She is painter, pioneer, researcher and visionary, and an acclaimed leader of the artistic movement in Saudi Arabia. She has launched an ambitious gallery and museum in Jiddah that aims to serve artists and laymen alike. Above all, Safeya Said Binzagr is known for her paintings that focus on Saudi traditions and heritage, which have vitally assisted in preserving disappearing customs, practices and ways of life in the kingdom.
Born in 1940 in Jiddah to a well-known Saudi merchant family, Safeya Binzagr grew up surrounded by the colors, sounds and textures of life in an old district of the city, one crisscrossed with meandering, narrow alleys and dotted with traditional family homes. Other influences included her own family life, rich in daily rituals, customs and festivities. These factors propelled her into a 30-year journey in art.
At the age of eight Safeya traveled with her family to Egypt; later she was enrolled in the Woodstock School in Sussex, England. It was there that she developed her hobby of drawing, and had a chance to view the works of the masters at museums and art galleries. On her return to Saudi Arabia in 1964, Safeya was saddened by the scope and the rapid pace of the change brought about by the oil boom and the modernization of the kingdom. She realized that all aspects of the life she remembered were being affected. "I took note of the way this change also brought changes in clothes, customs, habits and housing. The hand of modernization was reaching even into the old-established family houses," she says.
During this period Safeya took part in an emerging phenomenon, as Saudi female writers began contributing to the local press. She wrote on art, the subject closest to her heart. She wrote about art history and depicted scenes and impressions of social history. "After this experience," she says, "I began to think seriously about refining my hobby, through formal study of the principles of art, with a hope of establishing a firm foothold in the art world."
So Safeya went to Cairo in the mid-1960's to begin a program of fulltime art study. There, she and a fellow Saudi woman artist, Mounirah Mosly, often discussed the need to make art a part of Saudi culture and a feature of the country's school curricula, and concluded that an exhibition of their work would be a step toward this goal. In 1968, the exhibition opened. At that time, the artistic movement was slowly unfurling in Saudi Arabia, and Safeya became one of its prominent figures.
Her modesty and gentle humor shine through when Safeya talks about her life. Meeting her, one would never imagine the exhibitions she has presented in Paris, Geneva and London, or the accolades and the national and international awards she has received through the years, all without fanfare. Her avoidance of the media has also led to a thirst for information about her and her work.
Safeya's concern with accuracy and detail infuse her paintings, though she calls her style "primitive." The varied influences of Cézanne, Giotto, Van Gogh, Fra Angelico and Gaugin on her paintings have been noted by art critics, but she has freed herself from imitation and developed her own distinctive identity. She embraces the best of the impressionist, post-impressionist and realist schools to transmit a realistic but artistic image of life in the past, and the diversity of media she employs enriches and expands the range of her work. She has used brush and knife in works done in oil, chalk, watercolors and dyes, on such diverse surfaces as engraving paper, wood and fabric.
In addition to paintings of individual scenes, Binzagr has also produced several series of paintings on particular themes or facets of Saudi society and culture. Her series depicting marriage festivities, desert and city life, costumes and old homes continue to expand. All of them reflect the complexities of Saudi values and social roles; clearly, the communal bond within families, and the daily support and love extended to family members, have deeply affected Safeya, and they are strongly portrayed in her work.
Many consider the painting cycle on wedding customs in the Hijaz, the western region of Saudi Arabia, their favorite. The popularity of this series stems from the fact that the paintings take one behind the scenes into the intricate ceremonies involved, the details of dress, and the roles played by participants of various ages and genders, throughout several months of preparation that culminate in the final ceremony. The scenes trace the storyline of weddings in bygone times, beginning with the engagement, the preparation and delivery of the bride's trousseau to her new home, the grooming of the wedding couple, and the ceremony itself. When she works on such a painting, Safeya has written, "I need to do a lot of background reading and a lot of coaxing the older members of my family to relate specific details, for example a description of the bride's dress. I am writing a cultural history with my brush and want to record it as accurately as possible."
Safeya's latest series on costumes spans the different regions of the kingdom, and her individual pieces include portraits of such prominent figures as the late King Faisal as well as anonymous individuals such as herdsmen, fishermen and farm women.
One of her most famous works is "Zabun," a portrait of a Saudi lady wearing a traditional type of dress of that name that was still common in the 1950's and '60's in the Western Province. Known as "Safeya's Mona Lisa," the painting is based on a portrait of her sister, though the artist says that she revised the face four times "until I was happy with the Arab face." "Zabun" has become Safeya's trademark, especially after its appearance on the cover of one of her books and its reproduction in prints and on matchboxes, plates, mugs and a variety of other objects. For many Hijazi ladies this painting is also significant for the social value placed on this mode of dress, which was always worn by older women at weddings and was slowly disappearing with the older generation. Happily, the style is now being revived.
