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Young Saudi Artists – Portrait of an event

For those tuned in to the promise of things, Young Saudi Artists measures some telling parameters in the nascent art landscape of Saudi Arabia.

In its second edition this year in February 2012, the Young Saudi Artists takes on a character of its own as an art event, emerging as a spirited amateur art expo. In the nascent art landscape of Saudi Arabia, this event serves two purposes – it diversifies the range by offering an alternative kind of art experience, casual and more democratized in mood, but in the long-term, it also harnesses an emerging loose end of creative output, which might wither for want of timely mentorship and encouragement. In the wider international art market, the Saudi art scene is, although phenomenal in its rise, still a fledgling one, grappling with the very real challenges of the art market – the realities and forces of demand and supply, and a constant guarantee of artistic produce. It is with an eye to the future that this platform was created to nurture this embryonic art life, rising to life swiftly although haphazardly.

Who are these young Saudi artists? With very few exceptions, these are mostly youngsters, falling in an age group of 16 to late twenties. They are college and university graduates, some majoring in design and some not, high-schoolers ‘on a break for self-discovery’, professional or amateur photographers, doodlers, bloggers, and part-time creatives who have pursued some form of creative activity for some time, related or unrelated to their professions but have only recently found the opportunity for a significant and irreversible visibility, both home and abroad. Activities and forums of expression, exhibitions, talent-hunts and competitions for amateurs have begun to emerge here only as early as a couple of years ago, as off-shoots of the larger umbrella of Edge of Arabia, and have caught on like wildfire since. These newly created opportunities are mostly the motors that spurred these youngsters towards performance and recognition. What the banner of these initiatives, among them Young Saudi Artists, offers them is an initial walk through the first stages of preparedness, so that those who have the grit can go on and prove their mettle in the many ways available to young artists in the region today. The work that YSA showcases is really an undefined loose end, still indistinct in form or prospect, but it is an end nonetheless, and wisdom calls for timely mentorship and nurture rather than skepticism and abandon.



Mixed bag under a promising banner

Both last year and this year, around 23 artists participated in each show. Although some of the participants are not Saudi by nationality, they live here and have absorbed and interacted with local culture to some degree, so their voice matters as much as any other in any portrayal of the Saudi experience. Unlike a formalized, rigorous art exhibition, here a simple participatory call is sent out along with a deadline. In coming years, the organizers might match a higher level of participant readiness by introducing more stringent restrictions into the equation, and raising the quotient of challenge, but for now, the only curatorial principal is creativity and the will to participate. A lot of the artists didn’t exhibit works specifically created for the show, but works from their repertoire which they had exhibited in the recent past. In that sense, for some participants, the event was not an instigator, but a first formal and public show-case.

Those who have been following the birth of this chapter will know that the subject of contemporary art in Saudi Arabia and a lot of the activity that takes place around it is largely a question of creating new attitudes of recognition, appreciation and responsibility towards the subject of art.  This challenge was valid as much for the artists as for the audiences. For the artists, some of whom have never stepped foot inside a professional work environment, the nervousness of a first public performance, the pressure of deadlines, and the semi-official ‘act’ of the opening night, were all  first-time experiences  and therefore, significant challenges. Some of the young participants had their families and friends by their side for support. If the preparation helped fashion attitudes of readiness, the event itself was a measure for how far they actually came. The energy of the event was proof that they really and genuinely cared not just for the technicalities and the art works, but also for the larger purpose of the event and their role in its midst as ambassadors. At this point in time, one cannot be a young artist in Saudi Arabia without feeling a sense of responsibility and leadership towards society. In the dialogue which is contemporary art in the Kingdom, people are beginning to listen and engage, and the artist currently stands as an agent embodying several active roles – agent provocateur, role model, leader, historian. He is invested with an irrational power, and with this great power comes great responsibility. Beginning to not just recognize, but savour and fully embrace this responsibility would be a natural first step for these beginners. Without a doubt, they held up their end of the ‘conversation’ really well. Some of them had to work their way around personal setbacks; one artist was in a car accident and bed-bound just before the exhibition, another artist lost her father while another artist’s artwork was severely damaged minutes before the exhibition, but none of them cowered or backed out. This dogged determination, and the knack for maneuver around obstacles are all attitudes that will serve them well, for the road for the artist in Saudi Arabia, although beginning to emerge and in full view, is far from easy.

