It’s rarely ever good news when Saudi Arabia makes headlines, especially when the kingdom’s women are concerned. One exception to that rule has been Saudi artist Ghada El Rabee.
American Gothic by Grant Wood
The young Home Economics graduate crafts entire paintings using nothing but used candy wrappers, a form of art she pioneered almost a decade ago. She made waves last year, when she employed her signature technique to recreate iconic paintings – like Vincent van Gogh’s A Bedroom in Arles and Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss – with a Saudi twist. The series, featured in an exhibition at Jeddah’s Athr Art Gallery, was a smashing success, landing Rabee in the pages of Hia Magazine and CNN Arabic’s Style section.
The Monalisa by Leonardo Da Vinci
"After a visit to Dubai in 2009, I was mesmerised by the quality of art and artists who gather in the city's galleries to display their work," says Rabee. "I saw how evolved art is becoming and how artists are no longer letting traditional painting techniques and styles limit their creativity, which was when the idea of using candy wrappers to create art pieces first occurred to me."
Bedroom in Arles by Vincent van Gogh
Through her work, Rabee reimagines a Saudi Renaissance and Post-Impressionism, where the Mona Lisa is a pious hijabi, and the French bourgeoisie in Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is depicted as Saudi Arabia’s modern-day middle class. “I usually make references to Saudi customs and traditions, especially Hijazi ones, which have now begun to disappear because time are changing, and what was once a necessity is now antiquated,” she says. “We’ve lost track of our Arab identity. We are imbued by Western culture and its tyrannical globalization, which has become rampant in the veins of society, so I try to preserve our forgotten heritage.”
Portrait of an Arab Vincent van Gogh
In her latest project, Rabee once again looked to Saudi heritage for inspiration and candy wrappers for execution on her latest project, Taayosh (Coexistence). The piece is a nod to the ancient tradition of instrument making, namely the simsimiyya. “Sailors used to build it out of primitive components, anything they could get their hands on, like tin motor oil cans and wood and some wires. They would look for whatever they could use in their surroundings and build the [simsimiyya] to solace themselves,” she effuses. “This is very similar to our Arab culture, some dessert and a cup of coffee brings people together, family and friends. They’re staples of happy gatherings that allow us to cope with life, just like the fishermen.”
But traditionalism isn’t the only recurring theme in the artist’s work. Rabee attempts to raise awareness, as well, by recycling candy wrappers into pieces of art, in a country that relies heavily on fossil fuel. “My goal is, of course, to recycle, by creating something beautiful and unorthodox,” she says.
We’ve lost track of our Arab identity. We are imbued by Western culture and its tyrannical globalization, which has become rampant in the veins of society, so I try to preserve our forgotten heritage.
The Son of Man by René Magritte
A woman venturing into the world of art would typically be met with a resounding NO in a phallocentric society like Saudi Arabia, but Rabee says that she hasn't encountered such objections from the people closest to her, which cemented her resolve even more. "The biggest challenge for me was to find an audience that would understand my work. As for my family, they were very supportive," she says, adding that her husband spared no effort or expense for her work to see the light of day.
The Kiss by Gustav Klimt
Rabee’s simple and uncomplicated nature shines through her work, which seeks to celebrate Saudi culture, however controversial, rather than poking much deserved holes in it. “The philosophy behind most of my work is to inspire good vibes with art made out of materials considered to be waste and turn it to valuable art, giving people a deeper sense of everything that surrounds us, and make them rethink what we believe to be “trash,’” she explains.
The philosophy behind most of my work is to make people rethink what we believe to be 'trash'
The Creation of Adam by Michalangelo
In her attempt to Saudize Western art, Rabee is bound to ruffle a few feathers. A staunch advocate of the Niqab, Rabee is seeking to create a platform for others like her to identify with the faces that shaped art history, all while remaining faceless. “The veil was never a hindrance for success to any woman, and I’m a living proof of that – even though I come from a Muslim country and a conservative family, and I’m veiled, my work and my art have reached the United States, the Netherlands, Russia, Dubai, and Egypt,” she says. “My art is the only thing with which I create a connection with people. We haven’t seen Da Vinci, La Van Gogh, Salvador Dali, or Picasso, but their art has reached us. Just like we respect non-veiled women’s freedom of choice, I hope we can extend the same courtesy to women who choose to wear the veil.”
Photos courtesy of Ghadah El Rabee.
Check out Rabee on Instagram @artistghadahalrabee.