Striking new stone artworks take over Riyadh as part of Tuwaiq Sculpture

The annual symposium brings together artists from around the world to create works in a live setting

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The newest collection of Riyadh’s public artworks has been unveiled — less than a month since 30 local and international artists first convened in the Saudi capital to produce large-scale works out of stones sourced from within the kingdom.

The artworks come as part of Tuwaiq Sculpture. Now in its fourth year, the annual symposium brings together artists from around the world to Riyadh to create works in a live setting. The event is part of the broader Riyadh Art programme, which seeks to turn the capital into a “gallery without walls”, with more than 1,000 artworks to be displayed across the city in the coming years.

The artists participating in Tuwaiq Sculpture this year were selected from an open call that had more than 600 applicants responding to the theme, Energy of Harmony. They were chosen by a jury of experts that included Marek Wolynski, curator of this year’s symposium, along with Alaa Tarabzouni, Ali Altokhais, Effat Fadag and Johannes von Stumm.

The event began on January 8 in a purpose-built location across Durrat Al Riyadh Resort & Spa. Over the course of 26 days, artists met on a daily basis in the sprawling open-air area, working on their sculptures and engaging with the public visiting the site. Through a series of workshops, school visits and panel talks, the community was offered the chance to learn from the artists while witnessing their creations gradually taking shape.

“It gave people the chance to see the whole process, and how a block of stone is turned into an art piece,” Sarah Alruwayti, the symposium’s director, says.

The final sculptures were revealed in an exhibition on site that began on Sunday and will be running until February 10. The works will then be relocated to permanent locations within Qasr Al-Hukm, the historical district of Riyadh.

The sculptures will create new dynamics within the district’s existing architecture, Wolynski says. “Many of them are interactive. They are not only objects that you look at. They incorporate benches or allow you to walk through or inside them,” he says.

“It is absolutely stunning how artists responded to the theme Energy of Harmony, trying to encapsulate those processes of introducing and witnessing transformative change.”

The artworks range from geometric to more fluid and organic shapes. There are forms that are jagged and modern, while others burst open like the pages of an unbound book in the wind or water gushing from a spring. The works reflect on the theme of harmony across dimensions that range from the social and natural to the historical and existential. “They try to touch upon that balance we all strive for in our lives,” Wolynski says.

All works were also chiselled out of the same materials. For the first time since the symposium was launched in 2019, participating artists exclusively used stones from the kingdom’s quarries, namely granite and sandstone, which are also colloquially known as Riyadh Stone.

“This choice bears symbolic significance,” Alruwayti says. “It is a way to highlight Saudi Arabia’s rich history with the medium, from ancient artefacts to rock carvings and modern-day sculpture. Now, these artworks will not only be part of Riyadh, but also part of each artist’s legacy, leaving a momentous mark on the city.”

This year, the symposium also boasted an even male-to-female participation ratio, Alruwayti says, with many women choosing to work with granite instead of the softer sandstone.

“Granite is one of the hardest materials, and it was inspiring to see them carve into it,” she says. “I had conversations with several artists. Some of the Saudi women were saying that it’s always been assumed that we aren’t strong enough or that it is a man’s job to carve. They were proud to showcase something else. These sculptures are going to stay up for generations. One of the artists was telling me how proud she was because she knew her children and grandchildren would see these sculptures.”

One of the opening works in the Tuwaiq Sculpture exhibition is a monumental piece by Saudi artist Mohammad Al-Faris. Titled Riyadh’s Eye, the work seeks to unite the capital’s natural and cultural heritage with modern engineering.

Al-Faris, 60, says this reflects the changes he's seen growing up in Riyadh. "I grew up in a mud house that had no electricity or water. The interesting thing about mud houses is that they effortlessly harmonised with the landscape, because they were made from materials that were derived from nature.”

In the contemporary age, harmony “is no longer given” but has to be sought out, Al-Faris says. “I am speaking across different areas, from engineering and architecture to the more social sphere. There needs to be harmony between the past and the present.”

Comprising two perpendicular walls that meet on a granite plinth, the sculpture merges angular designs of contemporary architecture with the ancient engravings and streaked patterns reminiscent of the forms found across Saudi Arabia’s natural landscape. He intended for people to climb the structure, touch its engravings and even sit on top of the plinth.

“The walls are fused together, without being bolted or forcefully connected,” he says. The wall that represents the past features a teardrop opening in its centre that is inspired by the one on Jabal Abu Makhrouq, a mountain in Riyadh with a semi-circular arch shape.

“The mountain’s opening is the eye that has seen all changes in Riyadh,” Al-Faris says. “That’s why I named the artwork Riyadh’s Eye.” The etchings featured on the sculpture, meanwhile, are inspired by the ancient South Arabian script known as musnad. “It reads Riyadh,” he says.

Elsewhere, The Gate of Light by Romanian artist Ana Maria Negara features two granite slabs engraved with the 24th chapter of the Quran, An-Nur (The Light). The slabs are positioned against each other at an angle, with an opening in between them to allow light from the sun and moon to stream through.

“I wanted the work to be trans-disciplinary,” Negara says. “To bring together technology, theology and art. The idea was to catch the light of the sun and the moon.”

Negara, who doesn’t speak or write Arabic herself, says a friend helped her ensure that her designs were faithful to the Quranic verse, which she inscribed on the granite with a style inspired by the Kufic script. The artist had been attending another symposium in Egypt years ago when peers told her that her labyrinthine designs were reminiscent of the Arabic script that was favoured by early Muslims to record the Quran.

“I was making maze-like patterns since I was a child. I made friends with Muslim artists in Egypt who said my designs looked like Kufic. It was a like a light bulb came on in my mind,” she says.

Harmony in Diversity by Chinese artist Qian Sihua, meanwhile, emphasises the subjectivity of perspective, goading viewers to go around the sculpture and absorb it through various vantage points.

“Mountains seem very different depending on which side you’re looking from,” he says. “Sculptures are no different. They seem very different based on where you’re standing.”

The work looms with designs that initially reflected on traditional Chinese architecture. However, Sihua says he was also inspired by his Egyptian assistant on the project and altered it to echo the chiselling techniques of ancient Egyptian structures.

“The dotted parts were all chiselled by hand,” he says. “There are thousands of points.”

Russian artist Vasilisa Chugunova, meanwhile, considers the life-affirming power of water in her vertical structure, Energy of Water, carved out of sandstone and comprising lines that are intertwined with each other, much like the flow of a stream.

“I wanted to show the movement of water with a positive energy,” she says. “The power of water emerging from the earth. It flows upwards and pushes the upper piece. I wanted to show that water always finds its own path. The back of the sculpture shows the water returning to the earth, reflecting on the circle of life.”

Another vertical piece, this time fashioned out of granite, is Vision by Saudi artist Noha Alsharif. The three-metre-high sculpture blends the form of a bird with that of a woman. The design was inspired by the ancient inscriptions in Saudi Arabia and incorporates, the artist says, “the symbolism of birds to look forward to the future”.

Alsharif says that it was a challenge working with granite and to ensure the large-scale sculpture was completed within 26 days. “The organisers spared no expense to help us reach that goal though,” she says. “We had assistants and stayed in the nearby hotel, which is just three minutes away. It was a beautiful experience.”

The Tuwaiq Sculpture exhibition will be on at Durrat Al Riyadh Resort & Spa until February 10

Updated: February 07, 2023, 3:04 AM