Balqis Al Rashed / “I find labels to be limiting”

The self and the perception of the self, art and the artists, criticism and conversation, Balqis Al Rashed is a Saudi woman with something to say

"It is fascinating. The niqab gave me a sense of freedom that I didn’t think it can offer, it allowed me to share my self with the world without compromising my identity," Balqis Al Rashed. Photo: Abdelrahman Aljatham

by Maán Jalal

Culture 20 May 2018

Balqis Al Rashed is a Saudi artist whose work we can’t get enough of. Raised in Lebanon, where she studied at the American University of Beirut she gained a Bachelors of Fine Arts in Graphic Design and returned to Saudi in 2009. Since then, Balqis has co-founded the Khaleeji clothing line Qabila Apparel while creating art in a number of disciplines. The popularity of her work online (specifically Instagram) led not only to a residency at the Sharjah Art Foundation where she exhibited her first big scale installation Once, We Fell from the Sky and Landed in Babel but Instagram also took notice and featured her on their official platform. Balqis is also the first international artist in residence at Utah Museum of Contemporary Art.

From photography, video installation, prints, collages, installations and sculpture, it’s hard to really define Balqis’ specific medium of choice or to define her style. In fact, even labeling herself as an artist is something that Balqis finds potentially problematic.

‘I became an artist when people started perceiving me as one,’ Balqis told The Arab Edition when asked when she knew she was or wanted to be an “artist” and everything label entails.

Labeling Balqis or her work is counterproductive. The moment you see her work in a gallery or on her Instagram account, you are mesmerized out of any preconceived notion of how an “artist” should be creating. Take Balqis’ dancing series, A State of Play which you can see on Instagram. Balqis videos herself in a studio setting or in public, dancing using a hula hoop but dressed in full traditional garb which includes a niqab. Although she is completely covered in black, when she dances there is only a suggestion of how her body is moving and the material of the garb itself. Something that traditionally meant to conceal now flows around her in a sensual way. It’s mesmerizing when you combine this with her use of the hula hoop as a tool which is a stark, somewhat ironic contrast to the austere way she is dressed. 

These ironic and beautifully curated spaces that Balqis explores in her art, it’s perception of it and of herself, is what we discussed with her in our interview.

Balqis Al Rashed Excess Baggage (2017). Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Do you see yourself as an “Arab artist” or a “Saudi artist” or just an artist?
I find labels to be limiting. I prefer to see myself as a malleable energy that is determined by a series of choices and reactions. Despite being defined by some of these labels, I choose to see myself as a human being, existing in contrasts and going in and out of boxes with the goal to experience myself through different situations and perspectives. What I do, does not define me, otherwise I will be a human doer. Being is simply existing in a moment that is defined by my interaction with a particular space and time.


When did you know or decide to become a practicing artist?
I’ve always been practicing my expression through sounds, words, images, movements, and performances since birth. It took me a while to understand, learn, and master the different languages of expression that would enable me to communicate and interact with the world around me… there wasn’t a particular moment when I decided that I am – I’ve always been. There were moments when I was able to surpass the limitations of any given language and express myself the best way I knew how… these are the moments when my expression was effective. I became an artist when people started perceiving me as one. I am an artist at the moment due to the public perception that defined me as such.

Balls Al Rashed’s Once We Fell from the Sky (2015). Photo: Nidal Morra

Dance in an important element in your practice. What is it about this form of expression that you’re attracted to?
Movement is a very powerful mode of expression where a thought or an idea is exerted through a series of animated actions and reactions. Movement, or the lack of it, are choices that describe a relationship between a desired input and output. It becomes a self-orchestrated performance of emotions, thoughts, and perceptions. I tend to see performances as an illusionary interruption of the everyday. It tricks the mind into experiencing concepts like time and space differently. But what drew me most to it, is how intimate it is as an expression, to be fully present in a reincarnated moment or an emotional state, that is able to expand and transform our perception of reality.


