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UMN student curates first Saudi Arabian art exhibit on campus

Rawan Algahtani collaborated with Student Unions and Activities to showcase artwork from her home country.
Image by Eleanor King
Joy Quach is the Student Events and Entertainment coordinator and said the exhibit helps students become aware of diverse cultures on campus.

A University of Minnesota student’s passion for sharing her culture and traditions has brought a unique art exhibit to life at the Coffman Art Gallery.

Rawan AlGahtani approached Student Unions and Activities (SUA) last spring with the idea to bring some of the achievements of her home country to campus.

The ZEHBAH exhibit, which will run until Nov. 13, features scenic art and patterns made and imported by artists living in Saudi Arabia.

“It was very much a learning opportunity to expand the art and culture behind Saudi Arabia,” Student Events and Entertainment Coordinator Joy Quach said. “I had a lot of fun seeing the different art and learning more about the culture through speaking with Rawan.”

Quach said the exhibit has helped students gain awareness of the presence and contributions of diverse cultures on campus.

“Coming into a predominantly white school, I had this assumption, ‘I don’t know if different cultures like mine or other peoples’ would be represented,’” Quach said. “Seeing an art show like this shows me and other students that the U does care about diversity and that they want to display different cultures and traditions.”

According to the University’s most recent statistics on international student enrollment, 48 students from Saudi Arabia enrolled at the University in 2019.

This exhibit marks the first time an undergraduate student worked in collaboration with SUA to curate an art exhibition. However, it is not the first time that SUA has featured artwork from different parts of the world.

“We’ve worked with UMN Extension and one of the professors brought in some works from Morocco, and we met the leader of Morocco at the opening,” said Tricia Schweitzer, arts and archives director for SUA. “We’ve also worked with graduate students to curate a show with the College of Design or the Department of Art.”

AlGahtani worked with an artists’ guild from Saudi Arabia, which shipped the art from Saudi Arabia or reproduced them as prints for display on campus. AlGahtani and Quach also held a reception to celebrate the exhibit on Sept. 22, which organizers said was well-attended by students.

AlGahtani said she named the exhibit ZEHBAH, which means “gold and wealth” in Arabic, to signal the richness of Saudi Arabian culture reflected in the chosen works.

“This exhibit helps signify the importance of displaying Saudi Arabian art, culture and traditions,” AlGahtani said.

Sara Alamry, whose art was featured in the exhibit, said her anime drawings are inspired by girls from the Asir region of Saudi Arabia who have been unable to marry whom they choose due to a lack of women’s rights in the country.

“I want people to understand and realize the fact that art, in all its forms and methods, has a story or suffering behind it,” Alamry said in an email to the Minnesota Daily.

The exhibit has been well-received by students, organizers said.

Quach recalled a memory of a student who stumbled across the group installing the artwork in the gallery. The student was curious about the artwork and asked the group if he could take a closer look at it. To Quach, the encounter showed how much students are interested in looking at art to learn about different cultures.

A notebook placed at the front of the exhibit displayed student feedback about the exhibit. Some anonymous comments included, “Keep doing what you’re doing,” “So amazing and beautiful” and “Inspiring!”

What will happen to the exhibit after it leaves Coffman Art Gallery is uncertain. Schweitzer said depending on the success of the exhibit on campus, she will consider working with AlGahtani to bring it to other galleries.

Making it a traveling exhibit “is certainly something we could consider based on how popular and well-received it is,” Schweitzer said.

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