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The heart of Islam on view in Washington, DC

As US presidential candidates debate Muslim immigration, Saudi artist Ahmed Mater depicts the ultra-conservative country’s urban redevelopment in Smithsonian show

by Gareth Harris  |  15 March 2016
The heart of Islam on view in Washington, DC
Ahmed Mater, Golden Hour (2011) from his series Desert of Pharan captures the rampant redevelopment around Mecca that has turned Islam’s holiest site into a luxury destination
A new exhibition focusing on Saudi Arabia, the geographic heart of Islam, is due to open this week in Washington, DC. Symbolic Cities: The Work of Ahmed Mater at the Smithsonian Institute’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (19 March-18 September) focuses on the Jeddah-based artist’s landscape photography, which documents the rapid transformation of the ultra-conservative Middle Eastern state.

The exhibition could not be timelier, with immigration, and how Muslims are treated and perceived, dominating the agenda in the US Presidential election campaign. The Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, for example, has called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”.

Ahmed Mater
Ahmed Mater
“I am optimistically nervous about the show,” Mater says. “I think it’s very important that people in the US see different aspects of Islamic art. There is a hyper-capitalist culture here in the US, as there is in many ways in Saudi Arabia. Art and culture, which cannot be isolated from socio-political issues, should unite us. People forget that we have many concerns and challenges in common.”

And what are his thoughts on Trump and the US election? “Americans have a choice. They have a new voice for justice and fairness and equal opportunity in [the Democrat candidate] Bernie Sanders,” Mater says, adding that the Vermont senator’s message of social and economic inequality “resonates not just in America, but across the Middle East as well”.

  • Ahmed Mater, Crisis, from the series Ashab Al-Lal/ Fault Mirage: A Thousand Lost Years, wood slide viewer with glass slide. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Athr
  • Ahmed Mater, Crisis, from the series Ashab Al-Lal/ Fault Mirage: A Thousand Lost Years, wood slide viewer with glass slide. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Athr
  • Ahmed Mater, Concrete Lapidation, from the series Desert of Pharan (2011-13). Photo: courtesy of the artist
  • Ahmed Mater, Golden Hour (2011) from his series Desert of Pharan
Mater’s Desert of Pharan series (2011-13) captured the rampant redevelopment around Mecca that has turned Islam’s holiest site into a luxury destination (the super-sized images show a mass of cranes dwarfing the Kaaba). Aerial shots called Empty Land (2011) depict features dotted around the desert such as funfairs, factories and tanks.

A new project, Ashab Al Lal/Fault Mirage: a Thousand Lost Years (2015), is a series of slides drawn from private archives. “They overlay key points in Saudi’s recent history… examining the mutual influence of religion and urbanism on current experience,” says Mater, who trained as a doctor.

Mater’s first solo show in the US is presented in collaboration with Culturunners, the touring project connecting artists across the Middle East, Europe and the US. The exhibition is also backed by Art Jameel, the cultural arm of the Abdul Latif Jameel Group, a Saudi Arabia-based conglomerate.

A Culturunners press statement says: “Today, Saudi Arabia looms large in the collective American consciousness, eliciting effusive intrigue and occluded by misinformation in equal measure. These exterior narratives, often spun by media or politicians, are in flux.”

A series of parallel talks focusing on Saudi culture and politics will be held across Washington, DC.

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