In the Middle East, there are only three important art centers: Beirut, Sharjah, and Jeddah.
Or so opines Chris Dercon, director of the Tate Gallery of Modern Art, the most visited museum in the world located in London.
Dercon was talking at a symposium organized as part of the "21,39 Jeddah Arts" opening events, which took place from February 4 to 8 all over the city and included openings of exhibitions, tours, workshops, and a symposium.
He said the difference with other cities in the Middle East is that Jeddah has the “social fabric” to become a major art hub.
“There is not only a wave of enthusiasm and interest; there is not only a wave of young artists trying to produce something and trying to say something; there are also people who carry these things and take things further,” he said, referring to the organizers of "21,39" and the financial support they received from 37 prominent families in Jeddah.
While "21,39" laid the foundation of something very important, “you’re still lacking something,” Dercon continued.
“What we do need here, Your Royal Highness [Princess Jawaher Bint Majed Bin Abdulaziz], as soon as possible, is art education.”
Talking on the sidelines of the symposium, Dercon said the result of the lack of art education and art schools is that the creators of art here come from many different classes. “They’re both young and old. They have odd jobs, most of the time. They’re coming a lot through science.”
Calling it a “bottom-up movement”, Dercon said artists here really want to develop a proper language for themselves. Although the “lack of rules” and the “lack of own cultural space” is a problem, artists manage to use these hindrances “as a positive kind of thing” that forces them “to do something different. That makes it another kind of art scene [in Saudi]. They defy conventions about what an artist is, they defy conventions about how to produce art, and it creates something vibrant and […] something new.”
The "21,39 Jeddah Arts" opening event, the first thing organized by the newly-established Saudi Art Council, coincided with the second edition of the Jeddah Art Week (JAW) from February 1 to 6, as well as the opening of the open air public sculpture museum on the Hamra Corniche, which saw the restoration of sculptures by masters like Henry Moore and Joan Miro that have been in the city since the 1970s.
Indeed, the notion of Jeddah as an art hub is not something new, but the recently established art weeks, councils, and galleries in addition to the new appreciation for the public sculptures are an expression of the inhabitants’ hunger for more.
"21,39" succeeded in attracting major names to the city on the Red Sea for its opening event, such as the above mentioned Dercon, Curator Catherine David, and Anne Pasternak, president and creative director of New York-based Creative Time.
This brought along high expectations for the symposium, and the result was somewhat unsatisfactory.
As one curator, who requested anonymity, described it "It didn’t go much beyond congratulating each other on the success of the event."
A few interesting comments aside, the discussion panels were merely monologues and shallow observations by the artists, curators, collectors, etc., while other subjects covered, such as the struggle most artists face between the need to make a living and the necessity to get the space and time from galleries to develop an artwork, are hardly groundbreaking in the art world.
This might have been a result of the inexperience of the organizers or, perhaps more likely, the fear to express criticism.
Without talking about the art scene in the Kingdom in particular, Dercon elaborated on the latter when he said in his speech that “the art world is the only discipline where we’re not allowed to say anymore that something is bad.
When you speak critically about a work of art people take their tea and coffee and disappear, because you might offend somebody. Can you imagine? You might offend somebody when you say it’s not a good work of art!” he exclaimed.
Art is often seen as a personal expression which then evolves into telling the outside world something about identity.
This notion is especially interesting for women artists in the Kingdom, whose work is “very personal and at the same time they are incredibly aware that their work is going to be perceived by people they really don’t know,” as Dercon put it.
Artist Manal Aldowayan slightly touched upon this subject, remarking that “the local society decides to make you as the voice of the group, while in reality you are a single individual representing yourself in art. But then you become the voice of Saudi women, the voice of Muslim women, the voice of the Middle East.”
This may be triggered by the fact that Saudi art is still in its infancy, or that the Kingdom remains such a mysterious country for so many people all over the world.
Art education inside the country would certainly help the Saudi population to understand their country’s art better, while establishing art schools would teach artists within the country to express themselves better and develop their work.
However, no miracles can be expected from institutionalizing art.
Even in most (Western) countries with a well-established art education system, art remains something appreciated only by a small percentage of the society despite all the efforts being done to stir enthusiasm for art among children.
(This article was first published in Saudi Gazette on Feb. 11, 2014)