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Saudi artists in search of their roots

Saudi artists increasingly find opportunities to showcase their creations and be heard inside the country

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All eyes are on Saudi artists. Traditionally in need to find places outside the Kingdom to exhibit their works, Saudi artists increasingly find opportunities to showcase their creations and be heard inside the country.

The second edition of the Jeddah Art Week as well as the new initiative ’21,39’ Jeddah Arts, which both took place during the first 8 days of February, are just two examples of newly-found platforms.

The latter, which will run its program for two full months, is organized by the Saudi Art Council, a recently established group of Saudi art enthusiasts that have the praiseworthy ambition of “transforming Jeddah into a world-class cultural destination”, or so writes the council’s chairman, Princess Jawaher Bint Majed Bin Abdulaziz.

With the aim to create an annually recurrent event, ’21,39’ chose “A Narrative of Saudi Art” as its theme for the first year.

Its main components are two group exhibitions that explore the Saudi contemporary as well as the modern art scene.

The idea behind it is simple: If you want to understand the present, you have to know the past.

Or, as Saudi Art Council member and curator Aya Alireza puts it, “The contemporary art scene has so much attention on it right now, (but) nobody really knows the foundations and history of the art movements in the country, so we’re trying to answer that question for (the public).”

Appropriately, the modern art group exhibition carries the title “Past is Prologue”.

The selection of 24 works is somewhat random — the only criterion being to “show the oldest works we could find”, according to Alireza, which are not very old in a country that only recently celebrated its 80-year existence.

As a result, one will find some works from the late-1960s and ‘70s, but mostly from the ‘80s and ‘90s and even several from the 21st century.

The paintings are a careful attempt at founding a Saudi art scene, very much elaborating on European art movements including cubism, surrealism, and expressionism.

This is not surprising, as most of these artists in the 1960s went on scholarships to Rome, Florence, or London to come back home “not to have a career as artists, but to teach it,” Alireza explained.

Inspiration for the subjects, on the other hand, was found in their country’s heritage and culture, triggered by the oil boom of the 1970s and its consequent exponential modernization and urbanization.

Several artists, including renowned Safeya Binzagr, thus saw themselves obliged to document the social history, traditions and folklore before modernization had washed them away.

Careful not to cross “no-go” boundaries, the artists were not simply observers of the economic and social changes; many criticized the greed and individualism that the newly-acquired wealth often brought along. One of them is Bakr Sheikhoon, a forefather of conceptual art in the Kingdom.

His first conceptual painting “The Riyal” from 1983 is about someone inheriting SR1 million from his father.

Loosely translated, it reads, “I wish I had inherited a thousand fathers, so then it would be a lot more money,” Sheikhoon explained during the opening. The message towards society is clear.

Once the public has familiarized itself with the foundation of the Saudi art scene, the organizers believe, it can better grasp the contemporary art scene exhibited in “Moallaqat”, which visitors paradoxically will pass before they reach the “Past is Prologue” exhibition. The reason the organizers have chosen this order remains unclear.

“Moallaqat” refers to the collection of seven poems by the most renowned poets of pre-Islamic Arabia that were hung on curtains covering the Kaaba.

Indeed, albeit contemporary, the exhibition’s title dates back thousands of years ago, indicative of the continuous search of Saudi artists for their roots.

Whether it is through the materials used, the themes covered, or the use of traditional shapes and patterns, the artists clearly keep ‘hanging’ onto their past. Perhaps the Kingdom’s scene is still too fresh to break away from this rooted identity and explore completely new terrains.

Again – or continuously – several artists criticize aspects in today’s society, such as the taboo of expressing love or even say the name of your lover conveyed in Dania Al-Saleh’s “Ahwak” (“I adore you).

Depicting a man in white and a woman in black – although someone unfamiliar with the Saudi thobe and abaya could think the opposite – the two persons are made up of 10-pointed stars, while their hearts are two golden, five-pointed stars. The heart “is a mirror and reflection of each other’s eyes,” explained Al-Saleh, who uses Islamic geometry combined with non-conventional colors.

“If they unite it becomes a 10-pointed star.” Sadly, the two persons in love are “surrounded by red dots depicting love or danger.”

Much attention draws Manal Aldowayan with her “Tree of Guardians”. The project — as the installation is merely the result of an extensive research — saw the participation of around 400 women who were asked to answer two questions: “When do women disappear from memory?” and “What is active forgetting?” Aldowayan explained: “In Saudi Arabia, family trees do not include women.

So women’s names are only remembered through memory, and the possibility of women disappearing from memory is very high.”

The result is a women-only family tree of metallic leaves on which the participating women wrote the names of their mothers, grandmothers, up until the ninth generation — of which only eight women are remembered.

Important for Aldowayan, however, is the ripple effect the project has had on the women participating in it, as well as on visitors when they move away and start thinking about their own female family tree.

Co-curators Aya Alireza and Raneem Farsi have undoubtedly done a good job capturing major Saudi artists in two group exhibitions at one venue.

Whether it will teach society about the Saudi art scene and stir its enthusiasm largely depends on the volunteers’ ability to explain the works and ideas behind them to visitors during the guided tours that will be held for both individuals and groups.

The “Moallaqat” and “Past is Prologue” group exhibitions are open to the public until April 4 at Gold Moor Mall in Jeddah.

This article was first published in The Saudi Gazette on Feb. 22, 2014.