Art Education and the New Knowledge Economy in Saudi Arabia 

By Sara Albadi

I spent most of my life in Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia. As a child, I grew up with a passion for art and started creating artworks from an early age. I studied in a private school for my elementary, secondary and post secondary education, which unfortunately did not offer any art classes. Although most private schools offer art classes, there are some exceptions like my school. In general, in Saudi Arabia, it is rare for schools to not offer art classes and is a mandatory subject in public schools. Public schools are under the Ministry of Education, which mandates art as a compulsory subject in the school curriculum. Private schools are independent from the Ministry, therefore have their own curriculum, and while they have their own merit, some do not offer art.  

Since my school did not provide opportunities to learn art, I worked on my own, both outside the school and in my house. I was fortunate to have very supportive parents, so I attended many out-of school programs from a young age that aimed at developing children’s abilities and skills related to art. My parents encouraged my efforts and instilled many qualities in me, which allowed me to think outside the box and try different things. They gave me a desktop computer when I was in my fourth grade, which was exceptionally rare in those days, as only few children had the privilege of having personal computers. Apart from trying out traditional art techniques such as using paints and brushes, I started playing with painting related software programs such as Paint that was available in those days. Thus, my experience of using technology in relation to art learning and art making came from a very early age. Being a minor though, this was one of the few programs that I was allowed to access. Later, when we had Internet access, my parents immediately connected my personal computer to the Internet. For a self-learner in the arts, with no formal art instruction in school, this was a major shift in my art learning process. I first learnt how to use the Internet and then use it to teach myself different art techniques. I was always eager to learn about art, and feed my intellect with as many art and design techniques as I could find on the Internet. 

Figures 1 and 2:Traditional oil painted Setting lamp, made out of a guard with ceramic stand (2006)

While self-learning art, I always dreamt of majoring in art in a college, so I waited to graduate from high school to start learning art in a formal environment. I therefore joined King Abdulaziz University for a Bachelor’s degree in Islamic Art Education, which was one of the few prominent art related degree courses that were offered. When I began attending classes, I realized that my peers were more advanced in professional art techniques than I was. This was because most of my peers graduated from public schools, where they learnt art as a required subject. This gap made me explore and evaluate the art education curriculum in public schools. I consulted Hind Mohammed Alharbi, a former teacher and the president of activities at Seventy Eight Middle School in Jeddah, to better understand art education in public schools and hence, the gap I was experiencing. 

Alharbi mentioned that in most public schools, art classes are generally for 90 minutes each week. Each class approximately has thirty-eight students and the schools have about one to three art teachers each. Most K-12 art teachers in Jeddah at least hold a bachelor’s degree in art from a university or college. Teacher training in the arts also varies in different institutions and has changed with time. For example, prior to 2011, the College of Education focused on teaching Art and required 2 years of training in a public school. While Art Education in King Abdulaziz University focused on teaching art for art educators without offering training. However, students learnt to produce art and also study education and teaching. After 2011, both the college and the university merged into one organization and they both cancelled their Art Education programs to focus one Fine Arts. 


Figures 3: Glazed Ceramic Bowl, 45x55cm (2005) and Figure 4: Saudi Dancers on Leather 90x120 cm (2007)

In public schools, the Ministry of education provides clear curricular goals and guidelines for K-12 Level, including the arts. The Ministry decides what should be taught and also provides free textbooks to all students. In middle school for example, the required textbook is Art Education, which aims to enable students to focus on their skills and enhance their abilities to design products that are both usable as well as artistic. Art education also focuses on the history of various traditional and contemporary art techniques and materials. Students learn to work on a wide variety of materials such as ceramics, printing, woodcarving, designing, calligraphy and weaving to produce cultural artefacts, learn the cultural vocabulary of these artworks and also the economic benefits of making art. In the recent years, with technology use becoming more and more common, especially by youth and children, art education also extends to the use of creating media such as videos.

It is a common practice in Saudi Arabia to also have art competitions and exhibitions not only for students of art in higher education but also for children of all ages. In a recent example, the King Abdulaziz University organized a video competition, titled ‘Walking on Green’, open for children from 5 to 15 years, with the aim of spreading environmental awareness and promoting an interest towards environmental sustainability.  It is also a common practice for both private and public schools to encourage students of all ages to attend art competitions and exhibitions. 

