Majlis painting, also called nagash painting, is the decoration of the majlis or front parlor of traditional Arabic homes in the Asir province of Saudi Arabia and adjoining parts of Yemen These wall paintings, an arabesque form of mural or fresco, show various geometric designs in bright colors: “Called nagash in Arabic, the wall paintings were a mark of pride for a woman in her house.” The geometric designs and heavy lines seem to be adapted from the area’s textile and weaving patterns. “In contrast with the sobriety of architecture and decoration in the rest of Arabia, exuberant color and ornamentation characterize those of ‘Asir. The painting extends into the house over the walls and doors, up the staircases, and onto the furniture itself. When a house is being painted, women from the community help each other finish the job. The building then displays their shared taste and knowledge. Mothers pass these on to their daughters. This artwork is based on a geometry of straight lines and suggests the patterns common to textile weaving, with solid bands of different colors. Certain motifs reappear, such as the triangular mihrab ‘or niche’ and the palmette. In the past, paint was produced from mineral and vegetable pigments. Cloves and alfalfa yielded green. Blue came from the indigo plant. Red came from pomegranates and a certain mud. Paintbrushes were created from the tough hair found in a goat’s tail. Today, however, women use modern manufactured paint to create new looks, which have become an indicator of social and economic change.”
Majlis (Arabic: مجلس) is an Arabic term meaning “a place of sitting”, used in the context of “council”, to describe various types of special gatherings among common interest groups be it administrative, social or religious in countries with linguistic or cultural connections to Islamic countries. It shares its root with the verb meaning ‘to sit,’ جلس jalasa (cf. British English ‘sitting room’).
The term Majlis is used to refer to a private place where guests are received and entertained. Among the Shia community the term Majlis is used as a verb meaning to the gathering who came to remember Ahl al-Bayt and in particular Hussain ibn-e-Ali. The term Majlis is also used to refer to a private place where guests, usually male, are received and entertained. Frequently, the room has cushions placed around the walls where the visitors sit, either with the cushions placed directly on the floor or upon a raised shelf.
In many Arab homes, the majlis is the meeting room or front parlor used to entertain visitors. In Saudi Arabia, the decoration of the majlis in the home is often the responsibility of the women of the house, who either decorate the area themselves or barter with other women to do it for them. In the Asir Province and in neighboring parts of Yemen, geometric designs and bright colors are used in “majlis painting” or nagash painting. The term majlis is used to refer to a private place where house guests and friends are received and entertained. Because hospitality is taken seriously, many families take pride in making their guests comfortable when visiting.
Women’s art work
Women in the Asir province often complete the decoration and painting of the house interior. “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.” When women did not want to paint the walls themselves, they could barter with other women who would do the work. Several Saudi women have become famous as majlis painters, such as Fatima Abou Gahas.
The interior walls of the home are brightly painted by the women, who work in defined patterns with lines, triangles, squares, diagonals and tree-like patterns. “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.”
“The women also offer handmade products such as the brightly painted clay incense burners and miniature ‘Asiri houses that are popular knickknacks, especially among Saudi city-dwellers. The model houses are examples in miniature of what the province’s women actually do on a much larger scale: The clean whites and dozens of vivid colors that make the region’s homes so distinctive have long been prepared by women. In the traditional home, women are responsible for plastering and painting the walls, corridors and ceilings after men finish building them. This practice has resulted in uniquely expressive interiors, as women often compete with neighbors and relatives in the development of elaborate geometric patterns and color combinations. Saudis from other areas of the country often find these colorful houses of ‘Asir a source of wonder, an outspoken contrast with what have become the customary Saudi residences, which are decorated in far more uniform fashion, much like European and North American homes.”
Sometimes public waiting rooms are also called a majlis, since this is an area where people meet and visit. Here the traditional “majlis painting or nagash painting has been added to the interior design of the room. The provincial airport in Abha has recently been designed to reflect the cultural heritage of the region, an airport official said: “Abha is the first city in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to have its airport decorated in a local-heritage style,” said Provincial Airport Director Abdul Aziz Abu Harba. “The seating arrangement at the airport lounge has been in the form of a traditional majlis and the walls are painted in various colors reflecting the natural beauty of Asir.”
The provincial airport in Abha has been designed to reflect the cultural heritage of the region, an airport official said# “Abha is the first city in the Kingdom to have its airport decorated in a local-heritage style,” said Provincial Airport Director Abdul Aziz Abu Harba. “The seating arrangement at the airport lounge has been in the form of a traditional majlis and the walls are painted in various colors reflecting the natural beauty of Asir#”
In the Najd province of Saudi Arabia, wall coverings include stars shapes and other geometric designs carved into the wall covering itself. “Courtyards and upper pillared porticoes are principal features of the best Nadjdi architecture, in addition to the fine incised plaster wood (jiss) and painted window shutters, which decorate the reception rooms. Good examples of plasterwork can often be seen in the gaping ruins of torn-down buildings- the effect is light, delicate and airy. It is usually around the majlis, around the coffee hearth and along the walls above where guests sat on rugs, against cushions. Doughty wondered if this “parquetting of jis”, this “gypsum fretwork… all adorning and unenclosed” originated from India. However, the Najd fretwork seems very different from that seen in the Eastern Province and Oman, which are linked to Indian traditions, and rather resembles the motifs and patterns found in ancient Mesopotamia. The rosette, the star, the triangle and the stepped pinnacle pattern of dadoes are all ancient patterns, and can be found all over the Middle East of antiquity. Qassim seems to be the home of this art, and there it is normally worked in hard white plaster. In Riyadh, examples can be seen in unadorned clay.”