On opening nights, Young Saudi Artists is also a great barometer for what art is coming to signify in the lives of an average Saudi today. Interestingly, only a few days after the 21st February, 2012, the day that Young Saudi Artists opened in the Athr Gallery in Jeddah, Edge of Arabia, the first comprehensive retrospective of contemporary Saudi art in the country closed elsewhere in the city. It had gone on for a month and it went by the title ‘We need to talk’. In releasing art into the country’s bloodstream, the metaphor of a long overdue conversation was constantly emphasized. Unsurprisingly, then, this metaphor was literally enacted on the gallery space at YSA. The floor was punctuated by groups of artists and people in easy exchange. Most of the artists made it a point to be present for the second night as well. The call for engagement that was resounded by Edge of Arabia had already begun to be heeded. The attendees were people from all ages and all walks really, with a common attitude of curiosity and undisguised delight towards art. They were a gloriously random mix, with a loose common concern. Pretty much like the event. This randomness and the spirit of inclusiveness that is its raison d’etre, is, to a large extent, the event’s charm. The eclectic nature of the event and its range of appeal is mirrored in the diversity of the collectors, who range from the Greenbox Museum in Amsterdam to young as well as seasoned collectors and corporate collections.

At the 2012 edition of Young Saudi Artists, the 44 works by 23 artists scanned subjects that varied from deeply personal to socially and politically engaged, and the skill level varied from rudimentary to promising. The appeal of works scanned all colours; eye-catching, purely decorative, lyrical, thought-provoking and visually stunning. As works of art, they negotiate the harmony between form and message sometimes gracefully but sometimes laboriously and awkwardly. However, this is not an event for the punctilious critic who gloats in pointing out deficiencies, it’s an event for the believer who is excited by the idea of germination, and who sees the promise more than the flaw.

The still, quiet centre of faith: Lujain Abulfaraj’s work

Lujain Abulfaraj is a Saudi who has been residing outside the Kingdom in neighbouring Gulf states for the past 15 years. Although away from her country, she gets to visit very often, and the spiritual symbolism of Saudi Arabia’s best-known centres of Mecca and Medina runs like a melody through her pink-bled series. With a mother from Mecca and a father from Medina, a sense of deep spirituality informs both her being and her work, a spirituality which is perhaps closer to the heart of all religions rather than just Islam. If anything, it’s the mysticism of the words from a Hadith which is also the title of the series (‘There is no difference between an Arab and a non-Arab except in faith’) combined with a sense of slow motion that the pictures exude which makes her work one of pure magic. It portrays groups of people (back views and profile views) at different stages in the ritual of worship (some performing ablution with the water of zamzam, some at a point in the circumambulation of the kaa’ba, some at the entrance to the Masjid Nabwi in Medina). The scene of a congregation at the Kaaba, with its millions drawn like fireflies to a common centre of light, and uniting over and above their differences in a common act of faith and seeking is a poignant and poetic visual metaphor for the spirit of unity, equality, and brotherhood which is the cornerstone of Islam, and the cornerstone of the interpretation of faith that the artist grew up with. It is this magical encounter with this over-powering, larger-than-life force visually accessible to the frequent visitor to the Holy cities that is one of her most active and nourishing memories, the force that energizes her and what she attempts to capture in this poetical work.

Bound to the first work by a sister shade of pink, Mohammed Naseem’s charming triptych is called ‘Seen wa Suaad’ (‘Seen and Su’aad’).  The base of the canvas is a speech bubble with ‘Muhammad…’ written inside, and a certain space upwards of it is a cloud with a clutter of letters. When a Muslim utters the name of the Holy Prophet, it is incumbent on the listeners or the other members of the audience to say ‘Peace be upon him’. In a gathering, when a whole crowd of people utters it, it sounds like an endless murmur, falling and rising several times before its end. All we hear out of the whole string of letters is the ‘seen’ and ‘suaad’, like one prolonged and continuous lisp drawn out in several tiny waves.  The comic-strip- like composition, the bubble-gum mish colours of fluorescent pink and yellow, and the jumbled scrawl of Arabic script on the top point light-heartedly to the comical underside of quotidian details that routinely escapes us.



