Ahaad Al Amoudi: The Burqa as a Well-Worn Modern Mask

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Open Culture. © Ahaad Al Amoudi, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Are the masks we form of ourselves on the open culture of the Internet the same as the masks created by the burqa in Saudi Arabian society? Why is the burqa seen as a barrier to integration and communication, when daily, millions of people around the world create their own masks on the Internet? — Ahaad Al Amoudi



(Editor’s Note: In Saudi Arabia, the burqa is oftentimes referred to as “the niqab” — another form of face covering. For the purposes of this article, “burqa” is employed to reflect the artist’s use of the term.)

In her 2014 installation, Open Culture, Saudi Arabian artist Ahaad Al Amoudi’s acrylic masks line up like faceless soldiers. Molded from plastic, each of the twenty masks in the series are laser-etched with intricate unique designs that take their cue from nature and the body. Curious and complex, they demand attention, bearing witness to how the burqa acts as a well-worn modern mask.

The series debuted in 2014 when Al Amoudi was 22 years old and studying at Dar Al Hekma University, the progressive all women’s university in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It marked the start of what Al Amoudi sees as a powerful metaphor in her art practice — the masks as symbols for both the burqa and the Internet personas we create of ourselves.

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Al Amoudi has never worn a burqa in public; it is not a social practice amongst the women in her immediate family. But as a girl who spent her formative years in the United Kingdom, and who returned to Saudi Arabia as a young woman at age 14, it was inevitable that she would struggle with social norms, like the burqa, upon being back. Women wearing the burqa is common in Jeddah, although not obligatory. Many instead wear beautifully colored and patterned abayas — a long outer cloak — over their clothing, and often pair it with the hijab (headscarf).

At Dar Al Hekma, Al Amoudi formed deeply meaningful relationships with young women from more conservative backgrounds who wore the garment publicly. At the same time, she saw them begin to use the Internet and social media to take on different personas and socialize virtually, while still remaining relatively anonymous.

Coupled with her experiences in both the West and Middle East, these observations prompted Al Amoudi to explore the questions: “Why does the Western world see the burqa as a barrier to integration and communication, instead of a freedom as expression? How does a simple black fabric on a woman’s face create so much outrage and controversy that it warrants laws to be made against it?”

The selection of portraits below from the Open Culture series is Al Amoudi’s attempt to arrive at an answer. She continues to explores these questions as a young emerging artist in the Master of Arts program at the Royal College of Art in London.


maskOpen Culture. © Ahaad Al Amoudi, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Al Amoudi says of the masks’ intricate designs: “All the patterns used on the masks were developed from microscopic views of diseases and tumors found in the body — something that starts off small and unnoticeable but develops and takes over; almost like a thought it begins to persuade and change views and identities, forming masks or another layer of skin.”

This is her attempt at drawing comparisons between the way viruses take over its host to the way social media and the Internet are rapidly influencing the Saudi community.


mask#5Open Culture. © Ahaad Al Amoudi, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

The widespread use of social media platforms and its embedding of the “selfie” culture into everyday Saudi society allows many young women to take on different personas that depict them as more sociable and extroverted online. Although changing, socializing virtually is a natural resolution to many of the rules about their freedom and modesty in public to which they must conform.


mask#2Open Culture. © Ahaad Al Amoudi, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Al Amoudi took on the guise of many artistic personas — photographer, graphic designer, typographer, and performance artist—to create stark self-portraits of her donning the masks in various poses. She drew inspiration from powerful artists from the Middle East such as Shirin Neshat and from North Africa, Hassan Hajjaj, who both engage with self-portraiture in their art.


mask#7Open Culture. © Ahaad Al Amoudi, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Al Amoudi believes the Internet and the burqa share a critical connection. In her view, the Internet mirrors the same function of the burqa — one of anonymity, freedom, and the masking of the self. However, she says, “The anonymity that the Internet grants women is not subjected to the same prejudices for women who wear the burqa.”


mask#8Open Culture. © Ahaad Al Amoudi, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

When Open Culture was unveiled, Al Amoudi was asked if her use of graphic patterns of viruses suggested the burqa itself was a metaphor for disease. Al Amoudi asserts, “In addition to the loss of privacy, the rules of modern technology demand that we be constantly visible. The ‘disease’ is the Internet’s onslaught on Saudi identity, including a Western media’s agenda to portray women who wear the burqa as being oppressed.”


mask#4Open Culture. © Ahaad Al Amoudi, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

For Al Amoudi, the burqa represents both a communication barrier and a focus. “In the presence of a woman who wears the burqa, you are forced to make eye contact, leaving you with only the cues from the woman’s words and eyes,” she says. This is a very powerful position. In her view, women who wear the burqa ultimately have control over how their interactions unfold. They are less self-conscious and engage more freely, confident in the anonymity of their identities.




Zaynab Odunsi is a Saudi-based Nigerian photographer. She divides her time as a university lecturer and a studio portrait photographer working with communities of young adults and children in West Africa, the United Kingdom, and the Middle East.






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