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Freaks of Nature celebrates music, art in Riyadh

Saudi street artist Noura bin Saidan is making an international impact with her striking murals 

DUBAI: A transformed Saudi Arabia is not just a place where the next generation of artists can thrive, it is itself a canvas. Saudi muralist Noura bin Saidan started her creative journey because she yearned to capture her country’s heritage. As her profile has grown, her murals have become an iconic part of the backdrop of Riyadh and beyond. Following that success, her mission has expanded. Now, she is one of the key voices communicating the contemporary Saudi soul, to both its own people and the world — inspiring the next generation of the Kingdom’s artists in the process.  

“In my mind, each artist is a messenger — a messenger of their country, their culture, and the way they see the world,” bin Saidan tells Arab News. “I feel I have so much responsibility to communicate our story through art. One of my main goals is to paint so many murals not only in Riyadh, but all the regions of Saudi — each one capturing a different aspect of who we are. And I want that art to show the people outside our borders that this is our style, this is our heritage, this is our history, this is what it means to be a Saudi woman. Art is about capturing beauty, and Saudi culture is beautiful. I’m so proud that I have the chance to help the world discover Saudi beauty.”  

If you’ve been to Riyadh over the last five years, chances are you’re familiar with bin Saidan’s work. Her street art and murals have become an increasingly prominent part of the capital’s character, just as the works of artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Harring, Banksy, Shephard Fairey and Lady Pink once helped define the cities they called home. Her mural on Boulevard Riyadh City, dubbed the “Mona Lisa,” debuted as part of Riyadh Season 2021, and is a stunning and unique work depicting a young Saudi girl’s face with hair made of bright pink flowers. The piece quickly became so popular that it inspired people to travel from outside the country just to see it.  

Noura bin Saidan is a Saudi muralist. (Supplied)

“People were coming from all over just to take pictures in front of it, which really amazed me. I’d never seen anything like that here. Usually, you hear of people traveling to London or Paris to visit something they’d seen and wished to be a part of, and now it was happening in Riyadh. That really inspired me,” says bin Saidan. 

When she started out — long before she was collaborating with MDL Beast or fronting global Adidas campaigns — the idea of becoming a Saudi artist, especially as a woman, was not really a viable one. But during history classes in school, bin Saidan was exposed to the work of an artist who had travelled from Europe to document Riyadh nearly 100 years earlier, which made her think for the first time that she, too, could do the same.  

“I was just a kid, sitting with my sisters and brothers, without the tools to do (that). But inside myself, I wanted to paint like her. I didn’t know how, so I started with a pencil. Then I was able to start painting, won a prize among my peers, and then approached my teachers asking them if there was any future in this. They told me that there were schools for art, and I knew I had to go down that path,” she explains. 

Bin Saidan wanted to find further inspiration from Saudi history, but initially had difficulty sourcing material. Undeterred, she approached her grandmother for pictures from her own youth and of the family’s ancestry, starting an exploration into the roots of her culture that is still ongoing. Her skills progressed and her profile grew. But even as her paintings began receiving greater attention in the art community, she found the traditional art world to be unsatisfying, so in 2017 she set out on a new path.  

“Art galleries were honestly boring for me. I saw the same people every time, and I realized that I didn’t want to just show my paintings and sell them with this insular group of people,” says bin Saidan. “I felt that I had a different mission. I want to reach everyone — from kids to old men and women, locals and tourists. Art should be for everyone. What’s a gallery of 300 people when there’s millions outside who will never see it, who aren’t invited into this select world? I wanted to reach the people outside, and show them what I believed art could be.”  

While her work in Riyadh initially inspired wonder from passersby, who would often stop their cars just to get out and witness a young woman tirelessly crafting ambitious street art in their hometown, the international world has long embraced murals as a key part of the artistic tradition. She wanted to participate in that global exchange as well, traveling to Barcelona, which has a bustling graffiti and street-art culture that is as welcoming as it is merciless. There, if a piece isn’t rated by the artistic community, it is quickly whitewashed overnight.  

“I decided to paint a Saudi woman surrounded by Arabic calligraphy, knowing that it could possibly be removed instantly. Even after I left, to my surprise, I was getting tagged in pictures and receiving messages from all over. People had never seen art from our country before, and they were so excited to learn more. It ended up staying up for months. That was really amazing for me,” says bin Saidan.  

With each success, her ambition only grows, as do the size and scope of her pieces. And a legion of artists who were inspired by her now assist her on intricately planned works that she often toils on for 17 hours a day alongside her collaborators. In the past few years, she’s earned a Master’s degree, focusing her thesis on how to make a city more beautiful through art. Soon after, she started collaborating with the government to beautify areas of the city, including the first tunnel in Riyadh designed by Saudi artists.  

“In 2009, Riyadh was very boring to look at, to be honest,” says bin Saidan. “There was no art — it was only gray. It was genuinely a dream come true for me to implement this in collaboration with the municipality.” 

It’s not only the city that’s changed. She has changed, too. The shy girl she once was has disappeared, and she’s embraced the role she’s earned in her society, happily taking on aspiring artists who see in her work a future they hadn’t known was possible.  

“I really feel a change here. I’m so grateful to live in a country that now values art as much as I do. Because, before, people didn’t care about art. Now, my nephews and nieces all say they want to be like Auntie Noura. ‘We want to be artists,’ they tell their parents,” she says. “Before, art was just an idea. Now it’s a tangible reality. There is a meaning to art now. And it means so much to all of us.” 

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