Putting contemporary Saudi art in context

Shahweesh, "Darth of Arabia," pending production.

BEIRUT: “Saudi Arabia is surprising in a lot of ways,” U.S. author Dave Eggers once told a reporter from The New Yorker. “Like any place, or any people, it relentlessly defies easy categorization.” The country’s burgeoning contemporary art scene, which has emerged over the past decade or so and is attracting increasing attention from international institutions and collectors, likewise merits more than a superficial glance. It’s explored in some depth in “Contemporary Kingdom: The Saudi Art Scene Now,” published by Dubai-based Canvas Central.

A series of themed sections come together to depict the contemporary landscape of peninsular artistic production and exhibition.

A foreword to the work – penned by Al-Mansouria Foundation founder Princess Jawaher bint Majed bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud – notes that seismic changes in Saudi society, following 9/11 and the 20th-century discovery of oil, have marginalized art for decades. Only in recent years has it begun to carve out a niche at home and abroad.

Editor Myrna Ayad’s preface explains that the book aims to highlight an artistic community that is helping to dissolve global misperceptions of the country. A series of five brief essays follows, each sketching a broad overview of a particular aspect of the country’s artistic production and dissemination. Artist and poet Ashraf Fayadh pens one of these. International figures including Tate Modern Director Chris Dercon and Director-General of the Institut du Monde Arabe Mona Khazindar write the rest.

Dercon explores how the absence of art education means that many artists are self-taught, leading to a “‘bottom-up’ phenomenon, which makes the Saudi art scene real and interesting.” Khazindar focuses on the connections between art and society, exploring how traditional signs and symbols are being revived, reinterpreted and occasionally subverted in the work of the country’s contemporary artists.

These essays are a trifle abrupt. A couple of them read like introductions to longer pieces tackling a complex theme in more depth. Together, however, they convey the explosion of galleries within the country in the past decade or so and international institutions’ sudden interest in the work being produced.

Readers would be forgiven if they emerged from these essays with the impression that the peninsular art scene largely revolves around three nodes – Al-Mansouria Foundation, Athr Gallery and Ahmed Mater.

The following sections, however, which list artists, galleries, initiatives and patrons, provide a more comprehensive Who’s Who of the movers and shakers.

“Contemporary Kingdom” is beautifully laid out. The extensive collection of color photographs of the works under discussion makes the book an objet d’art in its own right. As is fitting for an art book, the images have been given priority, and many pages have been dedicated to visuals.

A number of the 26 profiled artists are up-and-coming, while others have already achieved widespread recognition.

The youthful Sarah Abu Abdallah graduated from the University of Sharjah in 2011, but her socially driven, gender-themed work has appeared in several high-profile group exhibitions.

Shadia and Raja Alem, the sisters responsible for the kingdom’s inaugural pavilion at the Venice Bienniale in 2011, have been exhibiting since the late ’90s. The socio-politically informed artwork of Ahmed Mater, perhaps the best-known Saudi contemporary artist, is housed in collections worldwide.

The section on galleries profiles 15 venues – six based in Jeddah and six in Riyadh – delineating the axes around which the art scene turns and betraying its youth. Most of these venues opened during the past two decades – two thirds of them since 2005. Al-Khobar’s Arab Heritage Gallery is exceptional for its location, its history (opening in 1979) and its shifting mandate, having been founded to showcase traditional handicrafts.

The comprehensive listings together sketch not only individual galleries and their programs but also how the art scene functions. Two galleries were founded primarily to show the artwork of the venues’ founders. A large number of spaces offer workshops and residencies as well as exhibitions. Given the absence of state support and public art education, these private institutions may have played a formative role for the kingdom’s young artists, many of whom traveled abroad for their formal education.

The fourth section of the book covers local and international institutions as well as seminal exhibitions. Al-Mansouria Foundation, for instance, was founded in the late 1980s and over the past two decades has been instrumental in supporting and promoting young artists. Basmoca is an innovative virtual museum, housing facsimiles of the actual works owned by collector Basma al-Suleiman, which can be visited online using avatars from the game Second Life. Examples of past exhibitions that have helped raise Saudi art’s international profile include the British Museum’s popular “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam.”

The 19 patrons that feature in the final section of the book are for the most part private collectors whose loyalty to Saudi artists has helped keep the scene afloat. Of particular interest is the story of Mohamed Said Farsi, the man responsible for Jeddah’s impressive collection of public art – assembled during his years as the city’s mayor in the 1970s and ’80s – and his son Hani, who continues to expand his father’s collection today.

The book is not an academic study. It’s more of an A-to-Z of places and people worth tracking. There are several well-known factors that affect international artistic production and dissemination, including the intersection of politics and art, censorship and audience access, and the role of regional art market consolidation in abetting rising commercial and Western institutional interest. These issues fall outside the scope of “Contemporary Kingdom.”

This comprehensive and beautifully designed introduction will provide a helpful overview of the Saudi art scene for collectors or enthusiasts seeking a sense of who and where to begin further explorations.

“Contemporary Kingdom: The Saudi Art Scene Now” is published by Canvas Central and is available from select local bookstores.





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