September Issue 2011
Rising Sands: Contemporary Saudi Art
Contemporary Saudi art reflects the changing contours of a country at the centre of the world for so many reasons. For some it’s the hub of terrorism, for some the very symbol of Islam by virtue of its custodianship of two of Islam’s sacred symbols. It’s a country of which very few truly know outside of the simplified and stereotyped half-truths floated by the media. Saudi artists are an eclectic mix of creative minds, spanning a range of professions from a male nurse in a psychiatric hospital to a lieutenant colonel in the Saudi army, and a range of social strata from a simple dweller in a mountain village to the royal family. Each reflects in their singular and unique ways upon Saudi Arabia and bring a truth and richness of perspective which washes away the film of prejudice that often clouds our vision of the region. Contemporary Saudi art intersects the uniqueness of their personal experiences and the uniqueness of Saudi Arabia as a country, its unusual socio-economic model, its deep sense of history running back to the times of the advent of Islam, and the several legislative limitations that make it well-known. Saudi Arabia is at the core of their art, whether their interaction with it means an embrace of tradition or a posture of survival that circumvents local limitations. Local, but of universal import, this art scans the flashpoints, perspectives and concerns that add up to a powerful and authentic testimony of what it means to be a Saudi today.
A female artist from Riyadh, Maha Malluh explores the relationship between tradition and modernity using a technique that appears to seep down to the very bone of things. She composes crisp black and white photograms in which the inherent drama of black and white echoes the conflict between tradition and modernity. Like other artists in the region she is concerned about the adoption of ‘imported’ attitudes and what this means for tradition in the long run. “Tradition is something that constantly renews itself at a certain pace, modernity is inevitable, it will happen of its own accord. We don’t need to jerk-start it by a desperate posturing or imitation. While I look to the future, I don’t want to forget the past in my bones, in our bones.” Using our ‘things’ and possessions as cues to greater, unconscious realities she holds them (and their owners) to light in a procedure which is invasive and surgical in its voyeurism and has the cross-sectional quality of x-rays and luggage scans. A series called ‘Shemagh Mirage, 20 portraits of the urban Saudi man,’ she prods the question; What things make up the Saudi city man of today? The juxtaposition of selected things creates some interesting and ironic combinations, where an iPhone jostles with the traditional Saudi headgear (called Shemagh) and a sign reads, ‘Closed for Prayer.’ These ‘thing-portraits’ echo the frequent trinity of religion, tradition and eager technological embrace that defines the bearing of the urban Saudi man.
Ahmed Mater presents a new take on the past and its relevance to the present. Steeped in a sense of continuum he believes that tradition should be woven right into our most mundane acts. He suggests a solution by striking a compromise between inherited narrative and our consumerist need for endless replication. He frees a time-trapped legend and, by degrees, concretises it and releases it into the stream of our everyday need-consumption cycle. In the performance ‘Yellow Cow,’ he first re-enacts the imaginative highpoint of the story of Moses and the yellow cow, a story that clung to his mind after he heard it every day at his neighbourhood mosque as a child. With his background in science and its evidence-based procedures, he then sets out to experience first-hand the imaginative dimensions of this fanciful creature. With a live cow, a bucket of saffron-coloured paint and a sponge he creates this unusual creature and experiences the sheer delight that it brings. He performed the Yellow Cow bang in the middle of a street in London, where delighted onlookers flocked around in excitement. The public response testifies that legends and myths from our individual or collective past have an imaginative charge and a relevance that is a dimension to be experienced in its own right. Once in a while, watching a yellow cow in a street has the same therapeutic effect that painting your walls orange, or dyeing your hair an unusual colour would. In the next step, he brings the legend closer into the sphere of our experience and imagines a line of dairy products for the mind — he calls these ‘ideologically free products.’ What he does is that he replaces the logo ‘La vache qui rit’ with the logo ‘Yellow Cow,’ closer to our recollected memories. At one level he proves that in our times nothing can stay unique because in our greed we demand an endless replication of everything, so every legend must undergo a kind of death-by-numbers. At another level he shows how the injection of myth brings a subliminal sense of the collective past into daily lives and by corollary, greater consciousness and emotional health.
