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Transcending Boundaries: An Interview with Aljohara Jeje

Meet Aljohara Jeje, the internationally acclaimed artist whose life journey has taken her from Europe to various corners of the world, ultimately leading her to settle in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Her work, born from keen observations across cultures, has garnered widespread recognition and commissions, both locally and globally. Aljohara's art encapsulates the essence of contemporary Saudi Arabia while honouring its rich history and traditions. In this interview, we delve into her unique perspective and award-winning creations Double Dutch and /pəˈfɔːm(ə)ns/.

2 October 2023

Joana Alarcão

Can you begin by telling us your background and the steps you took to become the artist you are today?

Grandmother von Sonn’s Creative Legacy. My paternal grandmother possessed an exceptional creative spirit, and I vividly remember how she introduced me to the world of art. I must have been three or four years old when she seated me next to her on a small stool in her cosy living room, guiding me in the delicate crafts of sewing, knitting, embroidery, and even sock mending. She instilled in me the notion that even when darning holes in socks (on a horribly slippery wooden egg) one could do so artistically. Her adage has remained with me throughout my life: 'To create something from nothing, that's the essence of art. Anyone can make something with something, but to conjure something from nothing, that is the true art.'

Ever since I have had a passion for creation and invention. For the circus in the garden, I designed acrobatic performances for the group of friends, and pets, imagined how magician's tricks could work, and constructed fabulous tents. For our neighbourhood children's theatre in the garage, I enthusiastically penned scripts and meticulously brought stage designs to life. As a child, I harboured dreams of becoming an inventor later, and I could be terribly jealous of people like Edison, the inventor of the light bulb because now I could not invent the light bulb anymore and enlighten society. Still, the spirit of invention never left and always burns within me.

At the age of twelve, I developed a keen interest in fashion. I would flip through fashion magazines, using them as examples to show my parents what styles I liked. I was convinced that they would be thrilled to see their only daughter finally taking an interest in becoming a more refined and feminine young woman. To my surprise, they refused outright to finance my feminine fashion ideas. Still, undeterred I began to create my own clothes, or purchased prêt-à-porter items from regular shops that I then remodelled to suit my sense of fashion.

One evening, we were sitting at the dinner table when my father asked me what I would like to study. Naturally, I responded with 'arts.' This choice was never in doubt in my mind, but my father almost choked on his potato. He looked at me, shocked, and after recovering his breath, he fixed me with his piercing eyes. 'My precious darling daughter, please, do study something decent,' he said. 'Even in science or engineering one needs to have creativity to thrive.' Afterwards, he took his time and convinced me to study something 'decent,' with the promise that, once I finished a respectable course of study, I could pursue whatever I wanted after. He didn't differentiate between his three sons and his daughter, though at the time, I didn't fully appreciate his quest as I do now. His only desire was, as he put it, to ensure that in case I needed to earn a living for myself, I had something to fall back on that would secure an income and maintain my independence.

So, among the most creative studies within science and engineering were architecture or product design. Architecture wasn't technical enough for me, so I completed the full five years of product design at that time (before the separation of bachelor's and master's programs). However, by the third year, I already knew that I never wanted to work in this field. The designs always had to be useful and safe not free of any restriction, it was just not creatively fulfilling for me and I knew that I would pursue another study.

In the meantime, I had abandoned my hopes of becoming a fashion designer. I realised that, doing some modelling on the side and having friends studying fashion design, the competition was fierce, the environment unfriendly among fashion designers, and it required a substantial budget before you could present your own collection on a catwalk. Instead, I developed a passion for photography and pursued it through bachelor's and master's studies, this time in Belgium.

Always hungry for knowledge I began with a propaedeutic in art history but stopped when I was invited to come to China for a series of exhibitions, lectures and workshops in Chongqing and Chengdu and after in Beijing, where Ai Weiwei and Cao Dali were my sponsors. I firmly believe that acquiring a wide range of artistic techniques, as my grandmother already encouraged, empowers us artists to express ourselves more freely. During my five years in China, I delved into traditional painting techniques and later, in Portugal, while raising a family, I took courses in medieval artistry techniques. Remarkable. Only two schools in the world offer a comprehensive programme dedicated to medieval artistry techniques: one in Brussels, Belgium, and the other in Lisbon, Portugal.