The four-square yet graceful posture of the woman in the portrait make it clear that, indirectly, the painting also depicts the respect in which women are held in Saudi society. The sitter's air of quiet strength, the confidence and determination in her mouth and chin, and the stillness of the hands that seem unaccustomed to leisure—all these give one a sense of the demands that were made on such a lady of stature, from supervising her home to receiving guests from within and beyond the extended family, and helping in the everyday duties of the household. This painting is a tribute to the life of women in those days and the central role that duty and decorum played in their lives.
Asked what impelled her to begin painting traditional themes, Safeya says that, after living abroad, she returned to her country with a fresh eye, and "I missed seeing familiar and vanishing social scenes. I can also say that my heritage paintings may be due, in part, to my love of history, and to the lack of information on cultural traditions." The success of her first exhibit in 1968 was a turning point, she says. "I found that people were very attracted to subjects dealing with either Bedouin life or the former city life. The paintings reminded the older generation of times past, and opened up the eyes of the younger generation to an untapped wealth of traditions and customs. This decided me on my path."
After the exhibition, Safeya took three major steps. First, she decided to retain her work, since she keenly felt the loss of the paintings sold at that time: What went with them, she discovered, was "a part of my inner being." Secondly, she resolved to delve deeper into Saudi social history and folkloric traditions, which meant that she had to research and depict scenes that had been lost in what she terms "our rush forward." And finally, she began collecting documentary data on cultural traditions and related subjects.
Ever since, she says, "my aims have been to create a record of our cultural legacy, to realize myself through the creation of such a record, and to leave it for our future generations." The artist's intentions have only intensified through the years, and her mission's worth is confirmed by the current revival of interest and studies related to Saudi Arabia's heritage. Painting now plays a paramount role in her life. "Since I started painting I have not been able to stop. I can't go for more than three waking hours without a pencil or brush in my hand. I don't think I could live without painting."
The painter's documentation methods take a variety of forms. She conducts interviews, corroborating facts with at least three independent sources. She has also set up and photographed reenactments of social traditions and practices to get a feel for the details involved. Indeed, she has come to rely more and more on her camera, which she describes as "my personal sketch book," photographing local sites, old city districts and such details as embroidery work, to use as references when required.
Safeya also took up "hunting for historic photographs and documents." This search has led her to archives and organizations abroad, such as the Royal Geographical Society in London, where she has located travelers' journals and books and has been able to purchase copies of some photographs.
Even as Safeya produced her work and carried on documenting past lifestyles, she started to dream of housing her collection. After nine years of planning and construction, she realized her dream last year, with the establishment in Jiddah of the Darah, a combination gallery and museum that provides a range of services to students and visitors. "I feel that each of us has a role to play and something to contribute," Safeya says.
Students often throng a large sun-lit studio area of the Darah that is used for classes involving artists of various talents and ages. Qualified artists and teachers provide art and art-appreciation sessions in a casual and inviting atmosphere. Paintings by students line the walls and slide presentations are a widely used teaching tool. Safeya keeps an eye on the courses given and dispenses advice when needed. "I like the students to feel at home and I always invite them to spend some time, either before or after class, looking through the masterpieces that we have available on slides and other media. I also encourage them to make use of the library."
Safeya began the library with her personal collection, the fruit of years of travel, and students and researchers often spend long hours perusing the more than 2000 volumes in Arabic, English and French on art, history, literature and other subjects. She also has an additional private collection of rare books in several languages that can be viewed when the need arises. And researchers consider Safeya herself a valuable source of information for students of art or traditional customs and heritage.
The Darah is also the location of a monthly majlis , or salon, at which a multinational group hears lectures in Arabic or English on artistic, literary or other subjects. The guest list varies according to the topic under discussion and the speaker.
Philip Wright, a British "new museologist" who has studied the quality of visitors' experiences in art museums and the reasons why particular works are included in them, was impressed by his visit to the Darah: "Building such a high-quality structure is an amazing gesture from Safeya. The idea of dedicating a room to a specific theme is a very individual idea, and gives the museum an international quality." Of Safeya's work, he continued, "It is interesting that when Safeya chooses themes, she is not swayed by monetary considerations and has set her own goals, and she does so in an extraordinarily single-minded way by undertaking a very thorough study of traditions. Her collection provides a teaching resource and a visual record of artifacts and unusual portraits of Saudi women in the '60's that can not be found in any books."
As for Safeya's current and future activities, "I like to keep busy," she says. "There are many things that I am doing at the same time. I'm working on completing my costumes series, and reproducing my paintings on CDs, once copyright questions are worked out. I am also completing two new book projects to add to my previous two books, Saudi Arabia: An Artist's View of the Past, published in English and French in 1979, and a more recent publication, Safeya Binzagr: A Three-Decade Journey with Saudi Heritage in Arabic and English."
Safeya seems set to continue creating a record of her country's cultural legacy and opening up new vistas for those interested in Arabian ways of life, Saudi Arabia's people and their history. She has opened a window on the past, and opened a door into the future, expanding the role of Saudi artists and introducing the wealth of Saudi Arabia's traditions to the world.
Ni'mah Isma'il Nawwab contributes articles on Arabian and Islamic history, customs and traditional arts to Saudi Aramco World and other publications from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.