DUBAI: When Ahmed Mater visited Mecca in 2010 something felt off. Dozens of cranes were eating away at the mosque to make way for a larger complex surrounding the Kaaba.
The changes were irrevocably transforming the city’s landscape. So the practicing physician and contemporary artist took pictures. He titled his project “Desert of Pharan” in a nod to Mecca’s ancient name.
The kingdom’s art scene has become a platform for Saudi artists to voice their frustration about the country’s most sensitive issues without having to come into friction with the state’s rulers, reaching the public in new ways and allowing individual points of view in a country where ultraconservative norms have long prevailed.
Saudi artists say they are at the frontier of the kingdom’s censorship redlines, muddying its boundaries through art.
“Through my art, I am clearly making a critique,” Mater said. “I am also acting as a witness to the changes and taking part with an opinion and a voice. I believe the artist’s role is to expose the truth.”
Manal al-Dowayan’s exhibitions focus on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. “Crash,” her current exhibition at Dubai’s Cuadro Art Gallery, is a research-based collection that exposes the ways in which Saudi women are rendered voiceless and nameless in news clippings about their deaths.
Dowayan says that the region’s pressures have forced people to express themselves.
“Creativity is an amazing place to release energy,” she said, “to release thought and to actually have a platform where other people come in and say, ‘I agree with you. You’re not alone.’”
In another work, she went around the country collecting signatures from 300 women, which she inscribed on a piece resembling worry beads. The work challenges the shame associated with mentioning women’s names in front of Saudi men.
Her most famous project involved sculptures of white doves stamped with a permission notice required for women to travel by their male guardians – usually a husband or father – as per Saudi law.
In 2009, she said, the sponsors of the Dubai installation removed the details from the doves’ bodies from exhibition catalogues without explanation. Two weeks later, she was shocked to find Saudi Arabia’s national airline featuring a four-page spread of her doves in the in-flight magazine.
“I think these red lines have been engrained in me, and it’s more of a struggle to understand, ‘Are these red lines?’” she said. “‘Do they really exist, and have I created them or has someone actually placed them for me?’ So every project I struggle with how far I can speak about the truth.”
Adnan Manjal, who helped start the website “Saudi Art Guide” in 2012, says the country’s contemporary art scene challenges traditional notions. For example, when “Saudi Art Guide” first started listing art exhibitions in the kingdom and abroad, Manjal said he was surprised to find there were more than 50 art galleries across the kingdom.
Few know that the eastern city of Jeddah purchased more than 400 sculptures for display in public squares in the 1980s, including major works from such international artists as Henry Moore, Joan Miro, Jean Arp and Alexander Calder.
The peninsular art scene was thrust into the spotlight in 2011 when an Iranian buyer purchased Abdulnasser Gharem’s “Message/Messenger” – a replica of a mosque dome partially propped up by a minaret – at a Christie’s auction for a record-breaking $842,000. It made him the highest-paid living Arab artist in the world.
A lieutenant-colonel in the Saudi army, where he’s spent more than half his life, Gharem said the piece resembled a trap and was a metaphor for how some ultraconservative imams in his country use religion to manipulate the masses.
“People say that religion affects people,” he said. “I see people affecting religion. The media cannot talk about these issues, but art has a language that needs no translator.”
Art is not taught in public schools or public universities in Saudi Arabia so Gharem donated the proceeds from his sale to an art program for young Saudis.
While Gharem sometimes works in his country, he sends his works abroad because it is banned in the kingdom. He said artists working for the Culture Ministry told him his work could not be shown locally because it talks about religion.
In one of his earlier projects, he wrote the word “Al-Sirat” (the path) over and over again on the remains of a damaged bridge. His intent was to provoke thought about the word itself, which is repeated at least 34 times a day by Muslims at prayer.
“The path is an individual thing that you create on your own. I am trying to break this idea of moving with the crowd,” Gharem said. “People are living in a simulator. I am trying to get people out of this simulator to live their lives.”
All three of the artists interviewed said they had strong backing from members of the Saudi ruling family, but that officials could not be seen openly supporting works that could draw the religious establishment’s ire.
There have been some exceptions, such as Princess Jawaher bint Majed al-Saud, who funds an annual art week in Jeddah. Another well-known supporter is wealthy Saudi businessman Abdul-Latif Jameel. His Art Jameel supports the London-based art collective Edge of Arabia, run by Stephen Stapleton.
Stapleton became involved in Saudi art after a trip to a little-known artist village called Al-Meftaha in 2003. Located in the country’s southern mountainous region, the village was a vibrant artist hub when it had the backing of Aseer’s governor at the time, Prince Khaled al-Faisal, who is now the country’s education minister.
After hearing that Britain’s Prince Charles had worked in a studio in Al-Meftaha three years earlier, Stapleton went to Aseer.
Art has a way of transcending borders that look difficult to cross, Stapleton said, especially between Saudi Arabia and the West.
For more information on Edge of Arabia, please see www.edgeofarabia.com.