Saudi contemporary art in Istanbul


The Edge of Arabia Istanbul: Transition  is the latest international exhibition by Saudi Arabian artists. It has been among the contributions to Istanbul’s year as European Capital of Culture 2010. The organizers of Edge of Arabia Istanbul were perceptive in recognizing that this year, Istanbul has been the right place to be. The Islamic city has a thriving vitality that makes it a real European culture capital and it has been an apt setting for exhibiting the work of Saudi Arabia’s barrier-pushing, individualistic artists.

The Transition in the Edge of Arabia exhibition title reflects the complex effects of change that permeate the works of these Saudi artists. Istanbul’s Sanat Limani contemporary art center stands on the shore on the very edge of Europe, facing Asia across the Bosphorus, one of the most celebrated seaways of transition in the Mediterranean. The late Ottoman Dolmabahce Mosque beside the Sanat Limani marks another transition in its contrast to the functionalist and the logo of Edge of Arabia at the Saudi exhibition entrance. It is a well-chosen setting for showing the efflorescence of Saudi Arabia’s contemporary art scene.

The Edge of Arabia organizers divided the exhibition into five themed rooms, “Century of the Self”, “Solitary Prayer”, “The Rise of Video Art”, “Consumer Kingdom” and “Message to the Messengers”. Within these loosely conceived framing concepts, the striking individualism of the work of each artist shines through in an exhibition of diversity.

Islam and the written Arabic word inevitably permeate much of these Saudi artists’ work, both explicitly and implicitly. There is also a strong element of social comment and a persistent, thoughtful and pervasive sense of anxiety about Arabia now and in the future, especially with respect to the environment.

In some of the works exhibited, this anxiety is expressed in a gentle commemoration of a vanishing past. This is most explicit in the photographs by Sami Al-Turki, in which a sense of sadness and loss runs through the evocative beauty of his photo-landscapes in his “Washeg” series. His scenes of empty desert — barely marked by man before the changes of modern times — are records of a world that existed before the structures and the litter of the present intruded into the emptiness of the desert.

The physical execution of much of this change has been brought about by the all-powerful yellow bulldozers that Sami Al-Turki commemorates in his “Construktakons” photographs — pictures of a machine that destroys the past and builds the future. In one ambiguous photograph an abandoned machine, its driver gone, stands alone and curiously wistful. Abdulnasser Gharem’s “Detour” refers to the same construction industry theme with the ubiquitous detour sign in English and Arabic that is a standard feature of Arabia’s building sites and a necessity of the building of developments.

There is no sentimentality in the self-avowed ugliness of Farouk Kondakaji cement blocks and deadened wood, dead from their use in construction. Nor is there sentimentality in Seddiq Wassil’s “Faces”, where he uses the crushed drinks cans that appear everywhere across Arabia as testimony to the easy casualness that turns consumption into pollution.

Manal Al-Dowayan’s “Satalite Hallucination” explores the modernity and globalized connections of the universal satellite dish of the Arabian skyline. “Hallucination” summons up a series of images of Arabia’s recent history — the destruction of old buildings, their roofing broken, their past domesticity ruined, their remains reduced to pre-archaeological rubble. In “Hallucination”, the satellite dishes sit atop the ubiquitous concrete lego block building, sucking in the messages of other worlds though the satellites.

Some issues arising from these changes that so influence these artists are universals encountered far beyond the Kingdom. This is true of Bassem Al-Sharqi’s hard edge geometry in his monumental “Jeddah Barcodes”. Although they are universals, Bassem Al-Sharqi’s “Jiddah Barcodes” are localized in Saudi Arabia, via icons like the Quaker Oats which he includes and which has been naturalized from Scottish porridge into a Saudi supermarket icon. As a Saudi-ized image, it justly shares the same picture space with the KSA national television logo.

A work in Edge of Arabia Istanbul that remains most disturbingly in memory is Maha Malluh’s “Tradition and Modernity”. Overtly, it shows the everyday, but the restrained tension says other things. The fearsome image of the can-opener amidst the benign cutlery is deeply disturbing. A colleague was struck by the confining boxes that frame each image. “Tradition and Modernity” is not an easy work. Maha Malluh’s written statement that a hectic modern life should not lead people to forget watching the sunset is calming, but “Tradition and Modernity” has a different feel entirely and is anything but calm.

Ayman Yossri’s “Maharem (Tissues)” boxes cite two images of Arabia and the Middle East. The one is the tissue box itself that years ago became so ubiquitous that it achieved iconic status in Arabia. A quite different reference is summoned up in the pictures that his “Maharem” boxes bear — the painted cinema ads from the Arab world’s pre-digital age. They belong to the cinemas and film industry that started in Egypt, an art of painting used in context of the transience of the advert.

Abdul Nasser Gharem’s “Men at Work” is disturbing in its juxtaposition of unlike with unlike. The familiar long developed security of Islamic geometric pattern with the Kufic letters inscribed as Allah and Muhammad (peace be upon him) is disconcertingly inhabited by the armored military gun bearer and a “men at work” road sign.

