Jul 25, 2013

Women Majlis Painters in Saudi Arabia: Making the Center of their Homes Beautiful

In Asir, Saudi Arabia there are women who paint the majlis (the parlor of a Saudi home, the room where the guests are taken) with beautiful patterns of lines, squares, figures, triangles, and numerous oddities on the walls around the entire room.  At first glance, I thought that I was looking at something that would have been created by Native Americans, they used many of the same designs in their artisic creations.  I am mesmorized with the intricate geometric patterns and bright colors which are used in the Arab home.  They speak to me about the inhabitants of the place and it should. Women in general thrive being surrounded by beauty. About 40 years ago the women didn't veil that much and many made a living as a majalis, going from home to home making each one beautiful.   Can you imagine doning an abaya, hijab, and gloves to be able to express yourself artistically?  Yet many women do and I say a "big" bravo to them.  The Arabic term for these kinds of paintings are called nagash in Asir, Saudi Arabia.

Before commercial paint arrived in the area about 75 years ago, the women used natural sources for their colors.  Brown came from the sap of the somgha tree, which in spring the color was light brown and in summer and winter it turned dark brown. Rocks were crushed and the dust was used for various colors and certain mountains in the area have yellow stones to make a yellow-gold color.  I can almost bet that spices and vegetables were used for colors as well, such as turmeric for yellow and beet juice for a berry color. 

According to Wikipedia,  “Some of the large triangles represent mountains. Zigzag lines stand for water and also for lightning. Small triangles, especially when the widest area is at the top, are found in pre-Islamic representations of female figures. That the small triangles found in the wall paintings in ‘Asir are called banat may be a cultural remnant of a long-forgotten past.” In a recent article from Saudi Aramco World,  Fatima Abou Gahas and Um Abdullah are two women who are famous for their Nagash paintings.  Fatima passed away a couple of years ago, she was believed to have been close to 100 years old.

Preservation of this wonderful art is currently being attempted. A Cooperative of about 20 women has opened and the nagash paintings are being revived for future generations to enjoy.  Personally, I really love art and I am all for it being kept alive. 

Abha Palace Hotel, Saudia Arabia, One of Fatima Abou Gahas Final Works of Art