Is Saudi artist Ali Al Ruzaiza's home his greatest work of art?

Ali Al Ruzaiza's hand-crafted abode filled with his artworks is now an official cultural treasure

In his mid-seventies and quick with a joke, Ali Al Ruzaiza is one of the first Abstract artists in Saudi Arabia. Associated with the pioneering House of Saudi Art, his works exist in major Saudi collections and have been visited by dignitaries to Riyadh over the years, including George H W Bush, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and Hosni Mubarak.

Al Ruzaiza keeps printed images of these encounters in a laminated photo book in his studio, which he thumbs through and shows off to new visitors in a kind of meta-visitation experience.

But it turns out that the paintings are the tip of the iceberg of Al Ruzaiza’s production. To borrow a phrase from Hassan Sharif, the late Emirati artist whose work similarly tracks the move from handmade goods to modern consumerism, is Ali Al Ruzaiza a “single-work artist”?

Over the course of 15 years, Al Ruzaiza designed, built, carved and decorated his sprawling one-storey villa located in a neighbourhood in the east of Riyadh. Inside, he did the same for its furnishings, window frames and intricate doors, too. The site was recently recognised by the government as a unique “artist house” that is worthy of conservation.

Al Ruzaiza salvaged window frames from the Najd region and hung them next to his own paintings, which also show architectural Najdi motifs. The result shifts the presentation of his paintings, integrating them back into everyday life.

Ali Al Ruzaiza’s studio, at the back of his house, showing works in progress. Al Ruzaiza was one of the first abstract artists in the Kingdom. Courtesy Myrna Ayad
Ali Al Ruzaiza’s studio, at the back of his house, showing works in progress. Al Ruzaiza was one of the first abstract artists in the Kingdom. Myrna Ayad

Al Ruzaiza was born in Ushaiqer, a historic town about 200 kilometres north-west of Riyadh. It is flat and windswept, and had low, squat houses when Al Ruzaiza was growing up he keeps photos of old Ushaiqer, too, in the album alongside his rendezvous with dignitaries.

“The construction materials for the houses in my town were locally sourced from the farms of the village,” Al Ruzaiza recalls. “Doors and windows were decorated using natural pigments. Back then, there was no electricity in small towns, and animals used to migrate from one town to another.”

Al Ruzaiza was in school when art was first introduced to the curriculum, and describes making his own paintbrushes, as well as pigments from pencil shavings, to complete assignments at home.

In his late-twenties, he studied interior design on a government scholarship in Italy. He returned to Saudi Arabia in 1979, as Mohammed Al Saleem opened his House of Saudi Art, and became a frequent visitor. Like Al Saleem, he sought to marry new artistic idioms with traditional Saudi references. When the time came to build his house, the same principles applied.

Ali Al Ruzaiza’s majlis, containing his paintings as well as charismatic and window frames that he has carved. Courtesy Myrna Ayad
Ali Al Ruzaiza’s majlis, containing his paintings as well as charismatic and window frames that he has carved. Courtesy Myrna Ayad

The one-storey property retains the structural principles that were adopted in Najd villages in order to regulate the temperature before electric air conditioning. It is roughly arranged as a semicircle, which keeps air circulating through the corridors with less need for air conditioning. In some rooms, the ceiling is slightly vaulted, with vents allowing air – but not the hot sun – to enter the room. Plants and indoor courtyards are also dotted throughout, cooling the air around them.

Geometric motifs, such as the triangle or the semicircle, appear throughout in the carved doors and furniture. The architecture also makes way for traditional practices to occur. From the front courtyard, an intricately carved, semicircular door opens on to an entranceway, with the men’s majlis and a room for preparing kahwa, or Arabic coffee, off to the right. There, Al Ruzaiza transformed a corner of the room into a traditional hearth, even creating an earthen pit where the heat from the dallah, or coffee pot, is maintained.

“The place for preparing tea and coffee was traditionally known by Arabs as a symbol of generosity because the host will prepare the drinks in the reception,” Al Ruzaiza explains.

Ali Al Ruzaiza created a traditional site for preparing and serving kahwa to his guests. Courtesy Myrna Ayad
Ali Al Ruzaiza created a traditional site for preparing and serving kahwa to his guests. Myrna Ayad

On the walls, Al Ruzaiza hangs the carved windows he has salvaged, showing these folk examples side by side with his paintings, which reimagine their motifs in a new format.

His paintings depict the built environment local houses, porticos, windows, archways and stairs. Others omit the architecture itself and simply lift the traditional patterns that would have been carved into it: again, the repeated use of the small triangle; low, squat proportions; and stepped or crenellated patterns. More accurately described as reliefs, the paintings have a sculptural quality that Al Ruzaiza creates by a method he has refined over the years.

First, he sketches his paintings in bright washable markers. When I visited the studio – at the back of the house – he gamely performed his sketches for our visiting group, and showed us how easy it was for him to change his mind, scribbling a jagged line over one of the carefully drawn arches. Then, he cheerily rubbed it out. The line was gone but some smudges remained. These would be hidden by the subsequent layers of paint and material Al Ruzaiza adds to the canvas.

During the Noor Riyadh festival, Al Ruzaiza's artworks were projected onto the Masmak Fort – which Al Ruzaiza used in the well-known logo he deisgned for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Saudi state. Courtesy Noor Riyadh
During the Noor Riyadh festival, Al Ruzaiza's artworks were projected onto the Masmak Fort – which Al Ruzaiza used in the well-known logo he deisgned for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Saudi state. Courtesy Noor Riyadh

After he completes his sketch, he mixes acrylic paint, sand from the desert and wood glue to mark all the lines. He adds this mixture in several stages to give texture to the painting and, finally, he applies a layer of oil paint to colour the composition in earthy reds, ochres and blues.

In other works, he omits the last steps of texturing the drawing, and lets the cooler, more fluorescent sketches remain visible. These have a more immediately contemporary feel, but lack the connection to the Najdi context seen in the work that he creates with his sand mixture.

Last month, at the Noor Riyadh festival, Al Ruzaiza was honoured for his long-term contribution to Saudi art. Images of his work – the darker earthen reliefs and the lighter sketches, were projected on to the Masmak Fort. The site is significant: as well as being a painter and interior designer, Al Ruzaiza designed the logo for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Saudi Arabian state.

The logo for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Saudi Arabian state. Eiman Elgibreen
The logo for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Saudi Arabian state. Eiman Elgibreen

The logo shows Masmak Fort, the site of the Battle of Riyadh during the unification of Saudi Arabia, flanked by palm tree fronds. It was circulated widely, appearing on banknotes and in schoolbooks issued to pupils in the 1990s.

On our previous visit to Al Ruzaiza’s house, it was this legacy that the young Saudi Arabian journalists were most interested in. “I remember it from my schoolbooks,” one said, pointing at a version of the logo Al Ruzaiza displays in his dining rooms.

“Yes, of course,” he says, with a laugh. “It is famous.”

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Updated: May 3, 2021 04:30 PM

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