Greenbox dictionary of Saudi Arabian artists

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Huda Totonji might exist in an imagined space somewhere in between Washington and Jeddah. This is a space where masculine poetry is mastered by learning and examination and from where travel is possible in both directions. In Jeddah the artist may land herself as a philosophical doctor of visual technology and in Washington she may arrive as a true master of calligraphy. She has earned both these qualifications. The artist-researcher and teacher will not have herself pinned down in a single category. She 'chooses to bounce between image and text,' is what she writes on her website, and to this should be added that she believes good restaurants should manage to serve a large menu. Her art ranges from painting in several genres, such as portrait, landscape, still life and calligraphy, to mixed media installations and performances. In none of it however she will represent women 'physically' as was often done in the history of western figurative art. Her George Mason University master thesis installation Birdwatcher (2004) seemed to mock such orientalist paintings as Ingres's Grande Odalisque or anything of the like by Matisse and other artists who are central to the western canon of art. In fact Orientalism itself might qualify as 'birdwatching' if you come to think of it. Huda Totonja would have disappointed the oriental minded gentlemen in their London and Parisian chambers and clubs. Her giant birdcage was empty and only feathers and hairpins were left for such eager-to-collect and very civilised men. So was it about Iraq and Afghanistan? The artist probably never intended it to be like that. But, whoever thought that there would be a giant bird of wings, bones and flesh to be caught in that war, might have better reviewed Totonja's empty cage first. This is what she says: that the female vision is central to what she makes.

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From top to bottom: Birdcage from Birdwatcher (installation, 2004).