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“The Ithra Art Prize represents hope. It is an important and transformative prize for an artist’s career.” | Daniah Al Saleh, 2019’s winner

Art Dubai talks to Saudi-born London-based Daniah Al Saleh, recently announced as the winner of the second edition of the Ithra Art Prize 2019.

A partnership between The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) and Art Dubai, the prize is open to all Saudi and Saudi-based artists. The winning artist receives a grant to realise their work, which is exhibited at Art Dubai before being moved to Ithra as part of its permanent collection.

Al Saleh’s practice is based around logic-based patterns and computational art, although she is also an accomplished painter. Her winning project for Ithra is Sawtam – a digital, audio-visual presentation based on the phonemes of the Arabic language, the effect of which is rather like a digital wind chime.


How do feel to have been awarded this prize?

It came as a shock, I did not expect it at all. It was so overwhelming that for a few days I couldn’t do anything. Once the realisation kicked in, I was overjoyed and began looking forward to making my proposal a reality. I am so honoured and humbled to have received this prestigious prize and would like to thank the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture and Ithra Team for this wonderful opportunity.

Daniah Alsaleh, 2019, Ithra Prize winner

How significant do you consider the Ithra prize to be for emerging artists like yourself?

The Ithra Art Prize represents hope. It is an important and transformative prize for an artist’s career especially with the significant financial support that it offers. For an emerging artist, it can be quite challenging to be taken seriously and so, it is absolutely vital to have a strong platform such as this to nurture talent and open opportunities to all (Saudi and Saudi-based) artists. Furthermore, the fact that I have won the prize for a new media proposal is encouraging. I believe it will allow other artists to be more adventurous and to explore non-traditional processes and media, as a means for creativity and expression.


Can you explain more about your work, Sawtam?

Sawtam is the Arabic translation of the English word, phoneme. The work consists of 28 screens, arranged in a 4×7 grid. Each screen is dedicated to a separate sound or phoneme, representing a letter of the Arabic alphabet and the installation is programmed to play the sounds at random, meaning that when a viewer stands in front of the work, they are enveloped within a wall of sound that is meaningless but comprised of the parts of verbal language that are used every day.

OutCasts, Daniah Alsaleh, 2019, Ithra Prize winner

Why did you decide to focus on language for this project?

My practice, in general, is based on things that are hidden in plain sight. I am interested in the things that we use every day but are unobtrusive. One of those things is speech or the act of talking. We do it all the time without thinking about the act itself. I decided to ask the question: if I deconstructed speech, what am I left with? The smallest entity of speech is the phoneme. Phoneme are the units from which we create language as well as the thoughts we want to express.


Can we talk about logistics? How did you create the visual part of Sawtam?

The output – what the viewer sees on each screen – is constructed from one coding programme, which we call a sketch. I created that sketch to generate lines, which move and change at random. That programme then works together with the voice file, for which I used my own voice to record each phoneme. The program is triggered by the wavelengths of the voice, which makes the lines vibrate. It may look simple but sometimes simple things are not simple at all. There are a lot of things going on under the surface. And that is what appeals to me.

Why did you choose this particular aesthetic to visualise phonemes?

I don’t want to sound too cliché, but I think there is something hypnotic about moving lines in space, especially when they are moving in a random structure. I think the abstract nature of any phoneme when heard as a single sound, is echoed in the randomness of the rendering of the lines.


Do you place significance on the fact that as a Saudi artist, used your own voice, a female voice, for this artwork?

Yes, I do. To me, as a female Saudi artist, this is a powerful statement. Using my own voice has multiple meanings for me. First, it gives me confidence that I am placing myself into the artwork in an unconventional way and second, I want the viewer to identify with the female voice. The intent is that the longer anyone spends with the work, the more questions arise from it. I would like to see a continuous dialogue where the visitor leaves with more questions   than answers.

Ashwag, Daniah Alsaleh, 2019, Ithra prize winner

What about your concept, do you have a specific message in mind with Sawtam?

I’m not going to impose my idea on the audience, they will all have different interpretations of the work and there are so many interpretations to be taken from this piece.

A parallel example of the effect I wanted to create was a wind chime. In the same way as the wind moves the chimes and creates a sound, the air that we use to produce the sound of our voices, vibrates the lines in my coding.


Are you in a position now to reflect on the impact that winning this prize will have on your career?

Well, clearly, I don’t know what will happen in the future but I do know that it is a good time to be a Saudi artist right now. The art scene in Saudi has moved on in great strides over the past five or six years. With the emergence of festivals such as 21,39, Jaou and Athr Gallery’s open calls, the art scene opened up to an international audience. Furthermore, People within Saudi were exposed to new kinds of art and I found an opportunity to show my pieces. For me personally, I exhibited in the first edition of 21,39, then got signed by Athr, began exhibiting my work and the story starts from there. Now, with this Ithra win, I don’t know where I’m heading but I’m excited about what lies ahead.

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