Contemporary art from Saudi Arabia has been traveling the world in a major exhibition for the past few years. Relatively unknown to the international community, Saudi artists reflect on various aspects of their society and their relationship with the world in “Edge of Arabia: Transition,” a traveling show that opened in İstanbul in early November as part of the İstanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture program.
The exhibition, which runs until Dec. 26 at the Sanat Limanı art space in Tophane, features the work of around 20 Saudi artists, among them Manal Al-Dowayan, Faisal Samra, Sami Al-Turki, Noha Al-Sharif, Abdulnasser Gharem, Hala Ali, Maha Malluh, Ahmed Mater, Hussain Al-Mohsin, Bassem Al-Shargi, Ayman Yossri, Mohammed Al-Ghamdi, Seddiq Wassil, Fahad Al-Gethami, Farouk Kondakji, Bandar Al-Romaih, Yousef Al-Shaikh and Nasser Al-Salim.
“Transition,” which was also presented late last month at this year’s Contemporary İstanbul art fair, was launched in 2003 when British artist Stephen Stapleton was traveling the Middle East.
Aya Mousawi, the Iraqi assistant curator of the exhibition, told Today’s Zaman: “Stapleton went to Saudi Arabia and met Ahmed Mater in a small artists’ village in Abha [Al Meftaha Arts Village] and saw that Ahmad was doing something unique and that he had never seen anything like this in Saudi Arabia or anywhere in the Middle East. Stephen realized that something special was happening in Saudi Arabia. This village of artists was very much isolated because there were not many kinds of art seen in Saudi Arabia. So, Abdulnasser Gharem and Ahmad, who were kind of co-founders, travelled throughout Saudi Arabia; they went to the back streets of Jeddah, they went to Aseer, they went to Riyadh, they went all around and met hundreds of artists over the next five years, and then in 2008 we showed the first exhibition in London. There were 17 artists whose works [organizers wanted to introduce] to an international audience. Then we decided to take the exhibition to Venice in 2009 as a part of the Venice Biennial.”
Mousawi notes that the project, which has now become an international one, is significant in terms of introducing Saudi artists to the world as well as introducing the world to Saudi artists. “We wanted to create a major platform to exhibit these Saudi artists internationally. To take them to Venice was very special for each of the artists. Then we decided to go on a world tour, which we announced in Riyadh. We held an exhibition as part of the Art Dubai [fair] and we held an exhibition in 2010 in Berlin, which we chose as [it was one] of the leading cities for contemporary art with its 800 art galleries. To bring our artists into that community and … scene was very good and now we’re concluding 2010 in İstanbul, which is a major gateway between the East and the West.”
As the exhibition travels around the world, it continues to “transform,” as its name suggests. “We wanted to have the biggest exhibition we’ve ever had in İstanbul,” says Mousawi. “We have the works of 22 artists in this show. Next year, we’ll have an even bigger show in the Gulf, and then hopefully we’ll be heading for America in 2012. We continue to travel, and the exhibition changes in every city; it’s never the same exhibition; it’s always curated differently. In each city we try to introduce new works and new artists.”
The exhibition is an important representation of what is happening in the Saudi and Middle Eastern art communities. “The Middle East is actually growing quite rapidly,” says Mousawi. “There are lots of institutions collecting Middle Eastern and Arabic art. There are a number of exhibitions by Middle Eastern artists being shown internationally, so it is quite emerging. A lot of Middle Eastern artists now have international status, and lots of Saudi artists are quickly trying to catch up and [their works] are also being collected by institutions like the British Museum.”
Yet, this emergence of a new stream of Saudi art doesn’t mean that all kinds of problems and restrictions have been overcome. “I’m very happy about what I see,” says Noha Al-Sharif, one of the artists in the exhibition participating with her sculptures, namely “Humbly” and “Devout.” “Sometimes they say, ‘You’re a Muslim, why are you doing that?’ You know, it is not usual for Muslims to be [making] sculptures. This has always been my problem, but I [make] my sculptures abstract. There are no … faces or pictures.” On the other hand, Al-Sharif notes that she doesn’t face any pressures as a female artist, contrary to popular assumptions. “If you had asked this [question] 10 years ago, I would have said [that I was facing pressures], but now I don’t have any problems being a woman artist. I’m a young artist, I’m travelling for my art, and I can do everything that I [want].”
“I feel no boundaries around me, I feel totally free because I’m an artist with Palestinian origins,” says artist Ayman Yossri Daydban, who participated in the exhibition with his conceptual pieces, “The Opening” and “The Maharem.” “In my art work, I discuss my identity,” he says and expresses his hopes for Saudi society, which he thinks is in a process of “transition.” “Our community is coming to look like more Turkish about religion. I hope that Saudi Arabia will be more open about art, as much as Turkey. I’m hopeful about [Saudis becoming more] open to different lives, religions and arts. ... When this happens, when the community becomes more open minded, as artists we’ll [create] better works because we’ll be able to express ourselves more freely.”
“Generally there is this transition in the Middle East,” indicates Mousawi. “One of the artists, Sami Al-Turki lookd at how Saudi Arabia has changed so quickly in his photographs, how modernity and globalization have no borders, how all of these buildings have been constructed. ... [Everything is developing] very quickly, and that transition has had an impact on the identity of these artists. [We can] trace the artists’ heritage [back to the] Bedouins, who were living a much simpler life. In Ayman’s work he does look at that. He looks at how the world around him is changing so quickly -- he watches this and tries to preserve this heritage, the innocence that was the culture at that time.”
One of the works likely to attract great attention from Turks is one about the Turkish soap opera, “Gümüş,” (“Nour” in Arabic), by artist Hala Ali. “The artist was specifically interested in that TV show as it became such a phenomenon in the Middle East,” explains Mousawi. “It had 18 million viewers … and she was fascinated by the idea that this TV show came from another part of the world and took the Middle East by storm.”