THE BREAKDOWN: Manal AlDowayan — ‘The Choice IV’ 

DUBAI: In her own words, Saudi artist Manal AlDowayan discusses her 2005 photograph, recently displayed on one of the FIFA World Cup art water bottles:

Photography was the first medium that I worked with as an artist. I made my series “The Choice” 20 years ago. I was still an employee of Aramco at the time and it was five more years before I decided I was going to be a full-time artist.  

Photography is direct. You look at the image and that’s your engagement. The idea, always, was to connect to my community through my art with a conversation with a viewer and not become static. That’s why I moved from digital photography to darkroom printing. You’re printing with your hands, moving the picture to get the right light on it, and I felt darkroom printing was very tactile.  

Saudi artist Manal AlDowayan. (Photo by Harriet Hill)

I felt an urge to express myself at that point. There were no galleries, museums, no art ecosystem — nothing. I was quite young, a working woman, and a woman’s status was quite difficult in Saudi Arabia. One of the activities we were excluded from was sports. I consider this work a participatory artwork, because the women that were photographed were not just models, they were actual participants. The woman is a young Saudi and she’s always played excellent football, but she never played football in Saudi and never pursued a career in sports, because the opportunities were so limited, even abroad. Women were not encouraged to play soccer.  

The reason it was posed showing only half her face was because, at that moment in time in Saudi Arabia, a woman’s face was a taboo. I was very worried about showing a woman’s face. I wanted to add the element of traditional jewelry as an interruption; it was just so out-of-place. 

There needs to be a closer look at traditions that are truthfully good ones and that work within today’s society. You can see a glimpse of what it means to be a woman and how it’s changed significantly over the years. Today, I can speak about the transformation that’s happened with women’s rights in my country. They are part of the parliament, they’re in sports. . . Women’s voices have been heard.