This side of paradise: the first woman to photograph one of Islam’s holiest places
As hundreds of visitors poured through the doors of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia, the second holiest site in the Islamic world, they were faced with an astonishing sight.
There, on the green carpet with her abaya flowing around her and squinting up through the lens of a Canon 1DX, was Arwa Al Neami.
She was not just the first woman but the first person to photograph the unique and elaborately painted domes in the ceiling of Al Rawdah Al Sharifah – the area between the Prophet Mohammed’s grave and the mosque’s marble pulpit.
But when one learns she is the wife of the groundbreaking and sometimes controversial Saudi artist Ahmed Mater, one of the founders of the Edge of Arabia art movement, it comes as less of a surprise that Al Neami is pushing boundaries.
“It was difficult, as there were hundreds and thousands of people inside the mosque and some were fighting with the police, saying I should not be there,” she says. “But I went back many times and enjoyed every second. It reminded me of Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, which made me smile.”
While Mater, 35, has long been established as an artist contributing to an important conversation about the rapid expansion and development of Mecca, less has been known about his wife until now. Her photographs of the domes were showcased at Art Dubai this year and taken to Art International Istanbul in September by Athr Gallery, which represents both Mater and Al Neami. In Dubai she sold every edition of her works, collectively called Piece of Paradise, so named because Al Rawdah is said to be a piece of heaven on earth.
Taking her photographs to Istanbul meant she was connecting the dots, as the calligrapher who originally painted the domes in the 19th century, Ustad Abdullah Al Zahidi, was from Turkey.
“I love this place so much,” says Al Neami, 28, of the Prophet’s Mosque. “The first time I turned my face up and saw the ceiling, I thought: ‘What is this? It’s beautiful.’ No two domes were the same.
“After that, I often admired these domes. What is surprising is that very few people notice them as they rarely look up when praying.
“Showing this work in Turkey was important for me. It was a tribute to the Turks of the legacy they left in one of the most sacred places on Earth.”
There are 177 domes, each with a unique design and inscribed with a Quranic verse. They were created by the Ottomans, who expanded the mosque in the 1840s during the reign of Abdul Hamid II. An ayah, or verse, would begin on one dome and continue on another. The paintwork began to deteriorate and a major restoration project began in 1990 with two key changes: verses had to be contained on individual domes, a process taking up to four months per dome, and the calligraphic script was changed from the Turkish style of Rasm Imlai to the more modern Rasm Uthmani.
The ornately painted domes, restored to their former glory, caught Al Neami’s eye and she captured all of them on camera over the course of a month, returning about 30 times during female visiting hours. With special permission from Prince Faisal bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the governor of Medina, she was allowed to photograph the ceiling flanked by two policewomen, despite objections from conservatives. The result is a set of prints looking like painted canvases with their intricate details and vivid, brilliant colours.
Al Neami began drawing and painting at the age of 6, teaching herself using books and the internet, but had to abandon her first passion because of a lack of art schools in the Kingdom.
Instead, she studied computing at King Khalid University in Asir, followed by a management course at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, subjects which held little interest for her. During her first year at King Khalid, however, she won first prize in an art competition organised by Prince Khaled Al Faisal and exhibited her winning work in 2004 in Al Muftaha art village, where Mater was one of the founding members of an artistic community. The pair married four years later.
Her interest in photography began with her taking pictures of flowers with a small camera: “When you paint, you sometimes need photos to execute your paintings. I started needing the camera to take photos to teach myself how to paint, how to imagine locations and visualise spaces. I liked the process of transferring a photographic visual to paint. Then I started refining my photography and experimented with different cameras.”
Her photographic artwork Spring Camel was exhibited in Athr’s Young Saudi Artists exhibition in 2012. Since then, her star has been ascending. In February, Piece of Paradise was selected for the Words and Illuminations exhibition organised in Medina in association with the British Museum, where it was shown alongside work by Mater.
“Her work is getting incredible exposure,” says Jumana Ghouth from the Athr Gallery. “Visually there are not many similarities between her and Ahmed but they are both brilliant photographers and documentary makers.”
Al Neami is determined to develop her skills at her own pace. “I want to do it by myself,” she says. “Both Ahmed and I are avid students. Even though we share a lot of experiences in photography, the process of acquisition and interpretation is personal.”
Despite the differences, there is a pleasing symmetry between their work. While Mater often focuses on the ever-shifting landscape and exterior views of holy sites, Al Neami is drawn to what happens within.
She says she is now throwing herself into her artwork: “I love many kinds of art. Before I did not have any option to study it. Now I understand the art world because we travel. I hope I can continue to learn.”
Tahira Yaqoob is a regular contributor to The National.
Updated: October 9, 2014 04:00 AM