Saudi artist Daniah al-Saleh’s work ‘Sawtam’ deconstructs Arabic language

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Unveiled at Art Dubai 2019 on Wednesday is the work of London-based Saudi Arabian artist Daniah al-Saleh, the winner of the second edition of the prestigious Ithra Art Prize.

Her winning commission titled Sawtam (the Arabic translation of phoneme) is a large-scale multimedia artwork that explores the structure and complexities of language, deconstructing it to its smaller unit of sound, the phoneme. The Ithra Art Prize worth $100,000 is a collaboration between the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) and Art Dubai. It was launched in 2017 and is awarded to emerging Saudi and Saudi-based talent in contemporary art.


Al Arabiya English caught up with Daniah al-Saleh on the eve of the opening of Art Dubai.

“I was a painter and my main medium was watercolor and gouache. I produced a lot of paintings in geometrical and abstract shapes. Then I moved to London, where I moved my studio and art practice as a full-time artist. There, I pursued a Master’s degree in Computational Arts at Goldsmiths, University of London. Studying coding and programming opened up my creativity box,” she said.

The virtual canvas

Speaking about her journey, she said that she “moved from the material canvas to the virtual canvas, which is the screen. That’s how Sawtam happened.”

Al-Saleh described winning the Ithra Art Prize as “an amazing experience,” and expressed her excitement about the work going into their permanent collection, saying that it is a big privilege. “Being present during Art Dubai 2019 is a fantastic experience as well,” said al-Saleh.

A panel talk on the Ithra Art Prize is scheduled to take place at Art Dubai on Friday, March 22. To al-Saleh, the Saudi art scene is exploding and it is the time to be there. “There are so many initiatives, with the support of the government. It is an amazing time to be an artist in Saudi Arabia and I hope this will encourage many artists living there to pursue art. There is a lot of undiscovered talent as well.”

She also stressed on the strong historical ties between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. “We all have the same culture as well. Having Saudi artists come here and exhibit their work is a huge opportunity.”

Deconstructing language

On her winning work, Sawtam, al-Saleh said that “the phoneme is the tiniest unit of sound when you pronounce a letter in the alphabet. What I wanted to highlight is that usually my work is about the things we take for granted, and language is one of them. We use language to communicate and to express our emotions every moment of our living time.”

She added that what she did in Sawtam is “take this language and deconstruct it to its tiniest form. I deconstructed the Arabic language to its phoneme and just left it there to see how these 28 letters have the power to construct all our language, all our literature in the Arabic language.”

Sawtam is comprised of 28 simultaneous screens, with each screen having its own recorded program, and each program having its own voice file.

Once the open call for the 2019 Ithra Prize was issued, al-Saleh worked on the proposal for almost four weeks, doing some research before sending the proposal. “Once I was selected in January, I had to finish the work as soon as possible, which took more than two months.”

The Ithra Art Prize selection committee described her work as “powerful and thoroughly captivating.”

Her previous works have been watercolor painting on canvas. Hence Sawtam, according to her, represented crossing the boundaries. “It is the influence from what I am studying now,” she said.

Born in Riyadh, al-Saleh studied Computer Applications at King Saud University. She moved to Jeddah to join the prestigious Dar Safia Bin Zagr, the atelier run by the renowned Saudi artist Safia Bin Zagr. She took many art courses there as well as abroad.

Al-Saleh has not been exhibiting a lot in London as she is focusing on her studies, but her shows are held in the Middle East, with interest in her art coming mostly from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Ithra Art Prize

Laila H. al-Faddagh, Musem Lead at Ithra spoke to Al Arabiya English at the sidelines of Art Dubai 2019 and said it is an initiative by Saudi Aramco.

It is part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Ithra is sort of a nickname for the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, and we are based in Daharan, Saudi Arabia. We have 10 components; the Idea Lab, Library, Ithra Theater, Cinema, Museum, Children’s Museum, Energy Exhibit, Archives, The Great Hall, and The Knowledge Tower. We also organize international exhibitions in Saudi Arabia.”

About the Ithra Art Prize, al-Faddagh said: “We started this partnership with Art Dubai in 2017. The first winning artist last year was Saudi artist Ayman Zedani, who is based in Sharjah. His winning work Mēm was exhibited at Art Dubai and is now part of our permanent collection. It is a growing collection with a focus on contemporary Middle Eastern art, Islamic art, and Saudi culture and heritage.”

Saudi focus on art, culture

Al-Faddagh expressed surprise over the number of emerging artists in Saudi Arabia, saying that they received over 600 submissions from artists in the Saudi Eastern Province alone when the first art contest in the province was organized.

“What is amazing is that most of these were artists we have never heard of before. We noticed that among the young ones, a lot of them have gone through formal education either in the UK or the US, but there are a lot of them who are self-taught; they lead different careers but have a passion for art and are teaching themselves,” she said.

About the proliferation of art institutions in Saudi Arabia, al-Faddagh said: “I think that’s great. The more we have, the better. We complement each other and we work well together.”

“With Vision 2030 and Saudi Arabia being more into culture and arts, the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture seeks to be part of that Vision,” she added.

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