Saudi Arabia as hub of the Middle East art scene this week: surprised?
Two events, Jeddah Art Week and “21,39”, bring contemporary art to the Gulf
By Gareth Harris. Web only
Published online: 01 February 2014
A decade ago, there were green shoots of activity in Saudi Arabia’s contemporary art scene, but two major art festivals embracing the country’s artistic heritage, with a focus on contemporary art, would have been unthinkable. Now, two cultural festivals are taking place in Jeddah, with Saudi Arabia staking its claim to be a new Middle Eastern arts hub.
Jeddah Art Week (1-6 February), now in its second year, is led by Lina Lazaar, the international contemporary art specialist at Sotheby’s. Backed by Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture and Information and the Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives charity, Lazaar has drawn together a wide-ranging and sometimes edgy programme of events, encompassing 13 exhibitions.
“Kakaibang Jeddah!” at the Al Furusiya venue includes works by 15 Jeddah-based Filipino photographers, throwing new light on Saudi’s west coast trading metropolis, which is home to thousands of Filipino migrant workers. “Single Saudi Women”, a photography exhibition by Wasma Mansour, also at Al Furusiya, deals with the radical subject matter of Saudi women living independently in London. “My photographs are a part of research that seeks to widen the debate on Saudi women’s discourse, by offering a nuanced portrayal of their realities and experiences,” Mansour says. “The work looks at how single Saudi women renegotiate their social and gender roles while navigating social norms, both in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.”
Meanwhile, Ayyam Gallery, founded by the Syrian cousins Khaled and Hisham Samawi, will present a group show of six contemporary Saudi artists, including the soldier artist Abdulnasser Gharem and the satyrist Shaweesh, in its Jeddah space (“Contemporary Kingdom”, until 28 February). Sotheby’s expands its reach in the Gulf, with an exhibition of highlights, including works by Damien Hirst and Mounir Fatmi, consigned to its April sale in Doha.
“Jeddah Art Week aims to nurture grass roots movements, while opening up its horizons to the global contemporary art world. We like to think of it as ‘C2C’ initiative: by the community, for the community,” Lazaar says. “It is simply a matter of providing additional support and the development of more contemporary art platforms and programmes. There are of course challenges, as with any art scene, but, they are surmountable when the community pulls together.”
The general public should see the benefits too, with the launch of a new open-air museum north of the Al Anani mosque, home to 20 monumental bronze sculptures by artists such as Henry Moore, Alexander Calder and Joan Miró. The works, previously sited on Jeddah’s Corniche, have, since the 1980s, been invaluable landmarks for local taxi drivers. The sculpture trail fell, however, into a state of neglect (a handful of works remain at the original waterfront site). Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives subsequently launched a programme to restore the sculptures, which have been conserved by the UK company Plowden & Smith.
Meanwhile, HRH Princess Jawaher bint Majed bin Abdulaziz is the driving force behind the other new annual event, “21,39” (the map coordinates for Jeddah), comprising exhibitions, educational workshops, artists’ studio visits, gallery openings and talks (4-8 February). She founded the Saudi Art Council seven months ago, a 15-member body made up of key Saudi collectors, curators and dealers, including Mohammed Hafiz, the co-founder of Athr gallery, a contemporary art space in Jeddah. “21,39 is the first product of the council,” Hafiz says. “The art scene here started from the bottom up, through artists and patrons. This event takes it to the next level.”
An important art-historical aspect of the programme is the exhibition “Past is Prologue” (4 February-4 April), which includes 24 works by pioneering post-war Saudi artists such as Taha Sabban, Safeya Binzagr and Ali Safar. “The oil boom in Saudi Arabia during the 1970s caused very rapid modernisation and urbanisation, with a consequent concern that an entire way of life would change… Binzagr and Safar considered their works a visual record of the social framework of the time, capturing local street scenes and family life on canvas,” the organisers say.
Hafiz outlines why the show matters, saying: “With all of the hype over contemporary art, few scholars have focused on the foundations of Saudi art today.” The exhibition has been organised by Raneem Farsi and Ayya Alireza, who have overseen a parallel show, “Moallaqat” (4 February-4 April). This includes works by 20 contemporary artists, including Ahmed Mater and Faisal Samra, who interpret the eponymous collection of seven poems written by renowned poets of pre-Islamic Arabia. Both exhibitions will be held in a temporary space in the Gold Moor Mall.
The organisers of “21,39” also hope to spread interest in Al Balad, the historic area of the city: “We have organised public art workshops there,” Hafiz says. The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities resubmitted an application to Unesco earlier in January for inclusion of “Historic Jeddah: the Gate to Makkah”, incorporating Al Balad, on its World Heritage Site. Unesco’s World Heritage Committee is due to consider the application at its annual meeting in June. “Historical Jeddah was submitted in 2011 but Saudi Arabia withdrew the nomination before it came up for discussion during the session,” a Unesco spokesman says.
Thoughtful international symposia with heavyweight curators and artists are the cornerstones of both festivals. A forum at “21,39” focusing on the role of Saudi art as a major player in the art world (6 February) includes such speakers as Chris Dercon, director of Tate Modern in London, and Hoor Al Qassimi, president of the Sharjah Art Foundation. The artists Ahmed Mater, Shaweesh and Abdulnasser Gharem are due to participate in "Global Contemporary Art and Its Networks" (3 February), a one-day symposium in Dar Al Hekma university that is part of Jeddah Art Week.
Gharem believes that both festivals will bolster the commercial and critical standing of the Saudi art scene, which still lacks a dedicated art publication and contemporary art museum. “It’s motivating us Saudis to be on the art radar as well. It’s good to start with Art Week and gradually grow from there. That is what will give us the confidence to create bigger art events in Saudi in the future, God willing,” he says.
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