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.
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.