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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 16 February 2019

Obituary: Mounirah Mosly, a pioneer for women and art in Saudi Arabia

Mosly’s legacy will lie as much in her work itself, as in the younger generation she helped open up to art.

Mounirah Mosly, one of the first female artists in Saudi, has died at the age of 64.
Mounirah Mosly, one of the first female artists in Saudi, has died at the age of 64.

Mounirah Mosly, one of the first female artists in Saudi Arabia, has died at the age of 64. Mosly was born in Makkah in 1954 and, like many artists of her generation, studied art in Cairo, at the College of Fine Arts. When she returned home she encountered a landscape of very few opportunities for artists, particularly for women.

“Munira was a pioneer in all senses of the word,” says the artist Manal Al Dowayan, whom Mosly taught as a child. “She was one of the first group of women who worked for Saudi Aramco at a time when less than 3 per cent of the women worked in Saudi Arabia, and she was a passionate artist at a time where recognition and appreciation of art were scarce.”

One of Mosly's early works entitled 'Self Portrait'. 
One of Mosly's early works entitled 'Self Portrait'.

In 1968, she and Safeya Binzagr were the first women to have a show in Saudi, at the Dar Al-Tarbia Al-Hadetha school in Jeddah, and in 1973 Mosly bagged another gender first, being the first female Saudi artist to hold a solo exhibition in the country’s capital. She continued to make work throughout her life, exhibiting in the kingdom as well as across the Arab world, and her work recently received more international attention with the increased interest in Arab modernism. She showed a suite of vibrantly colored paintings in 2016 at Art Dubai Modern, in the show “For the Children of This Generation”, and had a solo show that same year with Hafez Gallery, one of Jeddah’s foremost galleries, with the inimitable title “On the Stairs of Color There Are Traces of My Steps”. (Mosly was a writer as well as an artist; she frequently contributed articles on art to the local press.)

Qaswara Hafez, the director of Hafez Gallery, describes the 2016 solo show as “full of the emotions and sensations of an Arab woman who lived with many generations with their hopes and aspirations, and expresses that through different material — garments, leather, wood, iron.”

'The Migration of the Three Sisters' by Mounirah Mosly,
'The Migration of the Three Sisters' by Mounirah Mosly,

Mosly played close attention to material and texture, using natural materials that evoked heritage, her own travels, or even simply an appealing roughness of form. The “emotions and sensations” of which Hafez speaks are almost palpable in her work. She employed dyes and paper she made herself, either as a base for the work or as richly saturated additions to her collages, and even snakeskin and ropes. For “On the Stairs of Color” she used wooden windows from northern Saudi as frames for small paintings, and papyrus from Egypt as bases. This experimentation with materials was present throughout her career: from the very early self-portrait, in 1974, executed in gouache on a circular mirror, to the totemic painting "A Fire Mantle for Me and Him", made on treated tent fabric in 2010. Many of her most beautiful works are in watercolour, where they achieve a looser feel, and the forms described by her paint seem to take on a quiet freedom, vying with small vignettes of amorphous figures.

Mosly was also deeply connected to the political issues surrounding the Arab region, particularly the Palestinian struggle, and used her artwork to raise money and attention for charities that helped Palestinian families. In a 2009 show in Riyadh, “Gaza Child: Artistic Stand” she addressed the impact of war on children, and she dedicated her 2011 exhibition at Albareh Art Gallery in Bahrain to a young Iraqi victim of war, picturing her in a luscious portrait in traditional dress.

Mounirah Mosly was a pioneer for women's art in Saudi 
Mounirah Mosly was a pioneer for women's art in Saudi 

Her love for children informed her life as well as her work. She received a master’s degree in graphic design in the US and subsequently worked as publications designer for Aramco, the Saudi state oil company. There she established arts education courses for children — first for children of Aramco employees, including Al Dowayan and her siblings, and later for the wider public. “She founded the Saudi Aramco Children’s Art Competition that was an exciting part of my childhood,” Al Dowayan, who grew up in Dhahran, recalls. “But I always would tell her the story of my siblings who all won first prize, and I never won — and now I am the artist in the family.”

Mosly’s legacy will lie as much in her work itself, as in the younger generation she helped open up to art.

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Read more:

Safeya Binzagr: the woman who put Saudi art on the map

Saudi artist Ahmed Mater: 'Art and culture now is about exchange, dialogue’

Two artists’ investigations into public entertainment is subject of Sharjah exhibition

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Updated: January 22, 2019 06:42 PM

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