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Saudi artists want to talk
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 21 - 01 - 2012

The New York Times
“Saudi artists want to talk,” Ahmed Mater says.
His works, along with those of 21 other Saudi artists, nine of whom are women, are on display through Feb. 18 at the Al-Furusia Marina in Jeddah in an exhibit called “We Need To Talk.”
The show is being hailed by organizers as the most significant collection of contemporary Saudi art ever displayed in the city. It was put together by Edge of Arabia, an independent arts initiative that Dr. Mater, 32, who also works at a government clinic in the southern city of Abha, helped to found.
The exhibit, curated by Mohammed Hafiz, is divided into Past, Present and Future and features 43 works including videos, sculptures and installations.
Dr. Mater's piece “Evolution” is a statement on people's excessive dependence on oil and functions as a potent warning of the potential for self-destruction by societies whose economic engines rely on oil. The arrangement of five light boxes, read from right to left like Arabic script, starts with an X-ray of Dr. Mater holding a gun to his head; the X-ray gradually morphs into a gasoline pump.
While it is a bold and daring statement, coming from a citizen of a petrodollar economy, Dr. Mater insists he is not alone in his concerns about oil transforming Saudi lives.
“In the last 20 years, so much has changed so fast in my country, and I don't think we as a society have taken the time to reflect on this change,” he said by telephone from Jeddah recently.
“There may not be a large constituency clamoring for a shift away from oil, but it's a growing one, and even the government is looking at diversifying the economy from oil.”
Dr. Mater and the British artist Stephen Stapleton initially conceived of the Edge of Arabia idea in 2005, with the goal of creating a social enterprise that would develop the appreciation of contemporary Arab art and culture, with a particular focus on Saudi Arabia.
“That a modern art movement existed in Saudi Arabia was barely known,” Stapleton said by telephone from Jeddah last week. Edge of Arabia opened its first exhibit in London in 2008, and has since organized shows in Riyadh, Berlin, Istanbul, Dubai and Venice.
“Internationally, there is a natural curiosity about Saudi contemporary art,” Stapleton said.
“We don't have the same understanding of the visual arts as our counterparts in Europe,” said Dr. Mater, who is self-taught and was an artist in residence at Al Meftaha Arts Village.
It was at Al Meftaha that Stapleton first met Dr. Mater and other artists, who were feeding each other with ideas, were creating projects and were eager to express themselves.
“This was right around the Iraq war, 18 months after 9/11,” recalled Stapleton, who stayed on and decided to help them create a formal structure. “They had a lot to say.”
Abdulnasser Gharem, a co-founder of Edge of Arabia, explained that one of the first steps to creating a formal structure was to introduce art education at a school level.
“Unlike other countries, there is very little — if any — art instruction in Saudi schools,” he said by telephone from Riyadh.
Three of his own installations are on view in the Jeddah show, incorporating items from daily life, like street signs, and the concrete blocks that cropped up on Saudi streets immediately after Sept. 11, 2001 as part of the country's security measures.
Apparently by turning objects that Saudis can instantly relate to into artistic statements.
The curator, Hafiz, said that the purpose of exhibitions like “We Need To Talk” is to encourage dialogue between Saudi's contemporary artists and the local communities. “It builds on the theme of dialogue launched by King Abdullah,” he said, referring to the King's initiatives encouraging interfaith and national dialogue.
He also likened a growing passion for arts to the enthusiasm of a soccer fan.
“I predict art will follow football in Saudi,” he added. “When there was no professional league in the Kingdom, no one was interested in playing football, but now that there's a serious, well-resourced league, it receives good media coverage, more money and players are respectable, recognized heroes. Families, who previously saw football as a shameful career for their children, are now encouraging them to practice towards a professional career. It's all about creating role models and the change will follow.”
Saudi Arabia's most high-profile art project is the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, a Saudi Aramco initiative. Within this milieu, the art movement has a firm foundation, which artists like Dr. Mater feel will benefit the country in the long-term.
“The foundation will be strong. Now we need more institutional support — formal art schools, more museums and galleries and dedicated spaces for artists to work,” he said.
The exhibit in Jeddah has relied primarily on private funding, from the Abdul Lateef Jameel Community Initiatives, supported by one of Jeddah's most prominent families, and Abraaj Capital, a private equity firm headquartered in Dubai. But Stapleton said progress had been made in terms of the arts community grabbing the government's attention.
“2011 was a landmark year as Saudi Arabia commissioned artist Shadia Alem and writer Raja Alem — two women — to represent the country in its first ever pavilion at the Venice Biennale,” he said.
Women feature in the Edge of Arabia as artists and even as subjects. They address gender-specific issues, but also present statements applicable to any society in the world as demonstrated by Hala Ali, a 25-year-old fine arts graduate from the University of Sharjah who is based in Dubai.
In this show, her installation “Brainwash” depicts car-wash brushes made from newspapers compressed between two flat metal clamps.
“Brainwash represents the removal of literal, inscribed language as a medium, toying with the idea of the visual pun,” she said last week by telephone from Dubai.
Previously, art from the Gulf region has been stereotyped as either calligraphy works or paintings of horses. However, with the art movement gaining tremendous traction, the perception of how contemporary Gulf art is viewed abroad has changed. __

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