Olivia Arthur “Jeddah Nights”

Highly recommended free exhibit, “Unknown Quantities” at Fish Bar, Dalston Lane which I visited on Saturday with my friends Siobhan and Paul.

Olivia Arthur’s Jeddah Diary (from which her exhibit, “Jeddah Nights” is drawn), conducted during a couple of years in Saudi Arabia and comprising mostly portraits and interior shots, aims to chronicle the lives of a number of Saudi women with whom the photographer was acquainted. On first impression, Arthur’s work seems to venture little more than another plaintive, ineffectual condemnation of women’s lives under the authoritarian, phallocratic rule of the Saudi government. Descriptions which accompany her photos, for example, recall the patriarchal laws by which her subjects are expected to live and punishments meted out for their infraction, but the political valence of such statements seems evacuated by the monotonous, melancholic tone of their articulation. Yet what raises this exhibit above the level of trite sanctimony is Arthur’s manipulation of the matter of her photos in order to demonstrate the systematic excision of women from the space of the Saudi socius.

An early entry in the Diary, for instance, reproduces various American advertisements for paddling pools distributed, with some crucial alterations, within Saudi Arabia. These contain pictures of a stereotypical white, middle class family in bathing suits gathered around a variety of paddling pools: a young child in the foreground grinning contentedly into the camera and a father, white of tooth and hirsute of chest, looking on with evident approval. Where one would expect to find the mother in such a charming circle of heteronormativity, however, there resides instead a shadowy vaguely humanoid mass, crudely shaped and blackened by what appears to be felt-tipped marker. The blatant expurgation of this figure from such a scene and the advertisement’s subsequent deployment within the Jeddah Diary allows Arthur to emphatically signal the systematic elimination of women and their concerns from the Saudi social sphere.

Simultaneously, however, she catalyses the intrigue aroused by such an elimination (what lies beneath the rushed strokes of the censor’s pen?) in order to introduce her other primary concern: that of women’s inner lives under Saudi rule. Our perception is drawn, tunnelling through the black holes of these pictures, and emerges, gasping into the enclosed, pristine palaces which constitute an interior world sequestered from the prying eyes of male non-relatives. These spaces, the subjects of many of Arthur’s most eerie photographs, are vacant, lifeless and dazzlingly-white; buffed-smooth surfaces, saturated with the glare of a hundred TV screens, over which drift bored beautiful women with few rights and fewer opportunities.

Through the juxtaposition of the pitch-black which covers these women outside the home and the light which surrounds them indoors, Arthur’s photographs draw these spaces together, offering them as two sides of the same coin. Circulating through a Mobius-strip of existence, Arthur’s female subjects inhabit two contradictory forms of reality simultaneously: one in which they move as pure negativity in relation to its anonymous male occupants and its obverse, these brilliant prisons of body and intellect. In Saudi Arabia, Arthur seems to suggest, women do not inhabit a restricted social space and then an unrestricted personal one: the subjugation of women is ubiquitous and uninterrupted; their oppression entirely without relief.

This exhibit also includes work by Peter Van Agtmael, whose fascinating, painterly tableaux recall Jeff Wall’s photographs in their treatment of war, simulation and grief (thanks to Paul for that connection), and other work by Dominic Nahr and Moises Saman.


~ by schoolboyerrors on May 15, 2012.

4 Responses to “Olivia Arthur “Jeddah Nights””

  1. hello, thanks for drawing my attention to this show, struggling wi a story about SA at the moment and this is super useful, well written too. thanksxxx

  2. nah just a story based on something my dad experienced. been trying to write it for years. fuck knows what’ll become of it…

    • Hey well, lemme know when you get it done, I’d love to read it. Your writing’s always ace! :-)

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