A thought-provoking exhibition of photographs by Arab women has brought the curator Rania Razek one step closer to achieving her goal of "creating an artistic bridge between East and West".
Through the Eyes of Saudi Arabian Women shows the work of a dozen emerging and established female photographers from the kingdom, giving glimpses of their often very private lives as well as their more public sides.
"To some, the title is a cliché," says Razek, "but to me, it's right to the point. There are lots of talented Saudi women photographers and I want to share their work with the world. So I thought, well if I can't go all over the world, Dubai has the entire world in it!"
Born and raised in the US, Razek spent much of her youth visiting Saudi Arabia before moving there to teach photography at Dar Al-Hekma College, a private institution in Jeddah.
Featuring work by her students, the exhibition at Dubai's Community Theatre & Arts Centre follows the five primary themes: Vision of Life, Portraiture, Abstract, Saudi Arabian Culture and Photo Art.
"All the photographers differ in economic level, exposure to western education, foreign travel, place of upbringing and temperament," says Razek, "which lends different dynamics to their visions."
For Razek, trying to choose a favourite photograph from the exhibition is like trying to choose a favourite child. "I tend to pick out the best in each image. For example, I love to see self-portraits of the women and understand what they are trying to reveal."
Creatures of the Palm, by Moudy Mishal Al Saud, portraying a young Saudi woman holding a snake in her garden, strikes a particular chord. "I look at it and think, wow, it really shows the boldness of Saudi women," she says.
"I also love Taif Rose by Ghadeer Faisal Attallah," she says of a vibrant fuchsia photograph that captures the natural beauty of Saudi Arabia. "Contrast that with a more upbeat approach taken by Reem Baeshen and her image The Challenge Continues, which focuses on a tree in the desert as a symbol of life prevailing in a harsh struggle against the desert heat."
An accomplished photographer herself with many awards to her name, Razek's camera is never far from her side, allowing her to capture "perfect moments" as seen in the image Bedouin Rider.
The teacher tells of a time she took a group of students to the historical town of Al-Usa in Saudi Arabia.
"We came across a family car stuck in the sand, so our tour guide decided to help them. Once freed, they invited us to visit their horse ranch. When we arrived, the guide said, 'I'll show you the proper way to ride a horse!' And with no shoes or proper clothes, he rode the horse Bedouin-style. So naturally we were all clicking away."
While her education in the US ignited a passion for contemporary photography, Razek's work remains true to her traditional Arabic roots. She steadfastly believes her art serves as a tool for preserving Saudi culture, though she does admit that photographing people in the country is not without its challenges.
"I learnt to be cautious when instructing my students regarding photography in KSA, advising them always to ask permission out of respect for the country's culture and traditions."
She adds: "In recent years it has become easier for Saudi women to take pictures publicly. In fact, people even began to pose for my students who were working on their photojournalism projects. Before, many women would only be photographed by other women and the camera was seen as an intrusion of their privacy." For a book accompanying the exhibition, Razek sourced inspirational statements from amateur and professional photographers, hoping to encourage more Saudi women to venture into her field.
"Although many have contributed to this book, there are many more talented Saudi women photographers. I hope we can create volumes attesting to our achievements in the future," she says. "Most published photographic images of Saudi society have been the work of western or Saudi males and I believe Saudi women photographers offer a valuable additional perspective."
The book points to the ever-growing number of Saudi women pursuing opportunities within the industry, the most viable sources of income being portraits and wedding photographs. However, creative career paths are plentiful, says Razek:
"Personally, I chose to focus on the artistic and educational approaches to photography, which enabled me to explore and expand my skills while sharing my knowledge with others."
When it comes to Saudi women overcoming cultural or societal adversity, Razek has led by example: "Back in 2004, I helped found the first college club for women who wanted to pursue the art of photography. The club members were able to exhibit their work globally. They collaborated with the British Council in two exhibitions, Images of Islam in the UK, and As We See It."
Most recently, she adds, "getting the book, Through the Eyes of Saudi Arabian Women, published was an obstacle in itself. So I ended up publishing it myself. With the economic crisis around the world, it wasn't that easy to get the book out and it took me about three years."
As we conclude our tour of the gallery Razek tells me how she believes her life's journey truly began when she first held a camera as a child. For the photographers behind the 37 images in her exhibition, it appears their journeys are also just beginning.
"Some photographs are going to the Saudi Consulate in Dubai," she says with a smile "and some will hopefully be wrapped up and taken to Europe as we have interest from people in Berlin and Vienna."
Through the Eyes of Saudi Arabian Women runs until February 22 at the Gallery of Light, Dubai Community Theatre & Arts Centre, Level 2, Mall of the Emirates. Entrance is free. For more information go to www.ductac.org or call 04 3414 7777.