A young woman in a headscarf squints into the sun, against the backdrop of the Saudi Arabian desert, and grins. "It made me appreciate life," she says. "I'm never going to complain again, ever!"
The woman is the 23-year-old Qatari filmmaker Hamida Al Kuwari, and the clip is from a video posted on the website for Arabia Offscreen, an expedition with the aim of forging creative relationships between people in the UK and the Middle East.
Nine young artists were selected to take the trip to Saudi Arabia, including two from the UAE: Lujain Abulfaraj, a photographer and designer from Dubai, and Raisa Almansoori, a printmaker from Abu Dhabi, both also 23. Over the course of three weeks in December, they clambered up ochre cliff faces, wandered the streets of downtown Jeddah, met other artists and, in some cases, visited Mecca to perform Umrah.
The results are an array of creative endeavours, including a book on the expedition, which should be available in schools and galleries in the UAE from April; two exhibitions at HSBC's headquarters in Canary Wharf in London; and the series of videos being launched online weekly, which show the young artists looking emotional, inspired and awestruck. It is all run by the not-for-profit Offscreen Expeditions, which has been organising trips for young artists to the UK, UAE, Pakistan and elsewhere since 2007.
Abulfaraj, who is half Saudi, was seven months pregnant at the time of the expedition (she talked to us, heroically, the day after giving birth to a baby boy). "I always knew we had a rich history in Saudi but I didn't know that it was that rich, to be honest," she said. "I'd always known about the Islamic part of it, not much about the social and prehistoric aspects."
A photographer and designer, Abulfaraj submitted images of Mecca overlaid with calligraphy to the competition, which impressed expedition leader Tahira Fitzwilliam-Hall. "Lujain is super talented," she said. "Her work was amazing, and we wanted to expose her to our network in Saudi."
She has already been signed up for a group show at Athr Gallery in Jeddah which started on February 21 and will continue until March 20, in an exhibition called Young Saudi Artists II.
Abulfaraj also runs an architecture and design magazine called WTD, which will be officially launched this month at Design Days Dubai, which runs from March 18 to 21. She describes it as a "non-glossy publication that will call attention to non-glossy architectural spaces in Dubai and the Middle East", and said that wandering around Jeddah's old town has given her plenty of inspiration.
"It was just amazing for me, how they managed to revive or reuse [old buildings and materials] in a way that fits the present," she said. "We decided to dedicate a whole issue to renovation and how it could be done in other regions in the area."
Almansoori, the other UAE-based artist selected for the trip, was also inspired by downtown Jeddah. In a blog post, she described the "lovely old architecture" of Al Balad, and how she "fell in love" with the ornate balconies there. Almansoori specialises in printmaking, and for the competition she submitted an etching of a doll's head in a glass jar. She is currently working on her senior project at Zayed University, where she studies art and design with a focus on interior design, and will graduate in June.
According to Fitzwilliam-Hall, the fact that Almansoori comes from what she herself describes as a "very traditional Bedouin family" was something that caught the judge's attention. "It was a big deal for her to champion herself, to actually become a proper artist," Fitzwilliam-Hall explained. "She hasn't had much exposure to the art community in the UAE and the Middle East."
Al Kuwari works for the Doha Film Institute and won her place on the expedition with a short film that she made, which premièred at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival last year. She said that meeting artists, comedians and other creatives in Saudi made her realise that the Gulf's art scene was at a fertile point.
"It's really a time of innovation and of being pioneers," she said. "[The expedition] really inspired me to want to give back, not only on a Gulf level, but also on a universal level, in terms of smashing those [Arab] stereotypes and proving to the world that there's much more to us than what they think."
She's working on a new short narrative film, which will start shooting this summer, and has plans for a documentary about the Gulf's art world.
Steve Jobs once said that the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that do. It's an idea that resonates with Al Kuwari, who said: "Whenever I think of that quote I think of the people on our trip, because we all had our own special talent, but we shared this unified vision of wanting to give back."
Visit Arabia Offscreen at www.offscreenexpedition.com.
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