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Holding things to light: Maha Malluh’s photograms

Saudi artist Maha Malluh talks to Jeddah Blog about her unique manner of exposing the reality of things.

In her series of photograms, Maha Malluh holds things to light on two levels. First of all, there is the literal exposing to light. In her technique, she places selected objects on a paper and exposes them to a powerful source of light directly from above. When the image is printed on paper, she develops the image using developer, stop bath, and fixer, same techniques as for photography. At another level, she is holding them to light as in exposing their true value or dissecting their true meaning. “I believe in the thinginess of life. I feel that our things define us, they are cues to greater realities. And out of all the things we are surrounded by, the smallest ones, the ones we pay least attention to tell the most about us.  On the other hands, the bigger, more conscious choices, like the branded things we wear, the cars we purchase, we are mostly buying those for snob value or for reasons not entirely true to ourselves.  In a kind of value reversal, the bigger and more expensive the things, the lesser their actual value, and the smaller and inexpensive the things, the more priceless they are. The price tag is a poor indicator of their meaning and value. Naturally, when I want to tackle issues related to my society, or hold it to light, I will be dissecting these smaller things.” Maha believes in a kind of ‘inverted materialism’. We rarely invest financially and emotionally in the same objects. The small, inexpensive objects are priceless because they have a backbone of meaning, but the bigger structures and the fancy infrastructures are mostly hollow at the core.


The co-existence of the modern and the traditional is a frequent motif in the photograms. In ‘Tradition and Modernity’ and ‘Shemagh Mirage’, she explores this theme regarding different areas of life. Like a lot of artists from Saudi Arabia, she is grappling with the unique nature of change in Saudi Arabia. Since the economic realities of the country changed drastically after the discovery of oil, it set off a process of rapid cultural change as well, quite without precedent. “ My concern is the nature of this change and its implications. Within 10 years or so, everything changed meaning. A change of form is inevitable, of course, but the essence should not be lost. For the new generation of Saudis, pace, and thrift in everything is a given. They have seen a lot of wealth and ease without having worked for it. This media-hungry generation is tuned into to the glitz and glamour of things. A lot of ideals they chase are imported ones. The notion of modernity for them means a false kind of posturing, a quick adoption of trends, like plastic surgery or a quick cosmetic job.  I want to tell them that modernity is a natural and inevitable process. It will happen on its own. However, this doesn’t mean racing ahead to lose sight of the starting point. It doesn’t mean erasing the past from your bones. It means a slow but constant inner evolution and a responsiveness to change. In Saudi Arabia, the nature of change has engendered a lot of irresponsibility and disregard among the youth.” Through her condensed black and white aesthetics and the concentration of symbol and meaning in a contained space, she composes a stark visual reminder about identity, about the reality in our bones, about literally holding ourselves to light, to the light of history, to the light of self-analysis, to the light of awakening.

Under incisive light: What’s in our bones? What do you get when you take away the frills? ‘Ishemagh’ and ‘This way’ from the ‘Shemagh Mirage’ series about the Saudi city-man.


In her work, what she does is that she takes objects from her surroundings or immediate settings, and she just puts them together on a paper. Then, she exposes them under an enlarger. What happens is that a kind of unusual energy and interplay is created between them because of the combination. “My role as an artist is here, in the selection and the repositioning to create the most dynamic cross-currents”. It’s funny because as soon as the object is removed from its original context and reframed in a more contrived setting, its aura transforms. Otherwise a trinket or a cheap decoration, as soon as she puts it in the new energy zone, it mutates into something else unexpectedly. Sometimes, mundane objects transform into striking symbols when the distractions of colour and detail are removed and the silhouette remains. Then there are other factors acting upon the final effect, like the inherent drama of black and white, the play of light and shade after a certain distribution of light, and also the way objects set each other off. “As a technician, I’m finding a way to reduce objects to their basic core. I’m amused by the transformation myself, and frankly, can never exactly predict the final shape or feel of the work.”