‘Seen wa Su’aad’ by Mohammad Naseem

Ahaad Al Amoodi’s work is centred around Balad, an area called the heart of Jeddah. Balad is the old city, the earliest settling zone, which has now been slowly pushed to the south, as urbanization continues to stretch the city’s periphery further and further to the north. The cluster of houses in this once-elite region bear names that are familiar today as belonging to the city’s most successful and well-known families, best-known for the industries, trades and businesses they own. Their family homes, once bustling with life and housing several generations under one roof, are now reduced to empty shells. The art work comprises of two framed etchings of facades from Balad, which are instantly recognizable to any Jeddah resident, having almost become a symbol for lost heritage. In front of these etchings is an installation, which looks like an upward-spiraling embrace of stick-like limbs of wood and steel. It took me a visit to Balad to appreciate the full impact of the skeletal erection in which the precariousness of wood is supported by the sturdiness of steel. The houses in Balad are several storey high with fronts of latticed wood, moist with decay and hollowed by age, frail and ready to crumble. Mere vestiges remain, flimsy as filigree, and the abandoned zones, now occupied by squatters and illegal occupants, mostly labourers unable to afford decent housing, are a rude caricature of its former glory. Some say a few serve as a sorry excuse for old people’s homes, and that some old people have been abandoned here to neglect and a sad end. Empty houses attract ghosts as much as ghost stories; with the air of mystique that hangs heavy on the houses, one can no longer tell fact from fiction. Some facades were devoured by fierce fires that blazed through the region in 2009, and one can still see the charred cheek of concrete where the tongue of fire licked it. It has a deeply sleepy mood to it, and one can’t help but wonder if the slumber that hangs heavy on the region is the lull before a final passing out. Perhaps the only question that remains is how long. Ahaad’s work poses a screaming question about the end of abandoned heritage and points to how new materials, appropriation, and imagination can sustain heritage.


(Left) Work by Ahaad Al Amoudi (Right) Picture from a recent trip to Balad

What Heba Abed’s clumsily christened ‘Fraco-Arabic Man of Scotoma’ loses in grace of name, it makes up for in intent. Franco-Arabic is the popular chat Arabic, a Latin transcription of Arabic. ‘Scotoma’ is greek for blind-spot. Heba suggests that the progressive linguistic simplification, the digitalization and the modernization of Arabic might lead to a linguistic and existential blind-spot. Her message is encased in an engaging form that tickles the sense of touch. She uses the form of the abacus to echo her message. On one side, the revolving squares have three layers of text embedded in them, a big and a small font in Arabic and one in Latin. The surface of the squares is reflective, so that we catch a quick glimmer of the scripts in light, but as soon as one struggles to focus on the message, one is unable to rest the eye serenely or surely on any one of the scripts we see reflected, they disappear before the retina can imprint them. Super-imposed upon this surface of square (sub-divided into keyboard like buttons) is something of a unisex human form. The message here is that as we dilute language, we lose the flavour and uniqueness of our identity, and become neutralized, homogenized humanoids, something like the human version of MacDonald’s. On the other face of the abacus, in clear, readable, script are messages that reaffirm the valour and the history of the Arabic language, referring to different historical epochs and the cultural shades that coloured the language at certain epochs.