Figure 5: Magnified image of part of "My Stamp" Paper collage, 120x100cm (2008)

In hindsight, I realize that despite all my efforts to self-learn in the arts, studying art in school within a structured curriculum is very important for the development of learning art abilities and knowledge of different techniques that only an art teacher can help the student learn. While the Internet provided information and knowledge about many forms of art and techniques, there were few options to self-teach art that are as effective as what a structured art curriculum can do for a student. However, I feel that although self-learning art was a difficult process, it was also a rewarding one because of the difference between how art is learnt in some schools and what self-learning helped me achieve – through what I would call ‘learning to learn art’. This not only includes schools in Saudi Arabia, but also in most Western art curricular methods.

Many students are encouraged to make art in a sequential progression from simple to complex techniques. This progression makes learning techniques an easy process, as children learn step by step. However, I started learning with difficult techniques and also difficult courses (in my undergraduate program), despite the fact that I had fewer technical abilities than my peers when I started. This approach to learning from complex at first easily helped me understand what I could grasp easily and what I needed to put more effort in. This way, I spent less time and effort in learning techniques that came very easily to me and spent more time and effort in working on techniques that I felt were challenging to me. 

Figures 6: Paper Collages "Najid" 120x100cm (2008) and Figure 7: "My Stamp" 120x100cm (2008) 

This approach of working with complex things first, that are challenging also helped me in another way. I haven’t stopped making art to date since I graduated from my bachelor’s degree, but most of my peers haven’t produced much art after they finished, because of the idea that the ‘best work has been done’ and there is nothing more challenging to explore. In fact, I made some of my most successful and accomplished works after I graduated. This idea of working with complex techniques, as opposed to easy to grasp techniques motivated me to create visually interesting artworks that was accessible to a large number of audience, including those who did not speak my language. The fact that my background lacked simple techniques did not prevent me from becoming an artist and I believe that taking this challenge in the beginning of my undergraduate experience made every subsequent challenge easier.

Back in College, after realizing the gap between my peers and myself in terms of art techniques, in my second year, I registered for an evening art course in an art institution that offered classes thrice a week. That extra effort helped, as by the end of the semester in my college, I was at par with my peers. In college, I tried to fulfil all my dreams of art making that I missed in school. I had the opportunity to experiment with different materials, even those that are not offered in school. This is because, even though the undergraduate program is called Islamic Art Education, the program offered knowledge of Contemporary art, apart from traditional Islamic art. 

Figure 8: Vice President of the Ministry of Fine Arts in Saudi Arabia interacting with the "Najd" collage

Through that program, I studied Islamic art, Western art history, contemporary studio practices in ceramics, drawing, illustration, design as well as courses that bridge Education with contemporary arts. In the course, there was a strong emphasis on making art that was consumable. So for example, in my initial years I worked a lot with ceramics and when I made a bowl, it was not only artistically made but was also a consumable product that could be practically used (see Figure 3), or when I made ceramic jewellery (inspired by African art), they were as functional as jewellery made from other materials. 

We were also encouraged to use traditional materials that have historical significance within our art and culture in Saudi Arabia; such as a guard (which is a vegetable) or leather. I made several art works using guards, such as a lamp, which was artistic and functional (see Figures 1& 2). It required cleaning the guard from inside, then smoothening it from outside and making angular holes in a way so as to allow light to pass through, with many carved figures on the exterior part of the guard.  In another artwork made from leather, I made women dancing and rejoicing with the symbol of a half man, which signifies our cultural value that ‘men are always there to protect women in Saudi Arabia’ (see Figure 4). Each year, King Abdulaziz University holds an annual exhibition, which is competitive; art works are juried before they can be exhibited and only works that show a high quality of workmanship are exhibited. It is typical for a Prince or Princess of Saudi Arabia to open the exhibition and also buy art works that appeal to them to support the students. In one such exhibition, I was honoured that Princess Seta bin Abdullah Al-Saud, daughter of King Abdullah, bought a large chair that I made out of a guard. 

Figure 9: "Knowledge Economy": Anamorphic Art with Collage 75x70cm (2008)

We also had opportunities to curate our own shows and I curated a painting exhibition ‘True Reflection’ with the support of our mentors and peers, which was not only successful but also a turning point in my artistic career. While I made artworks using both traditional and non-traditional techniques, after this exhibition I realized that I wanted to focus on a particular style of making art, which was influenced by contemporary art practices and by the concept of our new economic system in Saudi Arabia, which is the New Knowledge Economy. The “old” economic system in Saudi Arabia was based on economic resources such as money, land & workers, petroleum, agriculture, tourism, holy places and seaports. The “new economic system” goes beyond these tangible resources to include intangible ones such as “knowledge”, “creativity” and “innovation”.

