The Saudi street artist speaking truth to power

Saudi street artist Ms Saffaa uses murals to portray her home country’s brave women activists. She speaks to Alessio Perrone about creating a different narrative for Saudi women and the important role art plays in her life and in helping to overcome fear.


Alessio: You first came under the spotlight for your ‘I am my own guardian’ murals. The series depicted women wearing traditional male headdresses in protest against Saudi laws that subject women to the authority of a male guardian. What inspired it?

Ms Saffaa: I come from an open-minded family, and I had never felt the impact of guardianship laws until I came to Sydney, Australia. I got a scholarship from the Saudi government, and one of the conditions is that women are meant to have male guardians with them. I didn’t have one with me, so they threatened to suspend my scholarship until my male guardian arrived in Sydney. That’s what inspired the work.

The only other time guardianship laws affected me was after my image went viral and I was reported to Saudi authorities. I tried to renew my passport in 2016, and was told I had to go back to Saudi Arabia to do it. By then I was a political dissident, and they were probably trying to get me back home to ban me from travel or imprison me.

‘I am my own guardian’ was shared widely by activists on social media. It even helped name a 2016 feminist movement against guardianship laws. How do you evaluate the movement three years on?

It was quite fascinating because, in Saudi Arabia, mobilizing on the ground is illegal – protests are considered a sin against God. This was online organizing.

It brought guardianship laws to the attention of the West. For a long time, the driving ban was the quintessential symbol of the oppression of women. But since ‘I am my own guardian’, people started understanding that there are far more important issues – I’ve always believed that revoking guardianship laws is way more important than allowing women to drive.

What’s the point if I am allowed to drive, but then my male guardian can sue me for disobedience and I go to jail? What good is driving going to do for me?

Recently, the women who have been involved in the movement and in advocating to allow women to drive – Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef – have been imprisoned and tortured, as is well documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Has this made social media an integral part of your art?

Absolutely. Social media gave my work a platform. I live in Australia but speak to a diverse geopolitical audience, and I’m far removed from Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. How else would I be able to get my voice across?

Social media allows me to reach out to people and bypass [those] who control media – the gatekeepers. I don’t even like to exhibit in galleries any more, I only do a couple of shows per year.

What makes a good subject for you?

I like portraying women who either faced hardship in their lives, or have an interesting story to tell.

You’ve said in the past that ‘if art is not subversive, I’m not interested’. Can you tell us why?

If it’s not subversive, if you’re not challenging the status quo, if you’re not creating something new or imagining alternatives to a grim reality, what are you doing? You’re just mirroring reality. That’s not interesting to me. I can see reality, I can see how grim it is. I want something that helps me imagine a better world – more empowered women or communities.

Art should be able to piss people off. If your work is not pissing people off, I don’t think it’s good work!

You also said that your art is a way of proving that you exist. Why do you need to prove it?

It’s a way of proving that there are different kinds of Saudi women. There are different identities that need to be portrayed.

Just a few years ago, you would only see Saudi women dressed in black from head to toe in Western media. Now you google ‘Saudi women’ and some of my images come up! And you will see that there’s a lot more colour when Saudi women portray themselves.

There are a lot of women who dress in black from head to toe, either because they’re forced to dress that way or because they choose to. But that isn’t me! My head is shaved, I dress in colours, I wear shorts and sunglasses, I skate, I hula-hoop – I do a lot of different things. And every time I googled Saudi women I didn’t see myself reflected in there. As if I didn’t exist.

Is there something that feminists in other parts of the world could learn from Saudi feminists?

I don’t know if they could learn from us, but I think we need to start speaking to each other. We need to start exchanging notes, we need to start opening lines of communication, and to stop criticizing each other.

You paint women, but you also tend to mostly collaborate with other female artists. What motivates you to do it?

I can’t represent everyone. I don’t have the ability – and I shouldn’t be able to – represent everyone. I’m not African American, I can’t represent African-American women! I can’t even represent all Saudi women – I can’t represent Saudi disabled women or trans women.

So I reach out to people from these groups to represent their own problems – their own women. Collaborating with other artists from different backgrounds, countries, ages and orientations brings more depth to my work, more authority about the subject. So it’s not one-dimensional. 

What makes street art your preferred form of art?

It’s the perfect medium for the messages I send to the world, because it’s accessible and political. I don’t need permission from an institution to show something – I just go to a building, ask the owner, bypass the gatekeepers of art institutions and create my own stuff, without being curated by someone. Without being told what to do, censored or controlled. 

One of your most recent works is a portrait of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, on which you worked with Molly Crabapple. His death must have shocked you. How did Saudi activists react?

Honestly, it shook me to the ground. When he disappeared, deep down in my heart I knew he was dead. It shook many of us to the core. It scared activists who weren’t scared before. Now we’re all looking over our shoulders.

I think it was a deliberate message, telling us that no matter where you are – you think you’re in a safe haven – you’re not safe. And I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel safe at all. When the news came out that Khashoggi had been murdered, and brutally, I didn’t sleep for three weeks.

Then when I made [his portrait], it was cathartic. His was the first portrait I’ve done of a male activist. I felt a lot better. And I was able to sleep.

I wasn’t sure if I should make the artwork. But if I didn’t do it, no-one else would. There aren’t many Saudi artists with the kind of platform I have who are political. So I felt like it was my responsibility as an artist and a vocal activist.

I’m not going to let fear cripple me, because fear has crippled Saudi people for a long time, and for them [the Saudi authorities] to send us a message that we’re not safe... They can send whatever messages they want, but I’m going to keep on doing what I do. And I’m going to send my own messages. I want to inspire other Saudi artists. I want to inspire the younger generations to do what they believe they were put on this earth to do.