Removing things from their original context and setting them up on a new plane gives surprising and new combinations. Their energies mutate beyond control and beyond imagination. ‘The Road to Mecca’ and ‘Barcoding 2’

By positioning these different objects in a kind of studied chaos, and by sometimes altering their original size, she creates a kind of theatre where the energies (physicality, sense of motion, direction, symbolic meaning) of these objects create a dream-like landscape, part eerie, part amusing. The final effect of the work is in its crisp black and white aesthetic and in the dramatic energy it exudes over and above its physicality, in the intersection of these auras. In the Shemagh Mirage series, which has the urban Saudi man for its theme, and explores him with relation to his possessions and environment, the scene created is like a street scene from a dream, where a man one saw yesterday walks a street from one’s childhood and a street sign points in a direction.


In other series like ‘Capturing Light’ where closed spaces are probed with an invasive light, she creates the impression of having used a source of light to penetrate the inner life of things at a time when they have risen secretly to life. The secret life of things in your bag, things that are inanimate by day, the aura of your luggage and the things which sit inside it snugly, what they look like when empowered under an enlarger and allowed to reveal their full energies. In ‘Unveiled’ from the series ‘Capturing Light’, the cutlery items in a box stir with a bizarre human energy and mimic the human dynamics of interaction.  Because of their voyeuristic nature, eeriness is never absent from them really. The series ‘Capturing Light’ has a streak of child horror. Although she carefully composes the scene by positioning objects of choice in a manner of choice, in the final work, one gets the feeling that the scene has been captured by a secret onlooker. “The touching and physical manipulation of objects is central to my art, which is why I bypassed photography for a more direct way of looking.”

‘Unveiled’, ‘Medication’, and ‘The Mouse’: Works where things rise to life unexpectedly have a freaky edge to them. You wouldn’t want to be in the same room as them at the same time as them.


In X-Rayed (the conclusive verb participle is telling), displayed at Terminal in 2011, she uses the same cross-sectional principle, but uses it to peer closer into how our choices define us when we leave a territory that is familiar to us. How, in a merciless reading, every item in our luggage can deliver a final judgment about who we are, where we come from and what our intentions are. Isolated from our persona and read as a statement on its own, in an increasingly mediatized world of abounding generalizations and stereotypes, ruthless in the way it seals peoples and lives, the final verdict can be sinister. Using as a base real luggage scans and superimposing objects of choice that deliberately point towards a misreading, the X-Rayed series explores how at borders, crossings, and immigration counters, we are mapped, evaluated, scanned, and bracketed in categories of permissibility, acceptability, safety, danger and threat while our luggage is scanned and our right of passage negotiated.


Works from the series X-Rayed, using real luggage scans and superimposing objects that can deliberately invite controversy or lead to misinterpretation.  ‘Our things define us’, Maha says, and nowhere more so than in travel where they deliver an absolute judgment about the broad ‘categories’ we belong to.
For Saudi artists, travel and international exposure have become a reality post-Edge of Arabia. During their frequent travels, they doubtlessly encounter simplistic stereotypes and half-baked generalizations about the land and its people. Their weapon of militancy is their art, which allows them to cross over, not just over a physical regulated barrier but at a deeper level, into the very hearts and minds of other people. The stamp of approval they receive there will certainly outlast the one they receive on their passport.

– Naima Rashid

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2 thoughts on “Holding things to light: Maha Malluh’s photograms

  1. Anonymous on said:

    As I author this, I am sharing a trip with Maha. She graciously conceded to hear my opinion of her art. Because an admitted neophyte (other than hearing of her efforts), I work hard to educate myself on her work. In viewing some of Maha’s photograms’s, etc., I’ve read a few interviews related to her subjects. I confess, with very little research, I am struck more by her thought and rationale driving her process. Perhaps more (unless rendered senseless because of MY insensitive critique !) on this later. Thanks.


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