Saudi Safeya Binzagr celebrates 50-year artistic journey
This year, Saudi painter Safeya Binzagr, one of Saudi Arabia’s fine arts trailblazers and most prominent figures, celebrates 50 years into her artistic journey. Throughout this journey, Binzagr has brought Saudi heritage to life in works that resonated with the local community and society, as well as it did with the global arts circles and communities.
Fifty years after her first modern arts exhibition in the Kingdom – which she held in a Jeddah girls’ school, at a time when the Kingdom had no exhibition halls – English UAE-based newspaper The National sat down with Binzagr to recount her artistic journey in the Kingdom and beyond.
“I thought I will do the exhibition; they will receive it or they will object,” 78 year-old Binzagr told The National about her breakthrough in the Saudi arts scene. “And if not I will try again, or maybe somebody else will try. But actually they accepted it. The next day all the media wrote about it and liked it.”
Now, fifty years later, Binzagr is being dubbed “the mother of art” in the Kingdom, and has earned the King Abdulaziz Medal of First Class in 2017 for her contributions to the Saudi arts and culture scene.
Throughout the years, Binzagr’s body of work has centered on the Kingdom’s history and heritage. The artist’s works became known for documenting Saudi folklore and Jeddah’s many social, cultural and architectural layers; among which was the Mahmal, or ceremonial palanquin, traditionally held as a ritual before Hajj. Moreover, Binzagr’s works embodied the spirit and soul of Saudi women, particularly celebrating their culturally and artistically rooted fashion.
Binzagr was born into a wealthy family in the trade business. She moved with her family to Cairo at the tender age of 7, pursuing her primary education in Egypt, before moving to the UK, where she attended the Central Saint Martins public tertiary art school.
Upon returning to Jeddah, Binzagr had gained an entirely new perspective on her home country, and saw it in a different light. She began collecting heritage and history anecdotes around the coastal city overlooking the Red Sea, and revived them, as well as sceneries of life in the city, through her paintings.
Binzagr’s upbringing in Cairo had commanded hard efforts by the artist to learn about the traditions and norms of her home country. And so, in the early stages of her career, she would conduct a number of research studies in bid to understand and paint a full picture of her community and society; the legwork eventually helped her accurately, deeply and truthfully portray this picture through her art.
Her works brought Saudi heritage to life with color, and with incredible precision and detail; fascinatingly so, as many of the scenes portrayed by Binzagr, such as the Mahmal, dated back to rituals that had ended in the 1920s.
The women of Hijaz
In the 1970s, building on a global momentum, Binzagr turned her artistic focus on women. One example has been her work portraying wedding and marriage rituals – such as scenes of a bride appearing before her groom for the first time as he reads her excerpts from the Holy Quran. To draw these picturesque scenes to the last detail, Binzagr spoke to women in her family, particularly elder women who would prepare soon-to-be brides.
Binzagr was keen on embodying the diversity of everyday life in Saudi Arabia at the time, particularly when it came to women’s clothing and fashion. She says that every region in the Kingdom had a distinct and unique architecture, lifestyle and fashion sense. In the western regions of Hijaz, she explains, women’s clothing was highly inspired and influenced by Ottoman fashion, while it took after Jordanian fashion the further people traveled up the Northern border. In the south, however, women dressed simply.
In one of her most famed works, a self-portrait she produced in 1969, Binzagr embodied Hijazi women’s fashion during that period, as she donned a gold yellow overcoat and covered her head with a white headpiece. The portrait shows Binzagr looking peacefully at the viewer, a reflection of Saudi women’s nature at the time.
Darat Safeya Binzagr
In 1995, Binzagar decided to transform her home into a modest artistic space and foundation, the Darat Safeya Binzagr. The space houses her library and paintings, as well as a collection of her research work on traditional Saudi women’s costumes. The latter included actual replicas and samples of traditional attire, an homage to Saudi heritage and a bid to keep it alive in the memories of Saudi people. The space also hosts her own workshop, where she continues to create her art.
In her artistic and cultural mission, Binzagr has traveled across Saudi Arabia to learn about women’s traditional attire. She would ask families for donations of traditional clothing pieces that would inspire the next generations, and would go around international and local archives and libraries to look at photographs of Saudi Arabia. Pieces researched by Binzagr covered Saudi women’s attire to the last detail, from headpieces, to clothing, to shoes to jewelry in all shapes, styles and colors.
Today, the Darat Safeya Binzagr counts over 5,000 books, organizes drawing competitions for children, and holds arts and culture conferences for aficionados and researchers. It has established itself as a knowledge hub for anyone who is interested in Saudi heritage and culture, and has grown to host a number of prominent international figures and delegations, including the King of Spain.
Binzagr’s art inspired a cultural movement among Saudi women to celebrate their local heritage, with many paying her visits to learn about traditional attire, with the aim of creating, designing, and donning culturally deep-rooted designs on occasions such as weddings – epitomizing the artist’s cultural mission.
In 2014, Binzagr was honored by the International Art Fair for her contributions to the Saudi artistic and cultural movement, and her mammoth impact on reviving Hijaz heritage. Three years later, her contributions culminated in King Abdulaziz’s Medal of First Class.