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An Art Scene Flourishes Behind Closed Doors In Saudi Arabia

Arwa Alneami's latest art project is called the "Drop Zone," named after the vertical, free-fall amusement park ride.

Her work is made up of photographs and videos from a theme park in her hometown of Abha, in southern Saudi Arabia. The rules for women there have become so strict that the park has signs telling them they can't scream loudly on the rides.

"You should hear the voice of the ladies, they cannot scream," she says, and then imitates the stifled screams of the women clad entirely in black in her videos.

Alneami is a young Saudi artist pushing against the many red lines in the conservative society where she lives. She's not breaking them, she says. She's just reflecting society back on itself.

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Saudi artist Ahmed Mater works in a Jeddah studio. His artwork has been shown in Italy, Paris and London.

Leila Fadel/NPR

She sees herself a bit like the court jesters of old.

"Always they say the truth, but they make you laugh," she says. "That's my way: I say the truth, but make you laugh."

Mohamed Hashem, one of Saudi Arabia's best known musicians, plays the oud, a Middle Eastern lute.

September 8, 2015 | NPR                    

She's married to Ahmed Mater, one of Saudi Arabia's most influential artists. Like his wife, he works in a variety of media — sculpture, video, photography. His works have been shown in Italy, Paris and at the British Museum.

In Jeddah, the two are a bit of an artist power couple.

Their private studio is a gathering place for creatives — something like Gertrude Stein's salon in Paris in the 1920s, except this is Saudi Arabia today, where anything that challenges the accepted religious and political norms is generally done behind closed doors.

"It's a place where we meet and we chat about art and see and create and think about what we're going to do in the future," Mater says, showing me around the studio.