Review: Here, Now exhibition in Riyadh questions identity

10 artists are presented at Misk Art Institute, where the curators leave the narrative to the interpretation of viewers

'Struggle to Surface' (2016) by Sheila Hicks. Photo: Misk Art Institute

Two bold and dark figures guard the entrance of Here, Now, the exhibition at Riyadh’s Prince Faisal bin Fahd Arts Hall, now known as Masaha after Misk Art Institute’s renovation of the 1980s structure, in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi artist Filwa Nazer’s evocative figures shield a tapestry of grand colour and size, while Sheila Hicks’s gorgeous palm tree fronds cascades in marvellous colours. You leave with the same question you came in with: "Why here, why now?"

Here, Now is the third in the series of Misk Art Institute’s annual flagship exhibitions and, for this, British writer and curator Sacha Craddock curates the show alongside Misk's assistant curators, Alia Ahmad Al Saud and Nora Algosaibi.

“As a show, there's no line to it, there's no narrative,” explains Craddock. “The show allows people to feel that they have complete choice in terms of the way they went and started off thinking about identity in the most open and generous way.”

While most of the works were loaned from the artists’ private collections, some were sourced from galleries including Athr Gallery and Hafez Gallery in Jeddah.

Saudi artist Filwa Nazer in front of 'The Other Is Another Body 2', 2019. Photo: Misk Art Institute

The curators paired works by Saudi artists alongside those from a diverse set of nations including Sudan, India, the US, Thailand and South Korea. Altogether, 10 artists present works ranging from painting and textile to video and installation, all of which are on show until January 15, 2022.

It is precisely this mix of artists – and media – that offers Here, Now a novel feel in Riyadh, whose cultural programming has, historically, unlike its sister city Jeddah, not staged exhibitions of this blend, scale and curatorial theme.

“Here, Now explores notions of identity, and my work questions the emotional and psychological identity in relation to spatial and social contexts,” says Nazer of her works, which are exhibited indoors for the first time following their debut at Sharjah Art Foundation’s 2019 residency programme.

Interestingly, Hicks’s work of a large-size tapestry woven between 1984-1985 (one of two on show) was commissioned by Mansour Al Turki, then-rector at King Saud University in the 1980s, when Hicks was invited to Riyadh to design an art programme at the school. She had fallen asleep under a palm tree and her tapestry represents what she saw when she awoke.

Sheila Hick’s woven tapestry 'Palm', 1985. Photo: Misk Art Institute

Easing past Nazer’s guards, the contrast of practices is demonstrated beautifully by South Korean Young In Hong's pieces facing Saudi artist Yousef Jaha’s. Hong’s Flower Drawing clearly states its intention: to create structure for oneself through a series of embroidered flower works that indicate the location where she acquired the floral models and the time it took to complete. The 10 delicate pieces face Jaha’s charged abstract paintings, which, upon closer inspection, address nature’s mysterious cohesiveness.

Hot on the heels of her solo show in Dubai at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde is Manal Al Dowayan, whose interactive installation I Am Here invites viewers to stamp the words “I am here” in Arabic on a white wall, allowing the imprints to blend into darkness. “I chose work that would bounce off each other, that would set up a kind of process where audiences became a very important component in this exhibition,” says Craddock.

Manal Al Dowayan's 'I Am Here' ( 2016). Photo: the artist and Misk Art Institute

Among the highlights – and new discoveries – in Here, Now is the work of Saudi painter Sami Ali AlHossein, whose surreal paintings are dominated by the theme of nature with sitting ducks, coastal plains and solidified bodies. His painting, Whisper of Silence, presents a flock of eye-less birds that recall hot coals, bracing themselves for the heat they’re about to endure – or, maybe, already have against deep shades of red that insinuate pain and sorrow.

Nearby is Thai artist Piyarat Piyapongwiwa’s three vibrant tapestries that frame a 19-minute documentary piece on the difficulty and politics behind the fabric industry in her home country. None of the fabric shown in the video is hung in the gallery, however, and the original story of the actual pieces is left to imagination. In that way, the connection falters. “Was the video made during the piece's production in 2017?” wondered an audience member. “If it’s not the original fabric, then why is it there?” chimed in another.

Piyarat Piyapongwiwat's 'Fabric', 2017. Photo: Misk Art Institute

Here, Now’s concept prompts the audience to strip the artist of their past and focus on the art at hand – the idea that art can still be made for the sake of being made. That idea is innovative and should be encouraged, but one wonders if it is possible in this day and age to separate one’s cultural background and ethnicity from their work.

One major takeaway from the exhibition is: can art be separated from the artist? No doubt that is among the most controversial questions orbiting the art world. For Misk Art Institute, this show provides a platform to raise questions, prompt community discussion, and support its goal to further the discourse around art locally and internationally.

Nada Alturki is currently the writer-in-residence at Misk Art Institute Masaha Residency Fall 2021. Here, Now runs until January 15, 2022

Updated: December 2nd 2021, 4:11 AM