I consider myself as one of the ‘in-between generations’ of women who were educated, yes, liberated in a sense but still fell back in the traditional role of prime caretaker of our three boys, my husband, his work and keeping house. Seven years ago, after sending the youngest off to university, I came for a short visit to Saudi Arabia, found a vibrant art community, felt free, decided to stay, and restarted energetically my art (with some fear) after a 20+ years of professional hiatus.

pəˈfɔːm(ə)ns - triptych 05 by Aljohara Jeje. Image courtesy of Aljohara Jeje

In your practice, you explore the cultural landscape as a tool for uncovering and registering the many colours and shades known to the Kingdom. Can you deconstruct this for us?

In my artistic work, I explore the Kingdom's cultural landscape as a means to try to uncover and record its diverse elements. This process involves a deep dive into the Kingdom's history, traditions, and societal norms. I engage with the local culture, interact with its people, and learn from their stories and experiences.

The aim is to capture the richness and complexity of the Kingdom's cultural identity. This entails visually documenting what I encounter, using various artistic mediums such as photography and painting. Through these visual representations, I preserve and share the cultural diversity I observe today.

The Kingdom's cultural landscape, as any other cultural landscape, is akin to a palette of colours and hues, with each colour symbolising different traditions, languages, rituals, and narratives. I strive to highlight and celebrate this unique diversity.

By exploring the cultural landscape, I seek to understand and reflect the evolving identity of the Kingdom. This identity is shaped by heavy historical legacies, whirling societal changes, and the interplay of a variety of cultural elements.

Incorporating cultural heritage is another aspect of my work. I aim to respect, document and safeguard traditional practices and artefacts.

In essence, my artistic practice involves dissecting and interpreting the Kingdom's cultural landscape, with a focus on the intricate details, shades, and layers that collectively form its vibrant and multifaceted identity. Through visual storytelling and documentation, I aim to share these discoveries with a wider audience, fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Kingdom's cultural richness.

pəˈfɔːm(ə)ns - triptych 01 by Aljohara Jeje. Image courtesy of Aljohara Jeje

What can you tell us about the Series /pəˈfɔːm(ə)ns/: a silent story told, a statement, a performance? What are the concepts behind this work?

The concepts behind the series /pəˈfɔːm(ə)ns/ delve into the complexities of communication, representation, and the power of being silenced. Contrary to the general expectation of a performance, typically associated with physical movements, spoken words, and sounds, the works in /pəˈfɔːm(ə)ns/ are silent narratives, statements, and invites viewers to engage with the absence of sound and consider the story that can emerge from the contemplative silence of a photograph.

The title /pəˈfɔːm(ə)ns/, which is the English pronunciation of the word 'performance' put in writing and is as intelligible when silenced, blurs the line between language and being heard. By using the phonetic representation of the word ‘performance’, the work makes a statement about the subjectivity of language.

Double Dutch in Ruffs of Sanitary Napkins by Aljohara Jeje. Image courtesy of Aljohara Jeje

In your statement, you mentioned that words are like "pearls". How is the metaphor of pearls used to symbolize the clitoris and its significance?

The metaphor of pearls in this context serves as a powerful commentary on the imperative significance of acknowledging and celebrating the clitoris as an essential element of female identity and pleasure, just as precious as any treasured gem.

For people with vaginas, orgasms commonly come from the engagement of the clitoris, and generally not from penetration alone. The metaphor of pearls, known for their treasured, colourful, shiny, and lustrous qualities, is woven into the narrative to symbolise the clitoris, to illuminate its profound significance. Therefore, to draw a parallel between the intrinsic value attributed to pearls and the often-overlooked significance of the clitoris, particularly in the context of female sexuality, a pearl as a clitoris is portrayed as a source of wisdom and profound importance: a subtle yet poignant way of highlighting the often unspoken aspects of female sexuality and empowerment.

