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Providing a local canvas
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 25 - 01 - 2011

Mohammed Hafiz stands in the Athr Gallery surrounded by the work of young Saudi artists. (SG photos by Bizzie Frost)OPENING a high-calibre art gallery such as the Athr Gallery in Jeddah requires not only commitment and a genuine interest in art, but also generous amounts of money. Mohammed Hafiz, whose main business is in fashion retail, is one of the two owners of this gallery. I met him in the impressive administration room of the Athr Gallery, with its huge picture windows, large paintings on the walls and lots of art books.
Only 35 years old, Hafiz was younger than I expected and speaks perfect English with the tone and accent rather like that of the actor Omar Sharif. Although his family is originally from Madina, they moved to Jeddah in the late 1960s: “So basically I was born and raised in Jeddah. I was privately educated here and I have never lived overseas – so I am completely home-made,” he said with a smile. “I run a fashion retail company that was a family business at one point and with fashion you travel to all parts of the world to follow the trends and see what is happening.”
“When I was about 16, an art gallery in the Basateen Mall showed some works by Abdullah Hamas and all the artists from Asir. I looked at the work and I fell in love with the piece. At 16, the financial means were not easily available so I agreed with the artist and the Gallery to buy that work on an instalment basis. That was my first introduction into buying artwork.”
As the years went by his appreciation for art, and particularly that in Saudi Arabia, increased. About three years ago, he visited the Dubai Art Fair and this was the catalyst for opening the Athr Gallery: “There was art from all over the world, but there wasn't one single piece from a Saudi Artist there. Not one. And I thought: ‘Why? We have to be there!' There is so much happening in our country, especially in Jeddah. It is the gateway of Haj and Umrah, and cultures merge here like nowhere else in the world. You see some very interesting outcomes from people who came and lived here three or four hundred years ago and the exchange of culture, information and behaviors is unique to this part,” he said. “I came back and spoke to Hamza Serafi. He was quite involved in the art world at that time; I suggested that we do something, give our artists a platform to show the world what Saudi art is all about.”
In parallel with this discussion, the Edge of Arabia exhibition was being launched in the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 2008. Hafiz explained: “Hamza told me about Edge of Arabia. It is a traveling Saudi exhibition to showcase Saudi Art across the world. The impact of that show was unbelievable. Saudi Arabia, for many people, is this black box of excitement and challenges – you can't come if you want to, even if you know people living here. Everyone wanted to see it. What do Saudis think about? Male and female Saudi artists, expatriates who have lived in Saudi Arabia, or who were born here and have experienced the Saudi culture all their lives, what do they feel and how would they transmit that into an art form? After the show, Hamza and I decided that we had to create a gallery that gives the Saudi artists a platform to show their work locally.”
Finding the space for the gallery was an interesting exercise because the nature of Hafiz's retail fashion business meant that he was tuned in to finding locations that give maximum exposure: “The first rule is ‘Location, location, location',” he told me. “I thought we should find a store front somewhere on a big main road, but if we did that we would end up getting a very small space.”
A large space was available on the fifth floor of the Serafi Mega Mall, owned by Hamza's family, and so they decided to open the gallery there. “The size and energy of this grand space is quite unique. At first, I thought it would be challenging to get people up on to the roof-top parking, into the elevator and up to the fifth floor – but Hamza was convinced that people would come. After the first exhibition, I changed my whole approach towards it.”
The gallery, with its striking black and highly reflective marble floor, was designed by Hamza with the help of Saudi artist, Farouk Kondakji There was surprisingly little bureaucracy involved in opening an art gallery: “There were no special permissions required and I think from a government point of view, the licences are flexible,” Hafiz explained. “They are happy to have us around, and that has been clearly reconfirmed by the Minister's presence at the opening of the recent show.
However, it is a challenge to find the right employees to run the gallery and work here. We currently have seven full time employees, mostly young people.”
There was then the ‘trial and error' learning process of putting on exhibitions. “When we started, we had a lot of connections within the art world, so friends were more than happy to share their experiences. You take whatever you learn from best practices and apply them to your local culture, amending them as you go along. We use electronic marketing activities and tools that serve the clientele we are looking for. The first exhibition we did in September 2009, we probably had 150 or 180 people in the opening. At the opening of the “Young Saudi Artists” exhibition on Jan. 12, we had a huge number of people – eight or nine hundred, so we are developing the knowledge of how to contact people and get them into the gallery.”
Hafiz is quite open about the status of the gallery: “We are not a charity, or a non-profit organization – if we make money we are happy, if we don't, we will just continue doing what we are doing. When you are successful in your life, you have to do something that gives back to the society. It is something we believe in; we believe that we are playing a role in improving people's understanding of art and a better understanding of our culture, and that gives us tremendous joy.” Another aspect that the gallery is trying to promote is the culture of art collecting: “People here don't collect art so sales have not been as good as we hoped,” Hafiz explained. “It is improving and our objectives are also to educate people about how beneficial it is to collect art from a cultural standpoint, and how it could benefit their children from a cultural, social and financial angle. If you buy art and display it in your house, it stimulates your mind and helps your children to open up to the world. From an investment standpoint, if you buy good art, it appreciates.”
Hafiz and Serafi have also created an art collection called the Athr Collection. “We believe that this is an interesting turning point in the history of art in the region. Saudi Arabia is playing a major role because of its significance and the Athr Collection's aim is to capture and register that change in a series of art works, so our children will have the opportunity to see what was happening in this time, and what the artists were saying...At any exhibitions in the Athr Gallery, however, the serious collectors will always have the first right to buy.”
Currently showing: Young
Saudi Artists until Jan. 31

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