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Today Saudi Arabia is becoming a new art destination in the Gulf, but Muhannad Shono began his career when the creative economy was not a domain to be celebrated in the kingdom. Muhannad has converted his personal struggles as a naturalized citizen and an outsider into distinctive artwork. Growing up in Saudi Arabia facing identity issues and harboring a love of storytelling, Muhannad has reimagined the social narratives that he grew up hearing. Through his art, he creates an alternative world for himself where he can narrate his own stories of displacement and belonging. AGSIW spoke with Muhannad about his creations, the struggles of early Saudi artists, and identity narratives in Saudi Arabia.
AGSIW: Describe the art scene in Saudi Arabia when you first started. How did you become an artist?
Muhannad: When I finished high school, I wanted to make art and study sequential storytelling, as I was obsessed with creating worlds that helped me process my reality through fiction. I was very much into creating characters and a new world for them. The opportunity to study in the U.S. was not available back then. So, I chose to study architecture at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, as it was the closest thing to creativity and art that I could find in Saudi Arabia at the time. I graduated from KFUPM in 1995, the year the Internet began to flow into the country and opened it to the world.
After I graduated I came back to Riyadh and worked for three years creating graphic novels with a local writer. Back then comic books were not popular and there were no sections for comic books in bookstores. The first book we made was censored because one of the characters was a witch, and we were told “magic is forbidden.” Booksellers would not display our hardcover comic books on their shelves because “your magazine is very expensive” we were informed. There were few avenues for local creativity to find its place or access to an audience. So eventually I left Saudi Arabia as I felt that I had to open myself to the world and learn from others.
When I came back in 2015, I found Saudi Arabia very, very different – like returning to consciousness after a 10-year sleep. I never imagined that there would be a burgeoning art scene let alone one that I could potentially be a part of. I did not know any of the names of the big artists at the time who started the art movement and I was still trying to find my way transitioning from comic books into new ways of expression, expanding the way I could retell stories. So, that was a very exciting time and I made a lot of close friends in the art scene in Saudi Arabia. Fortunate opportunities led me to a solo show at Athr Gallery in 2016, and I have been with them ever since. And from there on it has been an unexpectedly fulfilling and ever-expanding journey.
AGSIW: One of your artworks is “Children of Yam.” Can you tell us about it and why you chose “Yam” in the title?
Muhannad: I grew up as Saudi but I am a naturalized citizen. My parents grew up from migrant stalk in Syria, my father (originally from Chechnya) and my mother (originally Circassian) are not originally Saudi. I had no connection to their past and am searching for roots in my present. I was always questioned in school about my roots, my father insisting I reply to them “I’m Saudi,” so I was always aware of my displacement. During my work in comics, I remember being instructed to draw an Arab-looking character. I was told the hero needed to have more Arab features, features I did not see in myself. I could not be the hero in the stories I wanted to create in the Arab countries, or so I thought. This idea that I look different continued this questioning of the narrative of identity and place within a system or place that was reflected in my artwork.
So, in the “Children of Yam,” Yam is the fourth son of the Prophet Noah. He is the one who refused to get into the ark with his father and went to the mountain to save himself from the flooding. To me, Yam was always an interesting character even though he was always depicted as somebody who did not follow his father’s message, because he was thinking differently, and he took a risk. He ended up as an example of a refugee trying to escape some sort of event that was out of his hands. The stories tell us about Noah’s three other sons (Sam, Ham, and Japheth) who were allegedly the fathers of the different races that the people of the world came from. So, in my work I imagined that Yam actually survived; and I tell the story of his children as the migrants, as the displaced.
AGSIW: Your last project is a video and sculptural installation: “Al-Ashirah” or “the Tribe.” What is this artwork about?
Muhannad: It is about our tribal narratives: the nature of stories that we share within our communities, and how we organize as a species through narratives. I am fascinated with the social systems of our species and how we chose to adopt or stumble into certain stories or beliefs. How these narratives spread within our communities and how they may change. In “Al-Ashirah,” the work assumes a future where narrative has been deemed dangerous and leading to the destruction of our species. So the story goes …
AGSIW: Your artwork “Sorry from Above” is titled with GPS coordinates of different places in the world. What are these places and what are you trying to address in this project?
Muhannad: This project came to me during the making of “Children of Yam.” The technique I used was spilling ink on a page in ways that I was not able to control. The white paper became the land and the place we come from. The ink was the force that was out of my control that caused our migration or displacement. When the ink dried I searched for stories and illustrated them within the ink. I searched for events I was aware of that had happened in a far-off place in the world and I felt helpless about. For instance, the drowning of Alan Kurdi the Syrian refugee, the massacre of the Kurds in Halabja, Nauru island off of Australia where refugees are kept sometimes up to three or four years, and the separation wall that surrounds the West Bank in Palestine. I titled each one of these stories with the GPS coordinate of the place where this incident had happened. We look at the artwork from above, and sympathize from a distance.
AGSIW: Most of the characters in your work do not have heads or are faceless. Why is that?
Muhannad: I could place myself more naturally in the work and tackle the issue of identity through the absence of the face. If we can each drop the mask of identity and race, we can detach ourselves from our self-imposed systems of control and group affiliations.
AGSIW: Most of your artworks speak of displacement, immigration, of not belonging. Do you still feel apart from Saudi Arabia?
Muhannad: I don’t agree that the work is mostly about those topics. I feel that I am more comfortable now with who I am within the Saudi narrative. I feel more acceptance or an indifference to my origins. The Saudi creative scene grew and matured as we reached out and embraced the world. The country itself has changed and has become less trapped within the norms we were told we had to stay within. While growing up I felt isolated, but now I feel more included and more a part of a different kind of spirit.
AGSIW: You are now more involved in the Saudi art scene. Can you evaluate it?
Muhannad: The changes in the art scene have been very quick and the opportunities quite significant. The struggle for the freedom to express and create does not end because of more access to funding. With all this new support there is a risk of a dilution of message, exploitation of creative energy, and the dumbing down of art to cultural motifs and national identity. But I have faith from what I have seen that our art scene is strong and confident, stubborn, and fearless with powerful stories yet to be told.
To learn more about Muhannad’s work, visit his website.
is an MPhil/PhD student in the anthropology department at University College London and a non-resident fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.
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