(Nada Hameed) - When Saleh Al-Shehri was a young and unknown artist in the small southern Saudi village of Khashram
, he rejected the idea of receiving formal instruction. He took no classes nor did he seek help from a mentor. He took the path to a successful art career alone.
And he has no regrets.
“I believe I am a pure talented artist,” he told Arab News recently. “I developed myself without going to any art school and I excelled.’’
Al-Shehri, 37, is a member of the burgeoning colony of Saudi artists struggling to be seen and heard not only in Saudi Arabia, but also internationally. His work is on display through April 13 at the Nesma Gallery, a non-profit art gallery in Jeddah’s Al-Rawdah district that supports young Saudi artists with regular exhibits.
Al-Shehri came of age as the Saudi art movement began to take hold following a generation of artistic suppression led by the religious conservative establishment throughout the GCC region. Parents sent their children to universities to become doctors, scientists and engineers. At the time many families believed there was no future in artistic expression. Not coincidentally, Al-Shehri is also an engineer.
Self-taught, Al-Shehri claims that an older brother was his only source of inspiration, but it is clear that he has taken a page from expressionist artists. His paintings, usually measuring 2 meters wide and 1.5 meters tall, feature bold brush strokes, unclear edges and an obsession with primary colors.
Standing at a distance, his subjects are unclear, forcing the viewer to move closer to absorb the content. Some subjects are somewhat clear, others not.
“I don’t want everything to be clear, but I want everyone to have their own understanding of what it means,” he said.
“As an artist I love colors because the southern region is full of plain colors, weather in the nature, people’s clothes or homes decoration. So my painting reflects the culture of the south.”
Like many local artists, Saleh began his career as a painter before becoming interested in the possibilities of art as a career. Over the past 20 years, his work has covered remarkable ground, from classically-inspired portraits to large-scale installations dealing with the traditions and the heritage of Saudi Arabia, as well as its future.
At 17, he recognized that he had talent and in 2003 he began to show his work by participating in exhibitions in the region and winning awards. His first exhibition was under the theme “Maraweeh Al-Sahaab,” which vividly displayed the culture of the Kingdom’s southern region of Asir, where the mountains, clouds, forests and the stony colorful traditional villages remain frozen in time.
“Maraweeh Al-Sahaab means the straw hats of women in the southern side of Saudi Arabia,” he said, noting the “straw hats of women” remind him of fans brushing clouds. “I related the beauty of their traditional costume along with the beauty of nature,” Al-Shehri added.
Describing one of his paintings, the artist said, “Birds used to emerge in the season of harvest and they destroy everything, so men back then used to throw stones at the birds to keep their crop safe.”
And this is the essence of Al-Shehri’s art: taking mundane life routines in the southern region and creating a new view of the experience.
Al-Shehri said he is thrilled to make people think deeply of what each painting means, rather than just a clear portrait. “I avoid creating descriptions under each painting to give visitors the freedom to think and relate to what they see with several ideas.”
Al-Shehri’s “Maraweeh Al-Sahaab” exhibit at Nesma Art Gallery is part of a community initiative established by Nesma Holding to support and promote local artists. It is located in the same building as Nesma Embroidery and Tailoring Center, another Nesma non-profit project.