There is indeed an air of high alert regarding the loss of the past. Many artists blame the media for this slow and stealthy departure from one’s roots. Increasingly, they are conscious of the insidiousness of the media and its slow poisoning of the mind. Eyad Maghazil, a young artist from Jeddah, addressed the issue of mind control in two disturbing works at the Young Saudi Artists exhibition at the beginning of this year. One of these was called ‘How they do it.’ In it, a man’s nerves are controlled by a lever while he screams in agony at being unable to voice the questions in his mind. Faisal Samra, one of the earliest contemporary artists from the region, literally deconstructs the notion of artificial visual exactness and the misleading precision of manufactured images on billboards that surround us and fix false contours of reality in our minds. In his documented performances, his hurried and frantic gesturing create a visual blur that deliberately startles the sight. His disturbing and macabre choice of masks, reminiscent of death, decay and end, fly in the face of unreal ideas of beauty. In the same context, but in a slightly more feminist streak, Hala Ali, one of the youngest Saudi artists, alerts us to subliminal codes embedded in print media. When one walks into this installation, a screen with a printed backlit text, certain lights go off and others come on showing an underlying alternative text. Less subtle, ‘Brainwash,’ which showed in Dubai recently, substitutes newspapers instead of carwash brushes in the scene and apparatus of carwash.
This cry for safeguard against uncritical acceptance of information co-exists with a forward glance, which shows just how much and to what extent foreign influences are part of the experience of being Saudi today. Ahmed Mater, a great believer in the media and the speed with which it brings the world to us, celebrates the electric charge of foreignness in his simple but delightful installation, ‘Green Antenna.’ His recent work, ‘Cowboy Code’ is an appropriation of a legend made familiar to Saudis through the media. Faisal Abu Al Adel, a young artist, is inspired by manga (a Japanese form of comic strip with violent or sexual content). He creates a mood of brooding suburban mystery and street drama with a curious fusion of manga and arabesque. In the work of Sami Jeraidi, an upcoming artist, a handwritten map of Jeddah is inscribed on top of a city map of London in a curious criss-crossing of culture, language and realms of experience.
Ayman Yossri Daydban in a series called ‘Subtitles’ explores the limits to which foreignness can be tamed and owned in cross-cultural cinema. There is a cult of foreign cinema among Saudis and Ayman investigates the limits of how much experience we can possess. The series contains black and white stills from contemporary Hollywood films with a short line of subtitle in Arabic. The lines are usually extracted from the context and are of generic import; ‘You’re a coward’, ‘I can’t, ‘You’re a failure, you live at the airport.’ Plucked as they are at moments of emotional truth or dramatic encounter, they touch a chord inside us which makes us feel like we’ve lived this moment ourselves. But at the same time something inherently foreign about the images and the cultural context they suggest makes us feel that there is a dimension to the experience that we can never really possess. Furthermore the Arabic subtitles pasted below the American experience appear somewhat ridiculous.
Saudi Arabia’s importance as a symbol for Muslims all over the world inevitably informs the work of Saudi artists. The dynamics of the act of namaaz and its communal quality are the subject of Noha Al Sharif’s sculptures. This bright, young Saudi, studying Indian and Chinese art at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, explores the interrelation between different actors amongst a group of women in worship. She sculpts with clay and fiberglass and her dark grey sculptures possess the synergy of entities bound by faith. In one of these, ‘Humbly and Devout,’ she focuses on the physicality and aesthetics of the group act of prayer, depicting a group of women at different stages of prayer, complementing and setting each other off like the fingers on a hand. Noha makes sculptures and, that too, of women. Sculpting is believed by some to be disrespectful to the spirit of religion because it aspires towards creation, which is seen as the prerogative of God. As a result, an unofficial censorship prevails in Saudi Arabia — images of women are routinely blackened out in billboards and other media. Noha resolves the problem by abstracting her figurines to the extent that they become merely faceless suggestions of forms, and the synergy of the group takes precedence over the individual.
