Watch Before You Fall is a statement directed at women as they enter the public sphere in Saudi Arabia today. These words carry a prediction that anticipates an act before it happens; a prophecy based on the inference of having no control over the fate of our next step—where women are asked to 'watch' as they fall.
In this collection of artworks AlDowayan examines the imagery and titles used on the covers of books written by men for women: books that claim to help guide women as they exit their private spaces and enter a public sphere that, according to the authors, belongs to men. On these book covers, women are often portrayed as translucent mute silhouettes and men represented as predator animals. The images are cloaked with fabric in the form of curtains eternally floating in the breeze, dense wood Mashrabiyas or a single flower standing delicately poised, waiting to wither away.
These books are slowly disappearing from shops and bookstands across the country. New laws in Saudi Arabia have banned rhetoric against women in an attempt to create a safer space for both genders to engage. Today women are entering the public space with enthusiasm and courage. Have they reconciled with their past? Are they allowed to forget? In Watch Before You Fall the artist investigates the symbols on the covers of these books and their relationship to fear and control: their fragility and their power.
The show opens with the work Watch Before You Fall (2019), a fabric sculpture that represents a desert rose with printed text—taken from a religious book instructing women how to behave when going shopping—on it. The text is filled with sentences like beware of the wolves (demonising the male), watch before you fall (referring to sin) and many exclamation marks, symbolising a lecturing and almost shouting voice. The artist has created this sculpture with flaps and folds that can resemble the female genitals, enlarging the whole structure to empower the symbolic shape over the words spoken to women: the texts are thus consumed, hidden by the shape of the flaps of the suspended sculpture.
Inspired by works of many female artists who used textile and stuffed fabric structures in the past as a mean to heal their past and address very intimate narratives -like Louse Bourgeois, Dorothea Tanning or Magdalena Abakanowicz- Manal AlDowayan has created by weaving, sewing, and stuffing herself a series of soft sculptures and fabric Totems (2019) that constantly need to be moved and adjusted; destroyed and reconstructed. They are delicate and susceptible to collapse at any moment, but their resilience is in their softness and agility. All of the artwork surfaces are printed with statements and images from religious books and address stories that have been fragmented, broken into multiple shapes. Re-arranging them the images become invisible and purely aesthetical forms, allowing the artist to take power and control over the message. In their reconstruction AlDowayan attempts to create a new narrative that reconciles what is, what has been, what can be, and what will be.
These soft sculptures are sometimes topped with delicate porcelain paper and the archeologically ephemeral desert rose, as spiritual offerings to these totems. This offering is full of questions and symbols too, in both their medium and their shape.
The artist decided to work with the desert rose because it is an archeological wonder that has existed for centuries but really has no scientific documentation because of its ephemeral existence. In the works I Wonder Do You See Me? (2019) and I am here (2019), Manal uses the rose as a symbol of the relationship between visible and the invisible, creating a permanent image of a continuously disappearing object while addressing the wilting rose used on the religious books covers and replacing it with a new type of rose. The sand roses are engraved by the artist hand using a question and an answer—as is usual in the artist’s practice—as a strategy to involve the viewer and make them participant of the artwork.
The porcelain papers are reproductions of the content of the mentioned religious books, printed on porcelain to give them a permanent but delicate existence. Titled Just Paper (2018), these works show the fragility of the words they hold, and also make an appearance in the series of works Suspended Palms (2019), a series of woven strips suspended from a golden palm tree which has been partially covered with black string. Here, as in the totems, AlDowayan plays again with the fragmentation of the story and the spiritual offering for a healing process.
In cue with her previous works, AlDowayan uses the representation of human limbs in the sculpture installation The Emerging (2018), a group of 11 women legs that appear to emerge from the floor. This work follows the idea of women exiting and entering a sphere, a space, a new environment. This legs have not fully emerged, just slightly, but they seem ready to kick out to jump through. Finally, the show closes with several paintings on canvas, titled also The Emerging (2019), with the same idea represented bi-dimensionally.
With a clear and strong message, the whole show and what it addresses is relatable to a current worldwide phenomena where women rights are being revisited and re-debated after discovering that questions we thought were sorted out, specially in the West, are far from being resolved.
Press release courtesy Sabrina Amrani.