Art tells stories. Art exposes truths, weaves social movements into color and sheds light on artists’ values and convictions. Art is the visual manifestation of the creator’s true character, how they feel and how they perceive the world.
Hend Al-Mansour is a living example of a woman who held onto her values and convictions through art. An Arab-American born and raised in Al-Hafouf, Saudi Arabia, her work focuses on the representation of Arab Muslim women. She exposes their private lives and challenges the status quo while paying homage to Islamic art forms such as calligraphy, ornamentation, architecture and other Arabic aesthetics. Al-Mansour elaborates, “My images tell me what is important to me and how I understand life, thus help me understand myself. They connect my ideas and feelings to other people and thus work as a place of community reflection.”
Al-Mansour’s work is certainly unique, capturing the attention of art galleries around the world. Her use of bright colors counteract the dull hues of the society she once lived in. Her work explores aspects of this culture, such as gender inequality, the profound influence of creative women in Saudi Arabia and the life of females in the Arab world amongst other socio-economic themes. These issues also inspire Al-Mansour’s choice of materials and style.
Al-Mansour’s journey into art started as a little girl, inspired by her mother who would sketch when she wasn’t taking care of her twelve children. “My mother was the first artist I saw,” Al-Mansour comments, “She is my role-model as a powerful woman who challenges her circumstances and never submits to oppression.”
With that inspiration, Al-Mansour would fill many sketchbooks with the images of women dancing and jumping over the moon, hinting at their distant freedoms. Many around her wondered why she continuously drew women this way. It was most likely due to her vague awareness of women’s limitations in Saudi Arabia as a child which eventually led her to take flight to Cairo, Egypt, at the age of sixteen, with her parent’s permission, to pursue a medical degree at Cairo University.
While Al-Mansour was pursuing her medical degree, art never left her side. “I made murals in my room and drew for friends and acquaintances,” she said. “I was inspired in many ways by Egyptian culture. It was a huge shift for me to be an independent young Saudi woman living by myself in Egypt. The openness of the culture and intimacy of people brought me in direct contact with all kinds of human emotions. The history and cultural richness fed my then developing personality and hence my art.”
After gaining her degree in 1981, she went back to Saudi Arabia and practiced medicine for many years. But her thirst for the arts remained unquenched. With the nature of her practice she got a little freedom yet she was still restricted by social demands and laws.
“Being a woman in Saudi Arabia is a career disadvantage. There are, however, a lot of female artists and you can reasonably participate in group shows if your work does not contain material liable for censorship. The problem is my work contains women’s bodies, and that is not deemed acceptable, so a lot of the time I didn’t get to show [my art].That made me angry, because it’s ver y disappointing for me to self-censor my art in order to show [it]. That was one reason to leave Saudi.”
Feeling the stress and tension of being held back from living freely, Al-Mansour seized an unexpected opportunity in 1997; a fellowship in cardiology at Mayo Clinic in the United States. She packed up her belongings quickly and left Saudi Arabia, chasing after the freedom and independence the post promised to give. Once there, Al-Mansour was required by the research facility to take a physical exam only to be diagnosed with breast cancer. “It was a formidable point of time; my life completely turned upside down,” she said. As the days after her diagnosis passed, her work felt more of a liability than something she enjoyed. Al-Mansour soon reached the realization that she had to change her career path, to live her life doing something she felt thirst for. “It was that year that I decided to shift my career from medicine to art. I knew then that life is too precious to be spent doing something you are not passionate about.”
“My family did not like it. A lot of Arab people criticized me for it too, because they think that medicine is more noble and useful than making art,” Al-Mansour says about her transition, “It was hard to leave medicine. Because I invested many years of my life in it and I was not sure I had an artist in me. But once I made the decision, I became increasingly aware that I am an artist at heart.”
That decision proved to have a positive impact on Al-Mansour and those who viewed her art. Her use of lavish patterns and henna on fabrics such as silk, cotton and wool showcased her fascination with the culture she grew up with, her pride for being a woman, and her hope that the power of women will eventually overcome oppressive practices.
Her work, simply put, is a pop representation of what she perceives. It may not seem like Peter Blake’s On the Balcony, per se, but Al-Mansour’s work has the same spirit as all the pop artists who have come before her. “I feel complete and whole and I don’t need to prove myself when I make art. I feel self-satisfaction.”
Al-Mansour now lives in Minnesota with her husband and goes around the Gulf to showcase her art as well as view young, up-and-coming artists. “They are wonderful! Young and established artists of the Gulf are shaping the field into a blossoming art scene,” she commented. “I just came back from Qatar, where I had a group show in a Gulf Biennial at Katara Visual Ar t Center, and enjoyed many inspiring conversations and studio visits.”
Finally, as a woman coming from the Gulf herself, Al-Mansour leaves a message that she believes should resonate in every woman, “You are beautiful, powerful and smart. All you need is to know that.”
For more information on Hend Al-Mansour, visit www.hendalmansour.com
Words: Ghada Al-Muhanna