In Saudi Arabia where most forms of entertainment are forbidden, art has taken to the streets. Dozens of paintings are being displayed on outdoor advertising billboards in the capital Riyadh and other cities in what organisers say is the kingdom’s first public art show.

‘It is something new,’ said al-Khereiji, deputy chief executive of Al-Arabia Outdoor, the advertising firm behind the exhibition. It opened Monday night along Riyadh’s glitzy Tahlia Street and runs until Saturday. ‘For the first time, art is presented to the public,’ although small indoor exhibitions have previously taken place in the kingdom, he said.

Sculptures have also been displayed in the open, including a permanent display along the corniche in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, and the country has some small galleries. With about 3,400 billboards showing 80 paintings by Saudi artists, Khereiji called it ‘the biggest art gallery in the Middle East’. Normally on Tahlia Street, the only things on show are flashy cars cruising past the boulevard’s wide sidewalks, outdoor cafes, and high-end restaurants serving Western cuisine.

The kingdom, which practises a Salafist version of Islam, bans alcohol even in luxury hotels, does not allow cinemas or theatres, and strictly separates the sexes. ‘The culture and the society do not encourage artists and it is difficult to be an artist in this society,’ said Majed Saud al-Mefareh, in front of a billboard featuring his painting, ‘Story’. It is a patchwork of abstract figures and images depicting Saudi life and traditions.

Mefareh, 38, who holds a regular job in administration, said he has been a part-time painter for about two decades because he enjoys his hobby and knows that ‘some people in our society like it’ too. The inaugural exhibition should help more Saudis to appreciate the visual arts, he said. Sultan al-Adwani, a curious onlooker who works at the interior ministry, said the outdoor gallery seemed like a good idea.

‘It’s better than inside the building,’ he said in the chilly evening air as waiters served glasses of juice to invited guests outside a French restaurant.