The road to becoming an artist is never an easy path. For Filwa Nazer, it wasn’t a path but rather a series of steps that led to her becoming one of Saudi Arabia’s most noteworthy conceptual artists practicing today.
Over the past year, Nazer has been hard at work producing artworks for exhibitions in her hometown of Jeddah, including 21, 39, during which emerging talent from the region are given curatorial attention, and preparing works that are on view now at Art Dubai, the Middle East’s most attended art fair.
Nazer’s art spans multiple genres from collage to textiles, her now-preferred medium and one she’s well acquainted with. She is currently working with fabric to produce large sculptural installations, after having used textiles for years as a fashion designer to make clothes.
Although she had wanted to pursue art from an early age, Nazer’s meandering path to fulfilling her dream first took her to Marangoni fashion school in Milan in the early 1990s.
“There was no art education in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Saudi Arabia,” she says. “The only way I could study abroad and explore my interests in art was by getting into fashion school. I didn’t even know then how to properly prepare a portfolio to apply to art school, but we were also encouraged to do something ‘useful,’ something that’s considered a proper job with regular income. Becoming an artist was something you did on the side.”
“We didn’t have an art scene like what you see now,” she says. “A few pioneering female painters held an exhibition in the 1960s. “I can only imagine how these women struggled to continue painting, and to do it in a country where there was no cultural landscape.”
Nazer’s training in one of the world’s most prestigious fashion schools has translated well into her current body of work. Despite a successful career in the fashion industry, both in London and with her own line of kaftans in Jeddah, her focus has always been on improving her skills as an artist.
During summers and time spent in London, Nazer regularly enrolled in life drawing and painting courses to supplement courses taken at a foundation run by the prominent Saudi artist Safeya Binzagr.
Despite a career in the fashion industry that kept her busy, Nazer sought to develop her art through her reading, travel and day-to-day activities, but didn’t want to run the risk of stopping her day job just yet.
She showed her works to her current gallerist, Qaswra Hafez of Hafez Gallery, who suggested she show them to Samia Khashoggi, who was curating an all women exhibition at the gallery. Khashoggi included two of her works in the show Anonymous Was a Woman.
Nazer also found support in other female curators, including Lina Lazaar, the Tunisian curator and head of the Lazaar Foundation, who was based in Jeddah at the time.
She continued to work on her collages, utilizing appropriated images and texts, and came to consider alternative mediums to work with after a trip to Documenta, the contemporary art fair based in Kassel, Germany, during which she encountered textile-based works. Setting her sights on working with a material she was familiar with, she started to conceptualize work that she deemed thematically close to her heart.
“I like all my work to come from a personal place,” she says, “because I believe the more authentic the work is, the more people can connect to the work on some level.”
“The more you’re exposed, the more you evolve and get curious about all kinds of teachings. I was fascinated by the bigger picture of art and not just technique and craft like I was when I was younger.”
Thus began Nazer’s arrival to her current work: a series of large muslin “skirts,” objects akin to garments that hang with a majestic sense of volume.
Titled The Skin I live In, the series was first shown at Hafez Gallery in Jeddah and later at the Hafez Gallery booth at Art Dubai, which runs through March 23.
In these works, Nazer explores the spaces, both literal and metaphorical, that she inhabits. Using the fabric that covers construction sites and half-abandoned buildings in Saudi Arabia, she has transformed a material most commonly associated with construction sites and buildings into something delicate and feminine. When viewed up close, patterns of embroidery are visible. The subtly embellished pieces prompt one to think about the history of needlework crafts, and how traditional embroidery patterns and techniques—also visible on traditional dress in Saudi Arabia—are being preserved.
Her works aren’t visually obtuse conceptual works, but rather, can be enjoyed purely for their delightful visual curiosity, and the manner in which they beckon to the viewer, tempting one to come close and to step into the works themselves.
Nazer’s works are a statement about the notion of skins, both literal and metaphorical, which are worn. “We wear clothes to protect ourselves but also to express ourselves,” says Nazer, and with these works, she adroitly manipulates an unusual medium to evoke the oftentimes invisible protective spaces we construct around ourselves.
Internalizing socio-political occurrences, her latest series comes from her contemplations about the way in which she has learned to connect with herself and the interior space she inhabits emotionally and psychologically.
Aesthetically this series is collage-like too: delicate, transparent with a little twist of tension, showing a marked departure from her previous collages and evolving into work that is more conceptually original and mature.
Nazer is looking forward to a residency at the Sharjah Art Foundation this summer, and talks of her inclusion in regional biennials have already started. Citing excitement for the future of art in Saudi Arabia, which she has watched evolve and grow in recent years, she will undoubtedly be playing a big role in the regional art scene.