A very different context is summoned up by the golden curtain, “Negative no more”, by Shadia and Raja Alem, which hangs in its fragility as a metaphor for an entry-way and for concealment. It is an ephemeral object of beauty, summoning up an older world of the curtained off Topkapi Haramlik and its Ottoman ladies.

Bandar Al-Romaih’s “Jeddah wall-paper” is also from a lighter world. He makes strange conjunctions of “scene islands” with their origin in the street sculptures that have now become a part of Jeddah’s image. Trees and foliage are juxtaposed, floating in a manner that recalls Chinese painting. Floating between them are fishermen in the boats that once were seen on the Red Sea shoreline. The fishermen cast their nets into the sea between the island-vignettes of Jeddah life — women in abayas wafting, dolphins diving and a bicycle standing in front of an old Jeddah tower-house in Al-Balad, all set in the endless repetition of wall-paper infinity.

There is a marked tendency among several of these artists to use black and white. It occurs in the powerful “Mystic on white, I, II and III” and “Sufi Paintings” by Hussain Al-Muhassan, works that show a command of the brush that is almost Chinese.

With a very different effect, the restrictive black is also all that is used in the religious minimalism of Nasser Al-Salim’s “Makkah” series. Here pilgrims making the Tawaf are reformulated as letters of pious calligraphy as they circumambulate the Holy Kaaba.

Faisal Samra’s three “Untitled” inscribed columns echo an old Islamic religious architecture in their kinship with ancient columns in the Holy Haram at Makkah Al-Mukarramah that were the gift of the Abbasid khalifa Al-Mahdi in the 2nd C. hijri.

The works of Hussain Al-Muhassan, Nasser Al-Salim and Faisal Samra, are all rooted in piety in recognizable traditions of art, whether Islamic or otherwise. Those by Lulwa Al-Humoud, Nuha Al-Sharif and Ahmed Matar are entirely different in their approach to the sacred.

Lulwa Al-Humoud’s tightly concentrated geometrics take calligraphy into vortices that seem to have their roots in deep space. They are all the more intense for the thinness of the black lines that form her geometry on plain white. Black is used again in very different terms by Noha Al-Sharif in her ladies cloaked in the black of piety. Their calmness embodies a reality of the life of women at the Holy Haram, the calm anonymity of the abaya  and the quiet silence of her Muslim ladies standing silently in prayer and contemplation.

Ahmed Mater also works in the sphere of the sacred. This is overtly the case in his Yellow Cow theme, based on the yellow cow of the Prophet Musa in Surat Al-Baqara (The Cow). This sacred concept formed a key aspect of his recent London retrospective. In Istanbul, Ahmed Mater configures anew the elements of mass produced beneficial Yellow Cow products that are both witty and serious in their intent.


When the first Edge of Arabia exhibition opened in London in 2008, the work of Saudi Arabian artists was barely known internationally. The public response in Britain was remarkable and the high number of visitors to the exhibition was entirely unexpected. Saudi Arabia suddenly had a new image based on its art, rather than the austere desert country portrayed by Philby and Thesiger and in more recent stereotypes. Instead, Saudi Arabia now turned out to have artists, and artists who comment acerbically on the ravages of modern realities and who create new perceptions of existence.

Not only did this 21st Saudi Arabia have artists, but Saudi women were key among the exhibiting artists in London and they have continued to be so subsequently in Shanghai and Istanbul. Lulwa Humoud not exhibited but curated Nabatt: A Sense of Being at Shanghai. This is all still more disconcertingly contrary to Saudi Arabia’s stereotypes.

Until 2008, most of these artists were unknown internationally, although Faisal Samra had had a major solo exhibition in Jeddah in 2000 which was published by the Al-Mansouria Foundation for Culture and Creativity. Since the first Edge of Arabia exhibition in London in 2008, the profile of art from the Kingdom has changed at speed, with Saudi artists appearing in contexts as varied as the Venice Biennale and Expo 2010 at Shanghai. In the spring of 2010, the first ever art exhibition took place in Riyadh, entitled “O”. Ahmad Matar had a successful one-man show in London in October of this year, again a first for a Saudi artist. A Saudi artist’s work appeared in Sotheby’s Qatar sale of Islamic calligraphy in December. Galleries in Jeddah, Istanbul and London exhibit the works of Saudis and the Riyadh arts magazine OASIS has become a significant part of the Middle Eastern art media. As I photographed Edge of Arabia in Istanbul, Shaikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned  of Qatar made an impromptu visit to the exhibition and admired Abdulnasser Gharem’s gold dome and Noha Al-Sharif’s abaya-cloaked ladies.

The Edge of Arabia Istanbul: Transition exhibition closed on Dec. 26 and will be followed by another Edge of Arabia exhibition in Dubai in 2011. Taken altogether, it is part of a remarkable sequence of events marking the emergence of a Saudi Arabian national art scene that was barely heard of a decade ago

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