?
It’s perfect for the messages I send to the world, because it’s easy to do and to see and it’s political. I don’t need permission to show something – I just go to a building, ask the owner, and create my own art. No one tells me what to do or controls me.
One of your most recent works is a picture of Saudi activist Jamal Khashoggi. You worked with Molly Crabapple. His death must have shocked you. How did Saudi activists react?
Honestly, it really really shocked me. When he disappeared, in my heart I knew he was dead. It shocked many of us. It scared activists who weren’t scared before. Now we’re all scared.
I think it was a message to tell us that you think you’re in a safe place but you’re not safe. And I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel safe at all. When the news came that Khashoggi was murdered, and brutally, I didn’t sleep for three weeks.
Then when I made his picture, it really helped me. His was my first picture of a male activist. I felt a lot better. And I could sleep. I wasn’t sure if I should make the art. But if I didn’t do it, no one would. There aren’t many Saudi artists with the kind of platform I have who are political. So I felt like it was my responsibility as an artist and an activist.
I’m not going to let fear stop me, because fear has stopped Saudi people for a long time, and for the Saudi authorities to send us a message that we’re not safe... They can send all the messages they want, but I’m going to do what I am doing. And I’m going to send my own messages. I want to give ideas to other Saudi artists. I want to give ideas to the younger generations to do what they believe they are here on this earth to do.
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(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)