This shift in emphasis from a purely functional approach to art in view of its economic benefits changed my perspective to create art that had knowledge embedded in it, which was creative and innovative in a way that was not done before. It motivated me to improve my art technique to make anamorphic collage art, in which the audience interacted with the artwork using some object or using technology as well as by movement and also learn the information embedded in the artwork. In this way, I could also communicate with my viewers. Incidentally, in 2008, the Saudi government organized an art competition on the subject of our ‘new economic system’ the Knowledge Economies. Competitors were specifically asked to present works of art that could speak for itself for a large audience that include both Saudis as well as non-Saudis. 

In one artwork, which was also my graduating artwork, I made "My Stamp" a huge thumb stamp print (see Figures 5 & 7), filled with small images about me. The viewer of this artwork needs to hold a magnifying glass that is hung with the painting. This allows the viewer to look closely with the artwork, and interact with it. This artwork was also selected for the King Abdulaziz University annual exhibition and received positive response from the audience. Following the success of my artwork, I made another artwork using the same technique. It was "Najid" (see Figure 6), a huge collage of a girl wearing traditional Saudi clothes. The girl was filled with multiple images that illustrated the place where I grew up. The top of the head, had images of Kings and princes of Saudi Arabia, the hair had images of rural towns around my city, the face had traditional material that Saudis have historically used and continue to do so, the dark part of the dress has images of old monuments, and so on. All these images were very small, and required the viewer to hold a magnifying glass and interact with the artwork, while learning about many historical, social and cultural things related to the artwork. This artwork was also submitted for a competition organized by a non-profit organisation and I received the first prize of $19,000 and a gold Astrolabe.

Figure 10: The "Kiswa of the Ka’ba" Anamorphic Art Collage with embedded QR Codes 65x45cm (2012)

In another artwork, "Knowledge Economy" (see Figure 9) I made a collage on a canvas that shows some of the primary economic resources for Saudi Arabia. The canvas has a metal object onto which the collage images are reflected. What is reflected is a three-dimensional picture of a new city in Saudi Arabia that is based on the new economic standards of knowledge, creativity and innovation. This artwork was a way to incorporate my styles of working with collage, anamorphic art as well as making viewers interact with my work. In 2012, I completed another work similar to this concept of Knowledge Economics especially with the concept of “innovation” in mind, and with regard to technology use. In contemporary times, even young children and youth are heavy users of technology and in some cases more technologically literate than adults. In this artwork,"Kiswa of the Ka’ba", (see Figures 10 & 11), I collaged small images of manuscripts of the Ka’ba (a holy house of Muslims) throughout history. Both Muslim and non-Muslim artists have painted these manuscripts. I filled the canvas with these images of the manuscripts and added QR codes (Quick Response Codes). 

Figure 11:Magnified image of “The Kiswa of the Ka’ba” with metal ball showing the reflected image of Ka’ba

In order to read these QR codes, viewers need to use Smartphones. Smartphones have applications to read QR codes and these codes are used worldwide to share information. In the artwork, the first QR code takes you to a YouTube video that shows why Makkah (The City of the Holy House) and the Ka’ba are important to us, as Muslims, especially in Saudi Arabia. The second QR code brings viewers to my signature and information about me as the artist of this work. The viewer will also be able to see a contemporary image of the Ka’ba, when they look at the stainless steel bowl. Here again, I integrated the collage style work with anamorphic art and technology integration. Viewers interact with the artwork in different ways. They need to look closely to be able to see the small manuscripts. They need to direct their view specifically to the reflection of the collage work to be able to see a contemporary image of the Ka’ba and finally, they use Smartphones, which is a contemporary common technology used both in Saudi Arabia and outside to be able to scan the codes and learn more information about the artwork. 

In conclusion I would say that this concept of the New Knowledge Economy has shifted the process of art making and therefore also art learning and art education. The underlying aim of art education to use skills and abilities to make artistic and functional products is now added with the ideas of knowledge, creativity and innovation, which has implications in the kinds of art that children and adults now produce, and will continue to produce in Saudi Arabia.  This shift will also influence teacher education in the arts to expand the ephasis on art and education to include knowledge, innovation and creativity, and also influence what is expected from art teachers in schools, in the new economic system of Saudi Arabia. 


About the Author

Sara Albadi is an artist and art educator. She has a B.A in Islamic Art Education from King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, an MA in Art Education, and an MA in Art History from Indiana University, USA. For more information, please contact Sara Albadi