Double Dutch in Ruffs of Sanitary Napkins by Aljohara Jeje. Image courtesy of Aljohara Jeje

How does your work explore the idea of silence and the suppression of women's voices, particularly in the context of global experiences?

In my artistic journey, I have had the privilege of growing up in Europe, exploring South America, living in China for an extended period, raising my children in Portugal, and now residing in Saudi Arabia for the past seven years. These diverse experiences have deeply influenced my perspective on the world and its interconnectedness. What I have come to realise is that despite our differences in appearance, culture, and beliefs, the human experience remains remarkably similar across the globe.

The theme I delve into passionately with my work is the silencing and the suppression of women's voices. Through the portrayal of stories, struggles, and resilience of women from various backgrounds, I draw attention to the need for equality on a global scale. As I approach this theme within the broader context of global experiences, through my art, I aim to shine a light on the shared struggles faced by women worldwide, transcending the confines of geography.

My art serves as a powerful tool to amplify the voices of women and reveal the universal nature of our experiences. Whether it is the jubilation of achieving personal milestones, the warmth of connecting with loved ones, the sorrow of loss, the frustration of unmet expectations, or the ongoing battle for equality and empowerment, these are all facets of the human journey that resonate with women from every corner of the world. My work underscores the essential truth that, beyond the surface distinctions of dress, religion, or culinary choices, women and men across the globe share a common humanity. It is a humanity that knows no geographic boundaries, and my art seeks to show behind those artificial divides.

In essence, my art is a reminder that as human beings, we are bound together by our common experiences and emotions. It highlights the shared aspects of our lives and serves as a call to action for empowerment, regardless of where you are in the world. Through my work, I hope to contribute to the global conversation about the importance of gender equality and the celebration of women's voices in every corner of the Earth.

Double Dutch in Ruffs of Sanitary Napkins by Aljohara Jeje. Image courtesy of Aljohara Jeje

Can you explain the symbolism behind the use of sanitary napkins in the 'Double Dutch' art series and its connection to female fertility?

Sanitary napkins are closely linked to female biology and symbolise femininity. They are specifically designed to address the unique biological function of menstruation, which is a defining aspect of female physiology. Menstruation, a monthly cycle resulting in bleeding, is an exclusive aspect of female biology, and as sanitary napkins serve as a practical solution for managing this process, they symbolise fertility. In the absence of menstruation, women have the remarkable ability to conceive, carry, and give birth to offspring, whereas men contribute sperm for fertilization. Throttled around the necks of men it represents this fundamental difference in reproductive roles and is a central aspect of human biology.

Double Dutch in Ruffs of Sanitary Napkins by Aljohara Jeje. Image courtesy of Aljohara Jeje

What is 'noise' in the context of digital photography, and why do photographers aim to avoid it in their work?

‘Noise’ In the context of digital photography refers to the random, unwanted variations in brightness and colour that can appear in a photograph. Noise is defined as ‘aberrant pixels’, that is, pixels do not represent the colour and exposure correctly and remain visible as grainy or speckled textures and can degrade the overall smoothness of the image quality. 

The comparison between Rembrandt’s technique and the intentional use of noise in digital photography serves as a powerful illustration of how artistic appreciation evolves over time. Many artists throughout history have faced challenges in gaining recognition for their innovative techniques, including Rembrandt himself for his use of bold brushstrokes (and his unique approach to light and shadow). During his lifetime and maturing, the broader his brushstrokes became, the lesser his work was being appreciated. However, today, he stands as an icon, is widely celebrated, and is regarded as one of the greatest painters in art history. This journey serves as a testament that the ever-evolving nature of artistic tastes and perspectives can transform dramatically over time.

Similarly, I believe that the deliberate use of noise in my digital photography series serves as an added creative element.  When thoughtfully applied, like here in Double Dutch, noise introduces a distinctive texture and atmosphere to the photographs. While some may still have reservations about including noise, it all depends on one's perspective and the context in which it is employed.

The analogy extends beyond the canvas or the camera lens and the comparison to broader social gender norms is easily made. Society's perspectives and attitudes evolve over time, possibly leading to greater acceptance and understanding of previously marginalised or misunderstood ideas and concepts.