How and why did you decide to be dresses in full “traditional” garb as part of your performance pieces?
I incorporated the niqab in my work because of its powerful representation that pertains to many meanings. I’ve always wondered how this piece of fabric could affect me to that extent. I find the niqab to be a very interesting piece of garment. It perplexes me. How can a black piece of garment restrict and allow me, empower and oppress me, protect and expose me, all at the same time? It is fascinating. The niqab gave me a sense of freedom that I didn’t think it can offer, it allowed me to share my self with the world without compromising my identity. The anonymity that the niqab offers has become the embodiment of womanhood in Saudi Arabia. By combining this representation with a child’s toy, I was able to innocently touch on many sensitive subjects that I find necessary to start talking about. The fact that we are asking “why” is a great start. It starts a discourse that is important to have today.

The difference in people’s reaction to the artwork is that I was anonymous the first time around and when instagram featured me on their official platform – it became a different story. I had a face, a name, and an identity. I was no longer a looping void. I was a saudi woman that had something to say.

Tell us about your video series A State of Play
The video series titled A State of Play explores representations and meanings through movement. In this artwork, I was able to combine the hoop, which is essentially a child’s toy, with the veil, which has become the most recognized representation of womanhood and the feminine collective in my culture. That combination was able to collapse time and space, bringing forth the child and the adult to exist in the present moment, fully integrated as one, creating a new entity that exudes freedom and flow.

A State of Play playfully challenges preconceived notions of womanhood, identity, and tradition. It threatens a whole system of inscribed cultural meanings that we still hold on to – what’s left of it at least. I think the artwork created a tension between what is regarded as acceptable. Not only that, the more exposed things are the more they become unacceptable. It is interesting to note that the first released artwork from this series went viral within days from going live, the reaction was not as critical. In fact, people took it lightly, sharing it around, creating their own edits and narratives, consuming it as a weird yet harmless entertainment, and they really had fun with it. The difference in people’s reaction to the artwork is that I was anonymous the first time around and when Instagram featured me on their official platform – it became a different story. I had a face, a name, and an identity. I was no longer a looping void. I was a Saudi woman that had something to say. I also feel that people are quick to be offended by anything that is different. But what is most interesting about this, is how social media is allowing people to express themselves so freely, even if it’s abusive, ignorant, and offensive. I think it’s a cathartic collective expression. We grew up in an environment where we were encouraged to limit self-expression to what is acceptable and allowed. I believe that social media is becoming a realistic depiction of the raging youth. Although social masochism is becoming the norm on social media, it is a great platform to hear the hidden voices from this region.


What’s your process like when you are working on a new project or piece?
It’s hard to specify a medium that defines my art. I tend to be very experimental with my process. I usually allow the context to uncover itself to me. I work intuitively. I get drawn to specific materials, textures, observations or methodologies, whether on a conceptual or practical level. My process tends to be playful and experimental. I enjoy going into projects just like a child would play – with complete wonder and freedom. Of course, my work at times tends to rely on research and a certain extent of intellectualisation, but more or less, playfulness becomes my mechanism for exploration and creation.

Balqis Al Rashed in performance from her work Once We Fell from the Sky (2015). Photo: Nidal Morra

Was it hard as a Saudi (and all the stereotypes that come with it) to decide to become an artist?
It was simple, but it certainly wasn’t easy. Being positioned as an artist implies that I was able to achieve a certain level of liberty from any social, intellectual, and psychological constructs and conditioning. In all cases, I used to find the term ‘Saudi artist’ to be a paradox in itself. Growing up Saudi, we are conditioned to refrain from self-expression in a society that tends to celebrate the group rather than the individual. Yet, an artist is essentially a liberated man/woman that is free to engage themselves to any creative activity.


Can art and politics be separate or is all art political?
I believe that any expression can be interpreted as political, it really depends on the receiver and the interpretation. Any expression has a power to influence the collective narrative.


Has your family been supportive of your career choice? If they haven’t, how have you been dealing with it?
I am fortunate to have been born in a family that put an emphasizes in educating us and raising us to be strong, educated and independent individuals despite the cultural restrictions we existed in. That definitely gave me great opportunities to challenge myself and the context I come from. It’s not easy to be a saudi female artist, yet it’s simple to be myself. It has always been my biggest challenge to be full of myself, full of ideas, opinions, and values that align to who I am as a person and an artist. No matter what I choose to be, my main goal is to remain authentic to who I am regardless of the challenges and conditions that are inscribed to me.

You can follow Balqis Al Rashed on Instagram: @balqis_alrashed

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