Fifty years ago this spring, one of the first modern art exhibitions was held in Jeddah, by the painter Safeya Binzagr. At the time, there were no galleries in the western Saudi city, so Binzagr held it at the Dar Al-Tarbia Al-Hadetha, a school for girls.
“I thought I will do the exhibition; they will receive it or they will object,” Binzagr, now 78, says. “And if not I will try again, or maybe somebody else will try. But actually they accepted it. The next day all the media wrote about it and liked it.”
Binzagr, a small, birdlike woman, with dyed red hair and a careful way of moving, has been called the "mother of art" in Saudi Arabia. In 2017, she was awarded First Class honours in the Order of King Abdulaziz, reflecting her contributions to Saudi culture. Her paintings represent scenes of the past in Saudi Arabia: the Mahmal, or ceremonial palanquin, being carried through Jeddah before the Hajj; a woman sitting on the floor combing her hair as her servant holds up a mirror; young boys playing the marbles-like game of Al Kubush, which makes use of bones from the joints of goats or camels.
Binzagr was born in Jeddah to a wealthy merchant family, and moved to Cairo when she was seven. She studied there and later at boarding school in England, and attended Saint Martins School of Art in London in the late 1960s. When she returned to Jeddah, she says she saw her country anew, and began collecting stories about traditional life there before living memory slipped away.
“Because I was educated in Cairo, I needed to do a lot of research in the beginning,” she says. “I didn’t know the life in Saudi before it united as a kingdom.”
Binzagr animated this past in bright, colourful paintings that she meticulously researched, especially as many of the scenes she depicted, such as that of the Mahmal – a Mamluk tradition that ended in the 1920s – were before her time. But nowhere has her attention been more exacting than in the area of women's lives. In a suite of paintings from the 1970s she detailed marriage rites, such as the ceremony where the bride first appears before the groom, who reads to her from the Quran. For many of the details of these rituals, she consulted with women she met through her family, whose job it had been to prepare brides. The painting Al Nassah (1975) from this series captures the sumptuous silver-embroidered dress a bride would typically wear and the canopy over her head.
Binzagr has been keen to preserve not only traditional Saudi dress but also its diversity. "Every part of the kingdom had different architecture, style of life, and costumes. In Hijaz, the western province, because they were under Ottoman rule they dressed more like them," she says. "In the north, the closer the costumes are to the border, the more they are like Jordan. If you go to the south, they also have different costumes," she says, adding that women in the south still tend to wear their traditional clothes "in simpler form". Binzagr wears a Hijazi costume of a zaboun, or coat, in her most famous painting, a self-portrait from 1969 where she looks placidly at the viewer in a gold-yellow overcoat and white headscarf.
In 1995, she refurbished her home and transformed it into the Darat Safeya Binzagr, a foundation that contains her library and paintings, as well as the results of what became her decades’ long research into women’s traditional attire: a display of mannequins wearing astonishing, ornate dresses and a room full of beautifully rendered watercolours, in which Binzagr has precisely captured the details of each costume.
The watercolours, which number more than 50, are all arranged in one long room, each executed in the same size and framed in the same manner. They look like magazine illustrations from the time before photography was widespread: a halfway point between documentation and artistic depiction.
A watercolour of a woman in an Al Qatif costume from the eastern region wears shalwar kameez-like trousers under a loose teal dress, with a long mantle of white and green cloth draped over her head. A detail in the corner shows her embroidered headpiece. In another, a woman from the Harb tribe wears a red and grey patterned burqa, with tassels that drop down over her shoulders. A number of costumes look Turkic or even Asian in origin, such as one from the northern region of a red cloak with long floral embroidered sleeves that fall to the floor. An Al Megna style from the western region is an extraordinary concoction of pink gossamer and gold embroidery – Disney princesses, eat your hearts out – in which the woman’s face is barely visible behind the pattern of gold threads that folds over her.
Binzagr travelled the country to learn about these costumes, asking families for donations, and going to archives and libraries abroad to look at photographs. The outfits, which would have been worn on special occasions such as birthdays or national days, are complete: they include headdress, shoes, jewellery, all depicted in her watercolours or assembled on mannequins. "Dressed from head to toe," says Binzagr.
Now, people contact her to donate work. She is still painting and organising the Darat’s varied events. It has a library of 5000 books, runs painting competitions for children and lectures for adults, and fields questions from researchers. It has become a regular stop for those visiting Saudi’s Red Sea city, receiving dignitaries such as the King of Spain as well as less starred delegations, all of whom she gamely poses with in photographs that are promptly uploaded to the museum’s website.
Although she continues to focus on historical scenes, she stops short of glorifying the past at the expense of the present. She is unfazed by the fact, for instance, that while more women are interested in traditional costumes – a number of places in Saudi now rent them out for wear at parties – the embroidery is done differently on these new items, or that women choose them for their look rather than for the area they represent.
A woman “will dress sometimes and wear north or south – like sometimes I wear Indian costumes”, she says, shrugging. “It’s a party! No one would say, oh no, this isn’t right, because it’s a party, it’s a wedding.”
And while she remains involved in the growing art scene in Jeddah – she was honoured in 2014 by the first 21, 39 Jeddah Arts, the annual international art exhibition – she is largely apart from it, preferring to work on her painting as the currents move along elsewhere.
“It is a very nice journey,” she says. “Fifty years working, travelling, searching, learning.”
The Darat Binzagr is open to the public in Jeddah on Saturdays and Sundays