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First outdoor art show in Saudi Arabia

Dozens of paintings are being displayed on outdoor advertising billboards in the capital Riyadh and other cities

Published: Updated:

Dozens of paintings are being displayed on outdoor advertising billboards in the capital Riyadh and other cities in what organizers say is the kingdom's first public art show.

"It is something new," said Mohammed al-Khereiji, deputy chief executive of Al-Arabia Outdoor, the advertising firm behind the exhibition.

It opened Monday night along Riyadh's glitzy Tahlia Street and runs until Saturday.

"For the first time, art is presented to the public," although small indoor exhibitions have previously taken place in the kingdom, he said.

Sculptures have also been displayed in the open, including a permanent display along the corniche in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, and the country has some small galleries.

With about 3,400 billboards showing 80 paintings by Saudi artists, Khereiji called it "the biggest art gallery in the Middle East".

Normally on Tahlia Street, the only things on show are flashy cars cruising past the boulevard's wide sidewalks, outdoor cafes, and high-end restaurants serving Western cuisine. "The culture and the society do not encourage artists and it is difficult to be an artist in this society," said Majed Saud al-Mefareh, in front of a billboard featuring his painting, "Story".

It is a patchwork of abstract figures and images depicting Saudi life and traditions.

Mefareh, 38, who holds a regular job in administration, said he has been a part-time painter for about two decades because he enjoys his hobby and knows that "some people in our society like it" too.

The inaugural exhibition should help more Saudis to appreciate the visual arts, he said.

Sultan al-Adwani, a curious onlooker who works at the interior ministry, said the outdoor gallery seemed like a good idea.

"It's better than inside the building," he said in the chilly evening air as waiters served glasses of juice to invited guests outside a French restaurant.

The paintings were chosen after a call for submissions drew 3,200 entries.

Most of the colorful works are in an abstract style, some reminiscent of early-20th century Cubism made famous by Picasso.

They include a variety of subjects including urban and rural landscapes, sports, Islam's holiest site the Kaaba, a stylized camel, and a couple in traditional dress sitting on chairs together at the seaside.

Ahlam Nassir al-Harbi, 23, said women are a minority among the country's artists, making up perhaps 10 or 20 percent of painters.

An art student at Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University for women, she said "it feels lovely" to have one of her paintings exhibited outside.

The work shows two female forms alongside traditional Bedouin designs.

Harbi, only her eyes visible under a black abaya robe, agreed the outdoor show would help elevate the low level of interest in art among the Saudi public.

It did not, however, generate much attention from the country's religious police tasked with cracking down on perceived moral violations.

"The Islamic police passed by", Khereiji said, and they had no problem with the exhibition