Saudi Artists Find Diplomatic Immunity at French Embassy

Associated Press
Saturday, November 29, 2008

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Saudis and foreigners crowded into a gallery at the French Embassy to view paintings and sculptures by seven Saudi women artists, the latest opening in a growing art scene in the conservative kingdom.

One artist took advantage of the venue to hang an abstract painting of a woman, with one breast depicted -- a hint of nudity still taboo outside the diplomatic confines of the embassy, where Saudi Arabia's religious police cannot enter.

This week's showing in a small hall was packed with expatriates -- and, more significant, Saudis, whose presence was a reflection of the surge of interest in the arts in the kingdom in the past few years. Local art shows have been on the rise, more Saudi artists are participating in overseas exhibits, and more universities and schools are offering arts degrees. And the first nongovernmental arts society was established a year ago, with four women on its 10-member board.

Despite the progress, there still are limitations in this country, where men and women are strictly segregated. Artists say they keep works that depict nudity away from public shows and if they display them at all, it's only at embassies.

At the French Embassy, abstract paintings in bold yellows, reds and greens adorned the walls. On one table stood the work of artist Eman Jibreen, expressing the dichotomy between a Saudi woman's public appearance and her inner self. A series of tall boxes were painted on the exterior with images of Saudi women swathed in the mandatory black cloak. A nearby caption read:

"We may look the same to you

"A scarf and a featureless black blob.

"But it is just a cover over our heads.

"Our faces maybe.

"But it has never been a cover for our brains."

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