Saudi artist proves disability isn’t any barrier to success

DUBAI: Nujood Al-Otaibi lost her hearing when she was about five years old. In Taif, the area in the Mecca region of Saudi Arabia where she was born, her condition was initially mistaken for a common fever. But as the years went by, her deafness got worse and by the time she graduated from college, she relied almost entirely on hearing aids.

Al-Otaibi credits the lack of public awareness of hearing impairments in the village from which her mother came to her remote location. “Over the years I’ve learned how to read lips, which I think is the conversation of the soul,” Al-Otaibi, who turned 32 last year, told Arab News from her home in Jeddah, the city where she grew up and where now she combines her work as a teaching assistant with her passion for art and design.

Living with disabilities in the Arab world is challenging for many reasons, although governments are increasingly recognizing the rights of people with disabilities. It is believed that social stigma is one reason why only 2 percent of the Arab population live with disabilities, although the corresponding figure for the world population is 6 percent.

The social stigma, in turn, can lead to people with disabilities being disempowered and excluded from public life. Even in Saudi Arabia, where around 7.1 percent of the population struggle, ensuring equal opportunities in education and employment was not a standard practice until recently, according to a survey by the General Bureau of Statistics.

Attitudes are changing, however, thanks in part to the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform plan to uphold the rights of people with disabilities and empower them to shape the country’s economic and social future.

It’s also changing thanks to the creative renaissance that has gripped the kingdom, which has given social issues such as disability a new medium for public expression. For Al-Otaibi, this climate of artistic freedom has enabled her to open up to her own struggles.

For Nujood Al-Otaibi, this climate of artistic freedom has enabled her to open up to her own struggles. (Delivered)

“It’s really difficult in our society. People think there is nothing you can do and that is shameful, ”she said, referring to the condition that people with disabilities often find themselves in.

Unimpressed by these attitudes, Al-Otaibi cites the example of Ludwig van Beethoven, the early 19th century German composer who, despite his severe deafness, remains one of the most admired composers in the history of Western music in his later years.

“I don’t want to suffer. I want to be inspired by someone like Beethoven, who was hearing impaired and yet was one of the best artists of all time. That’s how I want to inspire people – I want to be the best and that won’t stop me. “

Al-Otaibi’s artistic abilities and skills were encouraged early on. “My father is an artist and I remember seeing him paint when I was young,” she said.

“My mom said I was three years old when I started drawing people, and she remembered drawing my aunt’s hair and my uncle’s belly. Nobody knew that one day I would become an artist, but my father was the only one who encouraged me to keep painting. “

She soon found inspiration in hyper-realistic movement, a genre of painting and sculpture that looks like a high-resolution photograph on the surface, but upon closer inspection captures a deeper emotional narrative.

One of Al-Otaibi’s most recent works, “The Heart of the Kingdom,” is an oil painting depicting the flag of Saudi Arabia in the shape of a heart against a black background. The brushwork on the canvas is so precise that the green fabric appears almost real.

At the age of 16, Al-Otaibi made her first oil painting entitled “Peace”, which combined the flags of three countries in the Middle East. Another of her pictures showed the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Both of them proved problematic when it came to showing them publicly. “It was really sad,” she said. “Back then, people had no idea of ​​the importance of art. Art has been very limited in Saudi Arabia in the past. “

However, these early setbacks were not enough to suppress or destroy their creativity. After graduating from school in Jeddah, Al-Otaibi moved to the United States, where she studied art and design in Wisconsin for eight years. Here she explored her love for hyperrealism and began to turn to other painting styles.

In “Heart of the Kingdom” the brushwork on the canvas is so precise that the green fabric appears almost real. (Delivered)

After an internship in the USA, she returned to Saudi Arabia to work at the American International School of Jeddah. As her hearing loss worsened, her desire to help others with disabilities grew.

“I wanted to be in a community where I could help children with disabilities like me and help them achieve their academic goals,” she said. “So I decided to make art and help children believe in themselves, especially people with disabilities, because it’s very hard and people don’t shed any light on it, especially in the Kingdom.”

As a teaching assistant specializing in assisted learning, Al-Otaibi helps her students identify their goals and make their dreams come true. “I struggle with that,” she said. “This is what will keep you moving in life and I feel that it is my goal.”

Article 26 of the Basic Law of Saudi Arabia, the main legal document in the Kingdom, promotes the elimination of prejudice and discrimination on all grounds, including disability. The rights of people with disabilities are covered under a legal framework that includes systems of medical care, social services, work, criminal procedure, right of origin, social security, retirement and communication.

There are also a number of state and civil society institutions dedicated to protecting the rights of people with disabilities, including government agencies and nonprofits such as the National Society for Human Rights and the King Salman Center for Disability Research.

In Saudi Arabia’s increasingly tolerant and inclusive atmosphere, Al-Otaibi has seen her artistic career flourish. She passed a significant personal milestone when Jeddah’s Athr gallery showed one of her paintings – a self-reflection affected by her hearing loss.

“I never expected that one day I would show my artwork depicting my disability,” she said.

“I wanted to realize my idea by presenting myself without a face and showing my ear in different objects,” she said. “It was inspired by the artist Rene Magritte – I love his style and his work and the way he expresses his feelings.”

Like the most famous painting by the Belgian surrealist, “The Son of Man”, in which a floating green apple largely obscures a man’s face, Al-Otaibi’s work shows a strange, geometric dream world.

Near the center of the canvas, a hollow pink headscarf frames a deep blue void instead of a face, surrounded by walls, windows, and ghostly figures with their backs turned. On the right is a disembodied diagram of the inner ear.

The piece is a departure from their usual attachment to hyperrealism – but it’s still laden with the same cutting social comment, in this case perhaps a criticism of the social isolation of living with a disability.

Although Al-Otaibi is now looking forward to her first solo exhibition in Riyadh in 2021, the details of which will be announced soon on her Instagram page, she says her greatest joy is seeing her students take inspiration from her work, which shows that disabilities should not be seen as an obstacle to success.

“They know my disability and are curious about my hearing aid. They understand that some people have such problems and that it’s okay,” she said.

“I’m really glad that the younger generation won’t see this as something new or strange anymore.”

Twitter: @CalineMalek

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