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Press: Architectural Digest

Saudi artist Halla Bint Khalid’s retrospective explores personal identity, motherhood and woman power

Being a female artist in the Saudi Kingdom is hard, but Halla Bint Khalid says it's exactly what makes the challenge "more attractive." Her latest exhibition, 'Tasleemah' at the Tbilisi Museum of Modern Art in Georgia gives a glimpse into the interior world of this Riyadh-born figurative artist who's also a pioneering children's author.

'TASLEEMAH' AT THE TBILISI MUSEUM OF MODERN ART IN GEORGIA IS A POWERFUL EXHIBITION OF THE ARTISTS WORKS

Breaking Conventions

"For me, painting is breathing." A plaque at the Tbilisi Museum of Modern Art—one of Georgia's most important art galleries perched along a bustling central avenue that also houses the nation's Parliament—says it all. The woman behind that quip is not a Georgian but in fact, a pioneering Saudi artist. Born in Riyadh, Halla Bint Khalid's European debut 'Tasleemah' showcases some of the artist's most powerful works outside the Kingdom for the first time. ForKhalid, who has explored feminism, motherhood and gender equality much of her artistic life, 'Tasleemah's gala that recently opened on November 4 at the hands of Salome Zourabichvili, Georgia's first female President, serves as a fitting metaphor for female power in the art world.

At the museum, in what she describes as an "Indian-influenced" long gown, Khalid mingles among guests and visitors, dwarfed by the sheer scale of the exhibition. The works displayed here span decades of her artistic practice and hold forth on themes familiar to her — children, ordinary women and men, often seen from an empathetic viewpoint. Walking through the exhibition, one gets a good glimpse into Khalid's highly unconventional body of work. Richly expressive and delicately drawn, her art is full of symbolism and subversion and at times, not afraid to break the glass ceiling with playful absurdity.

Women are pushing the boundaries in Saudi Arabia today. They are working in some of the most complicated professions you can think of: not just in art, but in science, space and medicine.

THE EVOCATIVE WORKS ON DISPLAY SPAN DECADES OF HER ARTISTIC PRACTICE

A Searching Gaze

As you enter the show, the Mecca-inspired 'Tasleemah', a 2001 acrylic canvas that gives the show its title, stands out due to its vibrant romanticism and powerful subject matter of three women in the act of supplication. Another, titled 'El Shuyookh' from 1995, is a gripping oil-on-canvas portrait of a royal guard in the service of a powerful king. It was inspired by a 1930s TV footage of King Abdulaziz Al Saud's visit to Bahrain where Khalid's sensitive eye noticed a little-known detail—a bodyguard standing on the side of the ruler's car. Those days, there were no bullet-proof windows on cars and these guards acted as protection. Rendering him with profound humanity, it reveals the workings of an artist whose searching gaze veers towards the often-overlooked, common subjects of Saudi society. "This was a lesson from my father," she tells AD India, as we sit for a chat in the comfortable kitsch of a boutique hotel packed with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in downtown Tbilisi. "My father always said that integrity and an enlightened mind are more worthy of esteem than money and power. He taught me to respect people for their experiences and struggles."

ACCORDING TO HER, INTEGRITY AND AN ENLIGHTENED MIND ARE MORE WORTHY OF ESTEEM THAN MONEY AND POWER

A Woman Artist in Saudi Arabia

Khalid also never forgot the lessons of her first art teacher: "You don't need to have a grand subject to make a grand painting. Even the simplest things in life can be beautiful." Reflecting on that life lesson, she explains, "This changed me, altogether. Because after that I appreciated everything around me. The whole world became a piece of art." No wonder, her paintings strive to give voice to the common Saudis as much as it is an inner reflection of her own personal identity and Saudi heritage. While Khalid by her own admission is interested in "the small picture, not the big one" she hopes to make the intimate portrayal of womanhood in Saudi Arabia a more universal experience. Being a woman artist in the conservative Kingdom where there is little room for personal expression can be hard, but Khalid says it's exactly what makes the challenge "more attractive." As Saudi Arabia rapidly embraces social changes and economic reforms, Khalid expresses optimism about the Kingdom's future, especially for an increased role of women in all walks of life. Though she and her cohorts in the art world remain rare exceptions in a country that only recently lifted the controversial ban on women driving she defends by saying, "Women are pushing the boundaries in Saudi Arabia today. They are working in some of the most complicated professions you can think of: not just in art, but in science, space and medicine." She is lucky, she adds, "to be alive in this period of great progress."

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