Photo gallery gives rare look into history of Saudi Arabia

GVL / Rachel Iturralde
A student admires the piece Just a Glint in the Eye by Ilo Battigelli. Battigellis images from Saudi Arabia are featured on the Red Wall Gallery located in Lake Ontario Hall

Rachel Iturralde

GVL / Rachel Iturralde A student admires the piece “Just a Glint in the Eye” by Ilo Battigelli. Battigelli’s images from Saudi Arabia are featured on the Red Wall Gallery located in Lake Ontario Hall

Stephanie Allen

Black-and-white photos depicting a rare history of Saudi Arabia are now on display at the Red Wall Gallery on Grand Valley State University’s Allendale Campus.

The series, “Saudi Arabia: 1946-1954,” gives GVSU students, faculty and staff an interesting photographic look at the formation of the Saudi Arabia kingdom.

“I feel connected with a foreign place,” said freshman Matt Oberski, photography major at GVSU. “You can grasp their emotions and the different culture.”

The 18 photos were taken by the Italian photographer Ilo Battigelli and brought to GVSU by Sebastian Maisel, a modern languages and literature professor at GVSU.

The free exhibit is broken into four categories: village life, portraits, landscapes and the king. Each gives a detailed look at Saudi Arabia’s developing kingdom.

Oberski said “Keif Alek,” which translates to “How are you,” is his favorite photo. It shows two children holding each other’s faces, laughing.

“They’re having fun,” he said. “American people might misjudge them because of the way they are dressed, but (the photo) makes them seem just like everyone else. It makes them look innocent.”

Battigelli started capturing the unseen faces and villages, after being hired by the Aramco Oil Company in the mid 1940s.

He was granted permission to explore the Eastern Province and produce pictures by King Abdul Aziz, with whom he gained a close friendship, said Paris Tennenhouse, GVSU exhibit and collections design manager.

Before Battigelli, life in the Saudi Arabia kingdom was unknown and remained unseen to the Western world, Tennenhouse said. He documented social and economical life of citizens during the time he spent there, she said.

“(The photos) give insight to a time and a culture that rarely had been seen,” Tennenhouse said. “It’s culturally, historically and politically important.”

Battigelli is hailed as a great photographer by the Italian and Saudi Arabian governments for his attention to detail and ability to document the strong role Italy played in the kingdom’s history. An obituary on the Aramco website said he retired to Italy with his wife in 2000, and passed away in 2009.

Tennenhouse urges students to look at the photos to better understand the rich history of the Saudi Arabia kingdom.

“The photos are individually interesting in themselves,” she said.

The exhibition runs through March 1. More information about the exhibition, and the gallery located in Lake Ontario Hall, is available at

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