Art across cultures: Hend Al-Mansour’s images convey messages to audiences in the Middle East and in America

Hend A l-Mansour (photo Marissa Blahnik)

“I never thought art would be my career,” says Saudi Arabia-born Hend Al-Mansour, who now makes her home in Minnesota. The oldest of 12 siblings, Al-Mansour was encouraged by her parents to become a doctor. And, as a self-described obedient daughter, that’s what she did, studying internal medicine and cardiology in Cairo, Egypt, for seven years. 

Drawing and painting, however, were an important part of her life from childhood on. She was working as a cardiologist at a hospital in Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia, when she had her first solo exhibit of watercolor paintings at a women’s bank. Her works were figurative images of women. While not nude, the figures’ hair, arms and legs were not covered – a taboo in her country. “How could you do this?” she was asked. Neither she nor the bank realized that a government committee had to approve each painting before an exhibit. 

“The next time I wanted to do an exhibit, I couldn’t,” Al-Mansour says. The committee deemed her work unacceptable. She made inquiries at many venues, but only the French Embassy in Riyadh would consider showing her art. They invited her to exhibit with three women artists, one from France and two from Palestine. The embassy held a mixed-gender opening reception, again taboo. For the first two hours, people were able to get into the embassy. But later, the gates and street were blocked. 

“That was depressing for me,” she says. “After that, I felt that this was just not the country for me. The drawings were very innocent.” 

Freedom of expression

An opportunity for change came when Al-Mansour was offered a two-year cardiology fellowship at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. In 1997, at age 40, she came to Minnesota. When her fellowship was complete she gave her full attention to art and enrolled as a Master of Fine Arts student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. 

“When I shifted my career, I said yes to art and no to medicine. Yes to passion, no to being oppressed, yes to taking control of my own future, my own place in life,” she says. 

Her artwork today focuses on screen printing and installations, with a strong emphasis on figurative drawings of women. She still considers herself a drawer and line is her basic element. 

“My work now questions fundamental issues, gender issues, equality, Islam itself. Basic freedoms,” Al-Mansour says. “Consciously and unconsciously, I try to bring my deep-down esthetics from my past and my heritage into a contemporary world.” 

Facebook inspiration

Al-Mansour is currently working on a series of screen prints that explore women in Muslim culture. She has completed two 36-by-40-inch prints, one of which is featured on this month’s cover. The title, “Facebook 1” was inspired by her niece’s Facebook page post that encouraged women in Saudi Arabia, who are forbidden to drive, to do so as a protest on one day. (Although the protest didn’t happen, the campaign went viral.) 

The background of the print is a traditional Saudi men’s scarf pattern – red and checkered. It surrounds the two women who sit in front of a book, one of whom is sitting on a rug of a traditional woven design of Bedouin women. 

Al-Mansour describes the second woman in the print as slumped down, having an oppressed attitude. “It symbolizes for me, that this woman has accepted what is going on, without resistance. It represents a side of me that might have accepted things in the past.” 

The woman on the right side of the print is writing a poem in a book. Written in Arabic, it speaks of Al-Mansour’s own journey. She is writing to an audience in Saudi Arabia. The poem translates: 
I am writing my face 
Hear me, O home 
And hold your judgment until the moment is over 
I grow out of you, yours is my direction when I pray 
Hear me out until the end of the painting 

You are whom I write for 
You are whom I paint for 
You are the crowd who avoids the asking gaze 
Avoids searching for the eye of truth 
Listen to me for a moment.

In the second print in the series, the image of the submissive woman is less prominent, fading away. As the series continues, she will fade away completely, Al-Mansour says, and the poem will end with a happier tone: “Now I told you my story, now you can judge me.” 

“I miss my past. I miss talking in Arabic, socializing with people who speak my language, who know my past [culture and history]. Other than that,” she says, “I’m happy here.”