Remembering Mohammed Al Saleem: one of the truest, most committed and selfless artists I know

Najla Al Saleem, daughter of Saudi modernist Mohammed Al Saleem, shares her memories of her father with Myrna Ayad. This account, part of our Remembering the Artist, is based on their interview.

Najla Al Saleem with her father, Mohammed Al Saleem. Najla A Saleem
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I was about five years old when my father's eldest brother – an imam at a mosque – stormed into our house and broke the wooden sculptures that my father was working on. "You are creating statues!" he shouted, also making clear my paternal grandmother's disapproval. I thought the sculptures were beautiful and didn't understand why my uncle was destroying them. Because my father was younger, he didn't dare answer back. I later asked why my uncle was enraged and my father explained that his family were very traditional and that we were different.

Najla Al Saleem is the daughter of Saudi artist Mohammed Al Saleem. Najla Al Saleem

To understand this incident necessitates a look at my father’s orthodox Muslim family and upbringing, one so far removed from visual art, which makes his story remarkable and awe-inspiring. Raised in Marat, a historical town in Saudi Arabia, a little over an hour from Riyadh by car, he was schooled by Egyptian teachers, who encouraged his passion for calligraphy.

Italy answered hundreds of questions for him and made him realise his ambition."

He travelled to Egypt with them in 1960, and it was there, at the age of 20, that he met and married my mother. They returned to Marat, a town with barely any paved roads, prone to power cuts and where water had to be sourced from wells. There, she got sick. And so, they moved to Riyadh and began a modern life, one that forever changed my father – he wore pyjamas instead of a thobe, was introduced to new cuisine and had begun making sculptures of women and camels with found objects, plaster and wood. He took up a job at the kingdom's national TV station, where, among other things, he designed the backdrop for Saudi singer, Mohammed Abdu's performances. All of these developments augmented his family's discontentment, but they most certainly enlightened my father, who inched closer and closer to his dream of becoming an artist.

By the late 1960s, the Ministry of Communication had begun offering scholarships and my father was awarded one in 1970 to the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze in Florence. My mother, brother, sister and I followed him a year later when I was seven, and we lived there for three beautiful years, during which we visited Rome, Venice and other magical places in Italy. I would go with him to the Academy and watch him draw nude models. "This isn't wrong or shameful," my mother would explain. "This is art." Italy answered hundreds of questions for him and made him realise his ambition.

'Allah' (1981) by Mohammed Al Saleem. Mohammed Al Saleem Collection 

He returned to Riyadh with such energy, such drive and a greater understanding of art, so much so that he chose not to work at the TV station any more, to focus solely on his art. This caused tension between my parents, which was further fuelled by his new-found concept for an art space. My mother was thinking about finances and my father was pursuing his dreams. To make matters worse, he painted incessantly, which cramped our apartment.

She thought he had lost his mind. He proved her wrong. What began as a commercially successful art supply store with goods imported from Rome became Dar Al Funoon Al Sa’udiyyah (The Saudi Art House) in 1979. The first institute of its kind in the Arabian Gulf, it staged exhibitions, mentored young artists, held competitions, published art catalogues, housed a foundry and a framing studio, and put on an exciting programme of artistic events.

I painted, too, using his palette with leftover colours. It was 1984 when I saw him frame one of my paintings and hang it as part of an exhibition. I was elated. That’s the kind of man he was – one who encouraged everyone with a talent. I would paint at night and hang the work at the studio’s entrance to make sure he saw it. His smile the next day confirmed his approval, and that pushed me.

'Landscape' by Moahmmed Al Saleem from 1975. Mohammed Al Saleem Collection 

After initially focusing on Saudi talents – with greats such as Abdulrahman Al Sulaiman, the space became a magnet for Gulf artists, too, such as Abdul Rasool Salman from Kuwait, and pioneered in showing the work of Saudi women artists such as Safeya Binzagr and Sharifa Al Sudairi. The government took note and recruited him as its representative for cultural activities in the Kingdom and abroad; this led to the development of art collections for various ministries that my father managed. He wrote for local papers and was on TV often. It was a golden age; we lived well.

Until the catastrophe: the institute went bankrupt. He had received a contract to create monumental sculptures, for which he took a loan to realise them and bought land for this workspace. But the project was halted and everything shattered. Severely in debt, he tried to salvage the situation to no avail. Dar Al Funoon Al Sa'udiyyah was publicly auctioned in 1995. To this day, the sculptures sit in the same factory they were born in.

He returned to Florence, and then moved to Prato, where we supported him financially. By that time, I had graduated with a degree in chemistry and married Abdullah, who was given a scholarship to study in the US. We had our first two children and my father encouraged me to pursue art while there. "This is your chance," he would say, and so I did, and graduated with a bachelor's degree in art from the Eastern Michigan University.

Saudi artist Mohammed Al Saleem in Florence, circa 1990s. Najla Al Saleem

He was lonely in Italy. My mother didn't go with him; she needed to be with my younger siblings. Though they loved each other a lot, my father couldn't bear to see my mother in pain after the jolt of losing the institute and their livelihood. My husband visited him in Italy; they were very close, and they talked about plans to open a studio and work on a project. Nothing ever came to pass. It was 1997 when Abdullah received the call notifying him that my father had died of a heart attack. We took him back to Saudi Arabia from Prato, and buried him in Riyadh. It was such a dark time.

Today, I feel responsible for his work and legacy. I feel like he gave a lot to everyone – to artists, the country, the government, Gulf artists – and he deserves credit. I opened an institute – the Saudi Art House Reactivated – in 2018, to replicate what my father did. I want to make sure his story is told the right way and for his contributions to live on.

Remembering the Artist is our series that features artists from the region