Saudi art not seen for decades goes on display at AlUla's Maraya

New exhibition More than Meets the Eye takes pieces from private collections and hangs them in public – with many on show for the first time

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The modern era of Saudi art is somewhat ill-defined.

A scarcity of studies and academic inquiries leaves a lot of blanks in the arc between Saudi modern and contemporary art. However, a new exhibition at AlUla’s Maraya seeks the help of private collectors to draw a thread from the 1950s onwards.

More than Meets the Eye is running until April 27 alongside the AlUla Arts Festival. It comprises artworks that come exclusively from private collectors in Saudi Arabia, meaning that several pieces have never been displayed in public before.

While not a definite trajectory, the exhibition aims to advance discussions and provide insight into the creative approach of Saudi artists, as well as identify themes and concerns that bound works produced in the past 70 years. It is also part of the pre-opening programme for the future contemporary art museum in AlUla and showcases the aspirations for the planned museum.

The exhibition is curated by Effat Abdullah Fadag, an associate professor of fine arts at several institutions around the kingdom, including the University of Jeddah and King AbdulAziz University.

“This exhibition is a motivation to start a dialogue [on Saudi art history],” Fadag says. She adds that she also seeks to blur the lines between modern and contemporary works by showing how artistic patterns are much more fluid than the categories imply. “It is a different canon than the western canon,” she says.

The first gallery defines the tone of the exhibition and what it attempts to accomplish. Modern paintings juxtapose contemporary sculptural and mixed media works, all addressing the theme of belonging. An untitled 1987 work by Mohammed Al Saleem shows a landscape from the city of Murat with traditional homes looming over each other in ochre layers. The painting diverges from the undulating landscape works that the artist is best known for.

Yet, it presents Al Saleem’s appreciation for his native landscape at a time when he was distant from it. The artist had gone to Italy on a scholarship provided by the Saudi Ministry of Communication, and when prompted to paint a landscape during his studies in art, he produced a work in homage to his hometown. Al Saleem was one of many male artists who benefited from the government scholarship programme that provided opportunities to study in western and Arab countries.

Al Saleem's painting is displayed next to an untitled work by Abdulhalim Radwi. The 1978 painting was also produced abroad, while Radwi was studying in Italy, where he had gone at his own expense. The work alludes to styles that Radwi is known for, with figurative forms that lean towards abstraction.

“Radwi was one of those artists who was not Saudi at that time,” Fadag says. “He had his own money to go and study in Italy. The government then gave him Saudi citizenship.”

Ayman Yossri Daydban also has a similar narrative, having been granted Saudi citizenship later in life. The artist is represented with two steel sculptures from his 2011 Reflections series, which, like the other works in the first gallery, take on the theme of belonging.

In a 2021 untitled painting, Alia Ahmad addresses the questions of identity as the Saudi artist travelled to the UK to study. The abstract piece is meant to convey her memories of Riyadh and the movement of its sands, Fadag says, with contemporary artists undergoing experiences similar to their predecessors in the 20th century but rendering them in disparate ways.

These concepts resonate further in the exhibition, with Fahad Al Naymah’s sprawling three-piece painting Camel Pageant, produced in 2016, harkening to the local significance of the desert animals, particularly its use as a mode of transportation across history.

Cowboy Code, by Ahmed Mater, is an expansive installation that, as the name suggests, lists the moral code of cowboys. It has been created out of hundreds of plastic ammunition strips used for children’s toy cap guns. He places them next to one another like tiles, taking inspiration from the 1960s Spaghetti Western films he used to watch and juxtaposing their similarities with the principles of Saudi tribes.

The work’s intent is highlighted in its curation, displayed opposite two photographs by Adel Al Quraishi that portray two Bedouins from the desert of Nafud. “Al Quraishi was mentored by an Italian photographer who photographed these two Bedouins 30 years before,” Fadag says. Al Quraishi employed similar modes of composition as well as pigment printing techniques to pay tribute to his mentor.

One of the most stirring artworks is a three-channel video installation by Reem Al Nasser. Produced in 2019, Outside Inside features three wooden tripods. The videos within the viewfinders present anxious-riddled scenes of a person yearning to break free from behind locked doors. The accompanying sound of struck steel and bolts refusing to give way sharpens the perturbed nature of the videos. In the last of the three works, the bolt finally comes undone. Outside Inside is based on the artist’s own experiences and brings to mind the struggles of women in recent Saudi society.

Love in its many forms is the theme that binds many of the works in the next room. Rita, painted between 1978 and 1981, is Bakr Sheikhoun’s homage to his mother. Fahad Hajailan’s untitled 2001 work, meanwhile, presents a portrait of his wife with vibrant, frenzied greens, blues and reds. Ali Alruzaiza’s Gates Series, on the other hand, is the artist’s watercolour designs of the gates within his house.

The exhibition then moves towards the concept of spirituality, beginning with an artwork of thread steel and light projection by Muhannad Shono. Letters in Light (Lines we Write) is formed in a shape that brings to mind the rehal, or the book stand associated with the Quran. With the ethereal sound design and the rippling lights, the work instills a feeling of peace and calm, and is an apt entryway for this portion of the exhibition. The artists presented deal with the theme of spirituality in all sorts of unexpected ways.

Lulwah Al Homoud’s Al Hamdellah presents her take on calligraphy and traditional geometric designs with a gold leaf painting. In I Went Away and Forgot You. A While Ago I Remembered. I Remembered Iʼd Forgotten You. I Was Dreaming, Dana Awartani presents a soundless single-channel video that shows her sweeping the sand and dust in a living room into a single mound.

The final stretch of the exhibition, meanwhile, aims to bring to light the necessity of collectors in the artistic ecosystem, whether in supporting and commissioning artworks or helping bolster academic inquiries in art history. The gallery contains exhibition literature, including from a 1999 show that featured artists Yossri, Mahdi Al Jeraibi and Aber Al Fatni, as well as artworks by artists who were collectors themselves, such as Alruzaiza.

After all, More than Meets the Eye would not have been possible without the contribution of private collectors within the kingdom.

“When I was like searching and looking, I was trying to think about the definition of a collector in Saudi Arabia,” Fadag says. “It's totally different. Many of them don’t even know they are collectors and simply have works because they are passionate. This is the amazing part. They don’t know they are part of this ecosystem.”

Fadag says she was amazed by the works within many of these private collections as she began visiting them for the exhibition. “It was like I was swimming in a sea,” she says. “I was very happy, just opening doors and seeing these amazing artworks that I never saw before. This exhibition is just scratching the surface. The amount of information that I got was amazing.”

More than Meets the Eye comes as a result of contributions from about half a dozen collectors. Yet, there are many of them still spread around the kingdom who have troves of artworks that can help enrich the understanding of modern and contemporary Saudi art.

Some collectors declined to loan works for the exhibition, Fadag says, pointing to the idea of loaning remaining a novelty in Saudi Arabia. However, she hopes exhibitions like this will help show how essential their collaboration is for the narrative of Saudi art.

“It's very new for them to take their work out,” she says. “But with these exhibitions, we are introducing people to show their work. Hopefully, it will help us find new collectors and collections that nobody has shed the light on.”

More than Meets the Eye is running at Maraya, AlUla, until April 27

Updated: February 22, 2024, 10:14 AM