As increasing numbers of tourists from other Gulf nations have joined those from inside the kingdom in recent years, ‘Asir’s population of about 1.5 million has begun to double in the summers. The visitors come to take in the province’s cool mountain temperatures, spectacularly green parks and free-roaming wild baboons, and locals have become interested in sharing their colorful heritage with visitors. This especially includes the literally colorful work of its female majlis painters.
The majlis (plural: majalis) is the “parlor” of a Saudi home, the room in which guests are received. In ‘Asiri homes, as far back as living memory reaches, the majalis have traditionally been painted by women in a defined pattern of lines, branch-like figures, triangles and squares that wraps around the entire room. Within each square (called a khatma), the artist expressed her individuality in a miniature of sorts. The colors were always vivid and the patterns might be intricate or simple, but the wall paintings were a mark of pride for a woman in her house.
In the capital city of Abha and in ‘Asir’s villages, which are scattered from the mountains down to the plains near the Red Sea, simplified versions of the art, with its splashes of color, can be found on bridges, businesses, restaurant walls, residential buildings and furniture. ‘Asiris have become so nostalgic about the women’s art that imitations of it have made their way to the suq, where the basic designs are found on bowls, coffee pots, fire pits and other household items.
These products are a nontraditional interpretation of the paintings and are mass-produced, most often not by women or locals. But the ‘Asiris are reclaiming the art in new ways. Halima bin Abdullah, known as Um Abdullah, is one of the key figures in this ad-hoc preservation movement. Now in her early 60’s, she and her husband, Abu Abdullah, opened Al Shat Village Museum a few years ago: a recreated stone home near the remains of their family’s traditional village, with its interconnected dwellings winding up the mountainside. She took it upon herself to become a historian and aficionado of the paintings, which fill the museum, so that her grandchildren could know their past.
The craft started ebbing away about 40 years ago, when the government began modernizing ‘Asir. Families moved out of the traditional stone-and-mud homes, often several stories high, and the lifestyle lived in those homes, which included the painting of the majlis, disappeared as well.
Um Abdullah always remembered fondly the frescos in the old, crumbling village next door. Ten years ago, after raising 10 children, she decided to teach herself how to do the nagash, as the paintings are called in ‘Asir. “I watched my mother when she did our majlis when I was a child,” she recalls. “The triangles in the paintings with the little trees are called banat [girls], and she would name a triangle for each of us daughters, like all mothers did. It was fun.”
“These unusual paintings are linked to the work of other women in the region by virtue of their purpose—to enhance interior spaces—and by the use of geometric patterns to create a narrative reflecting their lives,” says Dr. Sharon Parker, an independent scholar and art historian who has spent decades studying Middle Eastern art.
“Squares, triangles and broken diagonal lines are found in Bedouin al-Sadu weaving; in Afghan, Baluchi, Bakhtiari and other tribal rugs; and in tent wall hangings and small bags made by women to beautify their tents or to carry their belongings,” Parker explains. “The patterns on these household items denote the landscape and the plants and animals of the region these groups traveled through.
“Some of the large triangles represent mountains. Zigzag lines stand for water and also for lightning. Small triangles, especially when the widest area is at the top, are found in pre-Islamic representations of female figures. That the small triangles found in the wall paintings in ‘Asir are called banat may be a cultural remnant of a long-forgotten past.”
About 70 to 80 years ago, commercial paints began to arrive in the area. Before that, the colors had come from natural sources, and Um Abdullah enjoys using both media. She collects the earthier natural colors herself, picking up stones as she walks along the mountains with the grazing sheep. Then she experiments, crushing the rocks and mixing the dust to see what colors she gets. Red comes from the meshiga stone. Light brown comes from the sap of the somgha tree in the spring. The same tree in the summer and winter gives her a dark brown. The grass the animals graze on provides her with the green she needs. Certain mountains have stones from which she can make a yellow-gold color.
“You could tell a family’s wealth by the paintings,” Um Abdullah says. “If they didn’t have much money, the wife could only paint the motholath,” the basic straight, simple lines, in patterns of three to six repetitions in red, green, yellow and brown.
In the old village, the fading remnants of paintings can be found if you know which nook or cranny to crawl into, as Um Abdullah’s nephew Mohammad Tala does. “It’s sad we’ve lost all this,” he says, commenting on a fading, cracked painting he discovered on a stone house wall high up the mountain. “I had an aunt I loved, and it was only when she died that people started talking about her paintings and how beautiful they had been. I had no idea. For a long time we forgot these women’s work.”
The old painting he came across consisted mostly of greens and browns. The palette of colors available to artists expanded over the years, however. The color blue, which could not be created from the mountains’ bounty, came with commercial paint, for example.
“The traditional colors were black, white and red, but with increased trade, particularly with Aden in Yemen, the women could get more and more creative and proud of their work,” says Ali Ibrahim Maghawi, author of Rojol, Memory of an Arab Village. “And then the elaborate designs appeared, especially among upper-class women who had more time.”
Maghawi and his uncle Mohamed Mohamed Torshi Al Sagheer (better known as Aam Torshi)—both retired teachers—have dedicated much of their time to preserving their nearly 1000-year-old village of Rijal Alma’a as a tourist attraction. They have turned what is left of the abandoned, fortress-like stone compound into a museum with the addition of a recreated building. “This was a trading village. Every village had its purpose,” says Maghawi. “Now our purpose is to save our culture, and that includes the paintings.”
Climbing up the steep steps, through the low archways and along the village paths, we crossed the indented floors the women used to make by sweeping their hands across wet mud flooring to create a massaging surface for the feet. We found remnants of paintings that reflected the sophistication of each painter’s household.
