Preserving the Tapestry of Saudi Culture: Art of Heritage’s Mission to Safeguard Tradition

Nestled in the heart of Riyadh, Art of Heritage stands as a guardian of Saudi Arabia’s cultural legacy. Led by HRH Princess Nourah Alfaisal since 2023, the organization has taken on the mission of safeguarding the nation’s treasured artifacts, traditional crafts, and timeless stories.

Princess Alfaisal recognizes the vital role Art of Heritage plays in preserving Saudi Arabia’s rich cultural techniques and traditions, diligently amassing and archiving a vast museum collection. The group’s collection is a treasure trove of the Kingdom’s heritage, featuring an extensive range of one-of-a-kind objects that serve as tangible embodiments of Saudi Arabia’s vibrant traditions, captivating history, and unique artistic expressions.

The organization’s journey began in 2009, when Princess Alfaisal’s predecessor, Somaya Badr, played a pivotal role in establishing Art of Heritage as an independent entity. It maintains its affiliation with the Al-Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women, a longstanding charitable organization in the Kingdom founded by prominent figures including HRH Princess Sarah Al-Faisal and HRH Princess Latifa Al-Faisal.

Under Princess Alfaisal’s leadership, Art of Heritage has become a driving force in the conservation and promotion of Saudi Arabia’s culture, with a commitment to authenticity and excellence. Over the past four decades, the organization has painstakingly collected an unparalleled collection of over 57,000 artifacts, ranging from exquisitely crafted textiles, intricate jewelry, ornate doors, and carpets to historically significant maps and photographs. This extensive archive offers a fascinating glimpse into the nation’s past.

“These traditional Saudi crafts are the very foundation of our national identity,” says Princess Alfaisal. “They represent the roots from which our heritage grew and blossomed.” She emphasizes the potential for Art of Heritage to champion the passing of these heritage skills to future generations, empowering youth with access to their artistic identity and providing a springboard for creative expression aligned with Vision 2030’s goals of cultural evolution.

Princess Alfaisal addresses one of the main misconceptions the world has about Saudi fashion heritage, the notion that it lacks vibrancy and color. Beneath the stereotypical image of Saudi women, often portrayed as figures draped from head to toe in black, lies a hidden vivid world that is rarely considered. Traditionally, garments are crafted from bright silks and cottons, adorned with meticulously embroidered geometric patterns that serve as a reflection of the diverse tribes and geographical regions spanning the Kingdom, each with its own unique cultural expression.

Saudi Arabia’s significance as a cultural hub blossomed from the seventh century onwards, a pivotal era that witnessed the remarkable flourishing of the Kingdom’s influence on the world stage. The expansion of Arab empires and the influx of pilgrims to Mecca and Madinah brought influences from far-flung corners of North Africa, India, and China. Within the Kingdom, regional styles emerged, each with distinct characteristics.

“There is such a captivating variety and richness to Saudi Arabia’s regional crafts that I think would genuinely surprise global audiences,” says Princess Alfaisal. “Many may associate traditional Saudi dress with very muted, monotone colors and simple designs due to assumptions about the desert environment and cultural norms. This could not be further from the truth. From the brilliant embroidery and mirror work of the Bedouin traditions, and the bold geometric motifs of Asiri dress, to the dazzling metallic threadwork of Hejazi attire – Saudi fashion is a kaleidoscope of artistry.”

Art of Heritage is more than just a guardian of history; it is a catalyst for cultural revival and empowerment. Through its Yadawi initiative, the organization is breathing new life into endangered traditions utilizing the skills of Saudi artisans, including craftswomen of determination. Shamma Al Otaibi, a skilled artisan who embarked on her creative journey with Art of Heritage over 28 years ago, exemplifies the organization’s commitment to nurturing and collaborating with a diverse range of talented individuals.

Reflecting on her experiences, Al Otaibi recounts, “Initially, I focused on printing and drawing patterns on various materials. It was challenging to master the techniques required for different fabrics like velvet, linen, and chiffon, but I persevered and found my passion in this field. Art of Heritage provided me with the freedom to express myself through drawing on abayas and exploring decoupage techniques.”

Al Otaibi flourished under the guidance of Art of Heritage, as she explains, “When I joined the organization, I only knew how to draw, but through the courses and workshops, I acquired a range of new skills. Embroidery, which was once unfamiliar to me, became a newfound talent. I also mastered clay work, from shaping and smoothing to painting and finishing. The supportive environment at Art of Heritage allowed me to excel in every stage of my artistic development.”

Art of Heritage’s involvement with the Saudi National Bank’s Ahalina program for social change has been an impetus for meaningful collaboration with the Heritage Commission, enabling the organization to offer a range of initiatives, empowering the Kingdom’s local craft community in a transformative way.

To many of those working across Saudi Arabia’s cultural landscape, including Princess Alfaisal, the potential loss of heritage crafts poses a grave threat to the nation’s cultural identity. These artisanal skills, meticulously honed and passed down through generations, are at risk of being lost forever as demand for traditional crafts wanes in modern markets. The erosion of these invaluable skills not only diminishes the country’s rich artistic legacy, but also threatens to sever the vital connection between the Kingdom’s past and present.

Recognizing the urgency of this situation, Art of Heritage has made the preservation and promotion of the nation’s cultural treasures a core mission that lies at the very heart of its existence. “We have immense respect for the vital work being done by the Ministry of Culture and other leading organizations to protect, educate about, and revive interest in these heritage crafts,” says Princess Alfaisal. “Ultimately, our goal is to reignite demand and open new markets for Saudi’s skilled craftspeople by positioning their work as luxurious heritage products that seamlessly blend tradition with today’s design aesthetics. These crafts don’t just represent our identity – they embody the ingenuity and resilient creative spirit of our people across centuries. As such, they deserve to be popularized and celebrated both locally and globally as priceless national cultural ambassadors.”

By expanding its training programs, Art of Heritage aims to create a platform that not only preserves traditional crafts, but also equips artisans with the tools and support they need to thrive in the modern world, carrying forward the Kingdom’s historical heritage while also finding innovative ways to adapt and flourish in contemporary markets.

Beyond its modest pottery roots, Art of Heritage now presents a high-end collection of colorful abayas and thobes, hand-embroidered with poignant visual stories, alongside its hand-painted ceramic treasures. Art of Heritage has embraced this evolution that combines various materials and techniques to create contemporary luxury pieces. “The vision is to provide our customers with a curated collection that brings Saudi heritage craftsmanship into modern living spaces. With our talented artisans’ skills and our team’s innovative spirit, we believe Yadawi is perfectly poised to satisfy this increasing consumer demand for elevated, authentic Saudi-made home goods and accent pieces in the Kingdom and beyond.”

Princess Alfaisal is adamant that the message she wishes to convey through Art of Heritage is one of celebration. “My hope is that in 10 years, the Saudi heritage landscape will be transformed into one where traditional artisan communities are thriving, supported by training institutes that pass down ancestral crafts to a new generation,” she says. “These new generations will fuse contemporary and heritage designs across fashion, homeware, and beyond, introducing Saudi aesthetics to global audiences. In addition, comprehensive digital archives partnered with robust educational initiatives in schools and universities that will fortify the preservation and evolution of this phenomenal heritage. That is my dream.”

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