In a work called ‘Language of Existence,’ Louloua Al Homoud works with the 99 names of Allah. To each letter of the alphabet, she ascribes a code or mathematical value, then deconstructs the word, and based on the alphabet code and its value, reconstructs it as a computer-generated image. The final work looks like a mysterious enlarged diagram in delicate spider-thin lines reminiscent of the structure of atoms or the division of cells. Like haunting fractals, it is the abstraction of essence, mingling evocations of mathematics, chemistry, spirituality and mystic appeal.
Quite at the other end of abstraction, and working instead with the nitty gritty of Saudi Arabia’s local realities is Abdulnasser Gharem, one of the two artists, along with Ahmed Mater, who are at the frontline of contemporary Saudi art. A lieutenant colonel in the Saudi army and a practicing conceptual artist for 10 years, he spends the day in the thick of the action and puts on his creative cap in the evening. He addresses what he believes to be core issues of behavioral restoration. Critical of conventional, mainstream systems with their administrative and procedural surcharge, he takes his remedial zest to the streets where he uses submersion and detachment to create art that improves the status quo by degrees. In a work called ‘Concrete,’ which consists of a single block of concrete positioned in the manner of a roadblock, blocking a passage and covered with letters from dismembered stamps, he wields a metaphor that is both local and universal. The block has a specific visual relevance in the context of Saudi Arabia where housing compounds for expatriates as well as embassies are heavily guarded by these road blocks, usually one of several layers of protection post-9/11. The concrete blocks safeguard anything and everything except the mind and the power of infectious ideas. While it criticises the false security of these barricades, it is also a sly exercise in tact. As we manoeuvre our way around this awkwardly positioned physical obstacle, we learn to work our way around uncomfortable situations by choosing an angle of caution and nonconfrontation, safeguarding our interests without damaging the obstacle itself. This self-control and tact is an essential skill in the “art of survival” that Gharem sets about demonstrating in his constant commitment to evolution.
Manal Al Dowayan is from the oil-rich region of Damam and was employed in the petroleum industry before she became a full-time artist. She sees her role as a cultural ambassador, showing the lesser known face of Saudi Arabia to the world, and sending a positive message through the impact of exceptions. As far back as 2003, in response to a media debate about which professions were suitable for women, Manal took her camera and went all around the Kingdom to photograph women from all walks of life. In a striking and ironic series of 20 images called ‘I Am’, she showcases various professional Saudi women. Her subjects were doctors, engineers, architects, scuba divers and administrators. They upheld a variety and uniqueness of professions that pleases as much as it surprises. In these highly staged and theatrical portraits, these women are represented with a single object depicting their profession, and are wearing heavy items of jewellery. “I was trying to prove a point. Women are not borne down by any inherent faiblesse or insufficiencies, but by the iron hand of tradition that restrains them and fixes them in clichÃ©d roles.” The impact of exceptions lends itself to a beautiful image of suspended flight in her most recent work, ‘Suspended Together’ where a cluster of over 200 doves are suspended from the ceiling, each bearing on her wings the stamped letter of approval by a male ‘mahram’ still needed for Saudi women to travel abroad. For the installation, real permission letters from Saudi women were used. There might be a few who break through the barriers and travel despite the limitations, but in Manal’s installation, the poetry of their frozen flight and the suggestion of height is stronger than the weight of numbers. Whether in the drama of individual stories or in a soaring group symphony, the strength of Manal’s work clearly lies in her will to look a certain way and to show a certain facet of truth to the world.
Then again, perhaps the beauty of contemporary Saudi art is how it forces us to look a certain way and to affirm a certain facet of truth. In seeing it, we find a new way of seeing.