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Review: Wasma Mansour’s Single Saudi Women

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Brogan Driscoll
WVoN co-editor

The gallery space that houses Wasma Mansour’s Single Saudi Women photography exhibition is well chosen.

The tiny white room situated a stone’s throw from London’s St Pancras station is as intimate as the images that adorn the walls.

The contrast between the busy street lined with London’s black taxi cabs and the silent gallery makes you alarmingly self-conscious and slightly vulnerable. Apt for an exhibition that explores notions of self-image.

“Pictorial conventions in global mass media exhibit recurring visual tropes which stereotype and essentialise the portrayal of Saudi women,” says Saudi-born, London-based photographer Mansour.

“As a result, such generalisations have suppressed Saudi women’s efforts in reconciling with their identities and asserting their sense of individualism.”

As part of a four-year research project, Mansour has documented the public and private lives of Saudi women living in the UK as they attempt to carve out identities and struggle against the inflexibility of dominant stereotypes.

It is interesting to see the juxtaposition of traditional elements of Saudi culture against others.

One striking image taken in a woman’s living room shows a host of family portraits. One photograph stands out in particular despite being at the back – the largest and one of the only coloured photographs, it shows a young woman at her university graduation.

The most poignant set of images is Portraits. The women’s faces are shielded from view and we are left with only their material possessions as a reference to their characters. From Chanel bags to Apple MacBooks, it is striking how we buy into our chosen identities. In order to talk the talk, we are also required to walk the walk. In as such we develop values based on outwardly appearance to construct ourselves, but also to make judgement on others.

But, as the photographer reveals, the choice runs much deeper:

“I took the decision to anonymise all participants as a precautionary measure. This stems from my awareness of some negative possibilities, even though minimal, that might happen due to the future outlet of my work.”

Refreshingly, the project resists any attempts to redefine the women or slot them into pigeon holes. Instead it opens a dialogue about the nature of identity and the struggle between individualism and mass perception.

Single Saudi Women is being shown at the Hardy Tree Gallery until 30 June as part of the London Festival of Photography.

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