Artistic expression, like any other form of expression, is often a reflection of the times we live in, and what may be seen as unconventional or controversial today might be embraced and celebrated in the future. Art is a perfect medium to (continue) pushing boundaries and challenging traditional norms to keep society creatively alive and thriving.

pəˈfɔːm(ə)ns - triptych 04 by Aljohara Jeje. Image courtesy of Aljohara Jeje

Where do you place your artistic practice within the global art world?

I think I am not qualified to answer this question. But I can ask a professional friend who maybe could …

Aljohara Jeje's artistic practice finds its place within the global art world as a multifaceted exploration of cultural, social, and environmental themes. It bridges the gap between traditional techniques and contemporary contexts, drawing inspiration from historical narratives and contemporary issues.

At its core, Aljohara's work engages with the universal human experience, transcending geographical boundaries to connect with a global audience. It addresses issues such as cultural identity, social justice, environmental sustainability, and the intersection of tradition and modernity.

By incorporating techniques like polychromia, which has its roots in medieval artistry, the artist aims to revive and reinterpret historical methods to create art that resonates with a contemporary audience. This fusion of tradition and innovation places her practice within the larger conversation about the evolution of artistic techniques and their relevance in today's world.

Furthermore, Aljohara's work often explores the cultural and historical narratives of different regions, emphasizing the shared human heritage that transcends borders. Whether examining the role of images in Islamic art or delving into the stories of biblical figures, her art strives to connect people from diverse backgrounds through universal themes and symbols.

In terms of global art discourse, Aljohara's practice contributes to ongoing dialogues about the role of art in addressing pressing issues like climate change, cultural diversity, and the preservation of indigenous knowledge. It underscores the idea that art is not just a visual medium but a powerful tool for fostering understanding, empathy, and positive change on a global scale.

The Dutch Aljohara's artistic practice occupies a unique space within the global art world, blending historical techniques with contemporary relevance and engaging with universal themes that transcend geographical boundaries. It seeks to foster connections and conversations that resonate with people from different cultures and backgrounds, contributing to the broader discourse of art's role in addressing global challenges.

Thalestris Iskander.

1634, Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Aechje Claesd

In your opinion, can art convey the complex relationship between language, silence, and the representation of women's experiences in a societal context?

I firmly believe that art possesses the remarkable ability to convey the complex relationship between language, silence, and the representation of women's experiences within the context of society.

Art is a global language and transcends the limitations of spoken language and allows artists to communicate emotions, experiences, societal narratives etc etc visually. Especially through art, I can visually communicate the unspoken emotions and experiences of women in a subtle way though they are often brutally silenced by societal norms or constrained by the lack of words.

Art serves as a medium for visual storytelling. It enables me to narrate the stories of women from various backgrounds, capturing their struggles, triumphs, and the nuanced tapestry of their lives. This visual narrative effectively conveys the complexities of women's experiences and the societal forces that shape them. I employ symbolism and metaphor in my art to represent abstract concepts and societal constructs. These symbols can effectively convey the suppression of women's voices, the weight of societal expectations, or the enduring resilience of women in the face of adversity.

Art has the power to evoke strong emotional responses in viewers, and I target this power intentionally. Through my work, I aim to provoke a response, be it empathy, anger, or introspection, hopefully prompting viewers to deeply engage with the themes of the art in front of them. I do not mind challenging and subverting stereotypes and preconceived notions, inviting viewers to question and reconsider their perspectives. Art can be a powerful means to raise awareness about critical societal issues. I do not mind challenging and subverting stereotypes and preconceived notions, inviting viewers to question and reconsider their perspectives. I hope that my work serves as a catalyst for meaningful dialogues.

pəˈfɔːm(ə)ns - diptych 11 by Aljohara Jeje. Image courtesy of Aljohara Jeje

How do you intentionally make your practice and creative process more complex? Do you have any amusing or captivating anecdotes about changing your methods of creation?

