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The dark and witty photography of Saudi artist Arwa Alneami

Despite repressive rules, Saudi Arabian women still find ways to express themselves.

“Where censorship is widespread, satire, parody and political humour are often the only means available to voice dissent,’’ says Arwa Alneami.

A woman fully-robed in an abaya drives a dodgem car in a Saudi Arabian amusement park, her expression hidden behind her hijab. There’s poignancy in the image shot secretly by Saudi Arabian artist Arwa Alneami – the woman is banned from screaming out loud, while the very action of being behind the wheel is prohibited in Saudi Arabia. In 2014, when Alneami shot the images, which feature in the exhibition Never Never Land, Saudi women were still banned from driving cars. The ban was lifted in June this year.

One place where a woman could get behind the wheel was a fun fair. But women attending still faced restrictions, which is the point Alneami conveys in her show at Wellington’s City Gallery. The self-taught artist says she was shocked by the signs she saw at the park, which she had visited with her brother over the years. It is strictly prohibited to lift the abaya and show pants and to scream during rides. Whoever violates these rules will be taken off the ride before completing it,’’ one sign reads.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Alneami’s images go deeper, though, showing the women having fun despite the rules. The 31-year-old found that women often defied the rules, screaming before the ride started, or sitting together screaming, to confuse religious police.

Elsewhere, the park had separate queues for men and women, and where rides crossed, fences prevented them from seeing each other – all part of the gender segregation in a country considered the most conservative in the Middle East.

The exhibition is a lateral-minded response to this year’s 125th commemoration of women’s suffrage in New Zealand – the gallery wanted to showcase an artist in a country undergoing a feminist struggle. Alneami and other Saudi women were first allowed to vote in municipal elections only in 2015.

She is part of a new generation of contemporary Saudi artists tackling political and social issues and taking their works to the world. She is part of Edge of Arabia, a collective of conceptual Arab artists co-founded in 2003 by her artist husband, Ahmed Mater.

Never Never Land has appeared at group shows in London, Saudi Arabia, Germany and the US. Alneami told the Listener she wanted to document “the infrastructure of public entertainment in Saudi Arabia – the way that social changes are reflected by, or challenge, these kinds of environments’’.

Despite voting rights and the easing of driving restrictions, public protest and political activism are banned in the kingdom. In this environment, Alneami says she can express herself only through humour. She intends Never Never Land to be witty and wry, offering a dark observation of Saudi life. “Where censorship is widespread, satire, parody and political humour are often the only means available to air opinions, voice dissent or challenge government officials.’’

Alneami says she faces more restrictions in her personal life than her artistic one. “Most of the difficulties ... have not been due to my inability to work or accomplish as an artist, but due to the restrictions of being a woman. Ignorance and arrogance is apparent, whether deliberate or unintentional, and this has given me great challenges. Women need more strength than men to prove themselves.’’

Arwa Alneami, Never Never Land is at Wellington’s City Gallery until November 4.

This article was first published in the August 25, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.