But Maghawi and his wife Fatima Faya have also worked to bring the art back to life. Fatima studied the art of the older generation and developed a cooperative of about 20 women who learned and worked together on the paintings. Today, they paint canvases to hang on walls. Sometimes they paint the traditional metal plates that were strung together above the frescos as wind chimes.
When someone tells Maghawi that the women should still be working on majalis, he disagrees. “We would rather have it so that everyone can see the paintings and buy the paintings,” he says. “It becomes a business this way, too, which is good for the women. This way the art survives. We are a more conservative society now than we were before, and it would not be possible for a woman to go to the houses of strangers today and paint their houses.”
Until 40 years ago, few women in Asir veiled, and painting other people’s houses was the livelihood of some. Indeed, a legendary handful are remembered by name for their unique styles, but if any of their work remains today, it’s only partially intact.
Um Abdullah remembers the old ways. “If a lady didn’t know how to paint her own majlis, she would hire someone to do it by bartering,” she says. “Maybe for honey or samna [ghee].”
Fatima Abou Gahas, armed with brushes made of goat hair, was the only one of these famed painters who lived to paint the walls of a modern home, that of her son-in-law Aam Torshi and her daughter, Salha.
Fatima Abou Gahas’s mother, Amna, had also been a well-known painter, but Fatima, who was widowed young and had four little children, actually had to paint for a living.
A few years before Fatima died, Aam Torshi asked her to teach her art to several women of different ages. The venue? A workshop in which the women painted the majlis of the modest home where he had been born. He has now made Qasr Bader, as the home is called, a private museum, and he still locks the door with the original key, about the size of his forearm.
“She first drew with black paint to make the basic design, although on her own; unlike most, she didn’t need so many guidelines,” he says, noting that charcoal, rather than black paint, was used in the old days. “Then she put a black dot where color needed to go and the other women painted the color in. The women would come at around four p.m. and they would stay until the last call to prayer [in the early evening]. They finished in less than two weeks.”
Normally a majlis takes one to two months to do, depending on the detail. Salha grew up hearing her mother referred to as a “genius.” Sitting in the modern majlis her mother painted, Salha can only say that Fatima Abou Gahas’s creativity “came from God.”
“Her designs would just appear to her,” she recalls. “One time she was praying in my home, and afterwards she got up and told me that the prayer rug had given her an idea and she needed to borrow the rug.”
Down on the coastal plain, the Tihama, where it is some 10 degrees centigrade (20°F) hotter and far sunnier, the traditional homes were made of earth mixed with straw and water. Paintings in this part of ‘Asir are bolder, bigger and less detailed than their high-country counterparts, but they still follow the pattern of parallel lines separated by square miniatures. Almost two hours by car from Abha, the area’s adobe houses are well over 200 years old and still hold their ground, many of them in good condition. But the occupants have moved out, and the art is hard to find.
In Musallem, a village well off the main road, one house stands out. Six years ago, Shahera Ali Al Sharif decided to paint her home the way she remembered her mother and older relatives doing. A grandmother, she enlisted the help of her daughters, letting them fill in the black lines she sketched out. She also painted the ceilings the traditional white, using chalk mixed with salt and water. Painted lines on the deep steps lead visitors upstairs to the separate majalis for men and women. One has to bend over so as not to bump against the painted doorframe. Shahera serves coffee and dates to her guests and shrugs when asked why she did all this. “I just felt like trying,” she says of the brilliantly bright results. “I tried to get as much from nature as I could. For example, the browns are from rocks and the greens are from qat and other plants.”
Flowers and branches make up part of the design. This differs from the mountain artwork, where no living things appear. In another contrast with the mountains, this house’s exterior and windows and doors are also painted in primary colors and broad patterns. However, the exteriors of most adobe houses on the Tihama are simpler on the outside, maybe with just white, blue or yellow trim around the windows and a single band of color on the front, if any.
Shahera’s daughters and granddaughters enjoyed the project, but have no painting ambitions of their own. “The art is something we study about in school,” one of them said. “We have our own ideas for our houses.”
However, all seem to agree that that modern decor doesn’t have the complexity of the paintings, which offer constant entertainment and surprise as you explore each square’s unique patterns.
The mountain region has made several efforts to build museums to recognize and showcase the paintings. However, little has been done in the lowlands. Schoolteacher Ali bin Saleh is trying to rectify that.
The adobe home he grew up in is now used to store grain, mostly the white corn for which the region is known, while his family lives next door in a modern house. But he takes pride in the paintings in the old home, done by his mother, and hopes to keep the house intact for future generations. “We’re living somewhere between the past and the present,” he says, standing next to a traditional outdoor oven, which the family still uses to bake bread, even though the house has a modern kitchen. “I take care of the old house and the paintings because I want to make sure our kids can see both the past and the future.”
Back in Abha, Muftaha Village is the only government-funded artists’ colony in Saudi Arabia. With plenty of simulated nagash on its exteriors, it can host 30 artists at a time. Many of those artists, male and female, have incorporated elements of the women’s art into their canvases—the pattern of the setting sun in one case and the fabric of a dress a figure wears in another. Artists and visitors to Al Muftaha frequently debate the origins of the paintings. Some say the influence is from Yemen and India, perhaps Africa. Some say it is completely organic and that the women’s art was carried to Spain during the Arab conquest and went on to influence Latin America.
“Whereas patterns and color preferences may travel and be replicated by another group, the unique feature of the ‘Asiri wall paintings is that they were traditionally designed and executed solely by women,” says Sharon Parker. “The inside of ‘Umayyad palaces in Cordova and Safavid palaces in Isfahan, family dwellings and official buildings from Spain to Asia were frequently embellished with frescos, tiles or painted wooden panels. But those were made by male workers and craftsmen. The women of ‘Asir painted their own interiors.”