My creative process often begins with a desire for leisurely simplicity, but, invariably, it tends to turn always into a more complex journey. Initially, I always opt for the easiest and laziest approach possible. I am well prepared as I have already gathered ideas, read, thought, discussed, and absorbed information related to the theme in my head, which sometimes takes years. In my mind I visualise the theme in art, choosing what appears to be the simplest techniques and materials.

However, the process never stays straightforward. I fall into the trap of seeing new possibilities and opportunities along the way. Ideas emerge as I work, and I find myself thinking, "What if I try this? Or what if I do that?" Creation is an organic and dynamic process, guided by the opening up of possibilities on its way and by my emotions and intuition.

Despite my initial intentions for a straightforward easy approach, I end up creating and taking the more challenging paths. Making art can be exhausting, also physical, and I often question whether I'm masochistic for consistently choosing the difficult way. I have the tendency to opt for complexity while pushing my artistic boundaries and constantly striving for improvement. This complexity is an inherent part of the artistic journey.

As for amusing or captivating anecdotes, though I truly would wish for some, I cannot recall one. I do find myself occasionally cursing my penchant for choosing the harder path in the midst of the creative process. For me, art is a continuous struggle, both with the materials in front of me and with myself.

Lastly, what message would you like to leave our readers?

Culture is a mirror reflecting the essence of the individuals who create it. While power and politics have their influence, culture remains a dynamic and living entity that thrives on the ever-evolving contributions of individuals and communities. Come and visit Saudi Arabia and see with your own eyes a nation actively scripting every day a new page to its contemporary history and in the meanwhile enjoying contemporary Saudi Arabia’s dynamic and vibrant society!

Know more about the artist here.

1634, Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Aechje Claesd

About Double Dutch:

The concept of gender is multifaceted and can be understood through different lenses. It encompasses biological aspects, such as sex, but also includes identity, which may not always align with one's biological sex. Moreover, gender is influenced by social constructs and cultural norms, which vary across societies and time periods.

The government of the Netherlands has recently implemented that it will no longer register unnecessary gender registration, the same way that one does not have to register one's religion, skin colour, or intellect and following a broader trend in recognising the complexity of gender identity. This change means that Dutch officials are no longer permitted to ask to specify the gender of a person unless it's essential for specific purposes like passports.

Historically, the Netherlands experienced a ‘Dutch Golden Age’ in the 17th century, characterised by a flourishing era of painting. This period gave rise to ‘genre painting’, instead of religious themes paintings were commissioned with profane subjects like landscapes, still-lives etc including portraits of the clients, the wealthy merchants. At the time ruffs, crimped or pleated, wide, and full, were the fashion by both men and women. Their placement around the neck affected posture, forcing the wearer to keep their chin up and assume a proud and haughty pose. Ruffs were potent symbols of status and wealth.

The men portrayed in 'Double Dutch' all wear thobes, the traditional loose-fitting, ankle-length mostly white dresses with long sleeves commonly worn by Arab men. To challenge gender norms though emphasising the interdependence of men and women in procreation, I deliberately throttled the men with a string of sanitary pads as ruffs around their necks.

Cover Image:

Double Dutch in Ruffs of Sanitary Napkins by Aljohara Jeje. Image courtesy of Aljohara Jeje

The artist Aljohara grew up in Europe, she raised her family in various countries, and seven years ago she chose to settle in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and restart her career in the arts. She is one of these rare international cultural voices whose work is based upon her keen observations from different corners of the world which she subsequently translates into her recordings. Her name and award-winning works are increasingly well-known and commissioned in and outside the region due to her wide range of expertly crafted fine art.The versatile artist is a sensitive yet critical observing witness to the cultural metamorphosis engulfing the Kingdom as she endorses the realities of contemporary Saudi Arabia without neglecting its rich history nor its traditions.Her practice explores the cultural landscape as a tool for uncovering and registering the many colours and shades known to the Kingdom and in this way, she creates a reflecting composite of the intricate and spirited dynamic scenery of today’s Saudi Arabia. Her latest series ‘Shadows of the Past Foretelling the Future’ for which she has been awarded by the Museums Commission of the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Culture, and her series ‘Performance’ which has been awarded the ‘Allard Prize for International Integrity’, Canada, are fine examples.”

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