‘Franco-Arabic man of Scotoma’ by Heba Abdulaziz Abed

Twenty-three year old Soraya Darwish, is Egyptian and is exhibiting for the first time in Saudi Arabia, a country where she has lived all her life. Her first break as an artist came some months earlier at a group show at the Ara Gallery in Dubai. She belongs to the significant expat community of Arabs who have grown up almost entirely in Saudi Arabia, and merge their native culture and the adopted Saudi culture in an interesting blend. Her work, however, transcends these distinctions and applies to the whole Arab belt, if not every man who has been falsely stereotyped. It is ironically titled ‘Nice to meet you’ and instead of a scene of social politesse as one would expect to see, the central piece features a digital print of a young Arab girl holding a gun straight at the viewer. It is displayed in a small square zone with walls on three sides and spaced pillars on the fourth. We first see the pillars and the text on them stating clips from newspapers and media dismissively presenting Arabs and Muslims as terrorists, using the swaying rhetoric of facile and unwarranted statistics for thrust. In the dark corner, peering through the black pillars, the girl with the gun almost forbids us to enter. When we enter, to the right, on a wall-sized screen, is a video screen with a clip on repeat, of which we only register a woman in burqaa holding a rifle and shooting blindly skywards in a street, where soon after, panic ensues and people scamper about for life. The darkness of the messages predisposes us to a mindset in which we only see the violent; every human seems like a murderer and every flickering object a fire-arm. It takes some settling time for the mind to decipher that alternating with images of the woman and gun fire in the video clip are shots of ordinary girls sitting in a café and laughing over a blazing candle from a birthday cake. These girls are the artist and her friends. They are clad in abbayas, as was the shooting woman, and in the mind’s initial panicked state, the candle seems like another explosive until reason settles the vision and allows for distinction. Similarly, as we draw closer to the still of the demon-girl, we see embedded within the pixels of the image small images of ordinary people, family life, children, and scenes from everyday. And once we have seen those smaller, truer molecules of being, close-up, when we distance ourselves from the image, it doesn’t scare any more, and we leave cleansed in the mind and heart.  Over the 20 days of the exhibition, the pillared wall was used as a public scribble zone and the audience participated by writing messages on the walls. When I went the last day, there was enough love on the walls to drown out the hate of media half-truths. Soraya’s work is like an exercise in corrective perception; we enter in darkness, and squint our way to light and vision.

‘Nice to meet you’ by Soraya Darwish: Would you dare to step up close and have your stereotypes crushed forever?

Another art work became an exhibition icon because as luck would have it, the strangeness of truth it absorbed became truer than the strangeness of fiction it portrayed. In an uncanny but delicious twist of faith, the message that the artwork embodied was acted out in real life itself, making it that alluring alloy of truth, fiction, and great timing that secures its reputation in popular memory. The work in question is by Basmah Felemban, a 16-year old high-school graduate taking a break to find her groove. It contains the symbol of the healing hand of Fatima, a three-fingered hand with a thumb on each side, in the shape of a fly-swatter. This symbol, like a decorative object, is encased inside a red emergency box with a transparent glass door that usually houses a fire extinguisher. A line reads, ‘In case of an emergency, break the glass.’ In popular culture, this amulet is believed to prevent against the curse of the evil eye of the ill-wisher who, merely by beholding something enviously, causes harm. The Arabs, like Asians, are inherently superstitious people, and believe in the power of symbol. In daily conduct, handling and dealing of situations, their natural bent of wisdom favours a more lenient approach rather than a coldly rational one. However, Basmah feels that sometimes this leniency degenerates into a posture of convenient escapism, and we find an easy exit from situations and problems using the convenient excuse of the evil eye. Over time, this moral laziness hardens into habit, and we habitually overlook reasonable, rational explanations for phenomenon and make out way out without self-accountability. For example, if someone’s child falls ill, instead of analyzing reasons which might involve personal neglect, question their parenting practices or beg for reform, they could conveniently say that someone gave them the evil eye and attribute the blame to another person. This way, they’re not only shutting out responsibility but also the learning that comes from facing discomfort. Basmah’s claim to a rational rather than a superstitious (and responsible, rather than escapist) reading of things was put to a slippery test, when minutes before the actual exhibition, the glass from the door of the exhibit broke without anyone tampering or as much as touching it. Although devastated, she looked past the scores of people telling her that some jealous competitor had given her the evil eye. The glass was replaced, but it broke a second time, shortly after the replacement. She was ‘lucky’ the third time round, but her luck stayed put only because her salvation was reason. The second accident had forced her to delve into the possible reasons for the repeated breaking, and she discovered that the frame holding the glass in place was crooked, which disturbed the balance of the glass. A logical solution was plexiglass, and it has stayed in place since. ‘Luck’ or ‘ill-luck’, then, was merely physics, when looked up close.

‘In case of an emergency, break the glass’. Will inert symbols save us or active reason? (Picture by Basmah Felemban)

How does one sum up the common narrative of the show? I’m afraid there is none, except the narrative of a will, belief and the readiness to participate.  Any responsible appraisal that has the courage to be more hopeful than condescending, more optimistic  than realistic, that speaks from a standpoint of regard for local culture rather than lip-synching to fashionable opinion imports and most importantly, one that understands first-hand the challenges of being an artist, a curator, or an agent of change in Saudi Arabia will agree  that it really is  the most important narrative of all – the will to be part a significant change, no matter how small, the belief to keep doing it, year after year, and the readiness to be there against all odds.

Naima Rashid

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