The first Diriyah Biennale marks Saudi Arabia as significant player in contemporary art

The free event runs until March on the outskirts of Riyadh

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Rashed AlShashai’s psychedelically coloured lightbox arch Takween was still being finished on the night before the opening of Saudi Arabia’s first home-grown biennale in Riyadh, but the message was still clear even before the event started: here stands a gateway to something new.

The Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale, which opened on Saturday and will run until March, is taking place in the Jax District, an upscaled cultural zone carved out within an industrial area of Diriyah, a town just outside of Riyadh that is being taken over by the capital’s urban sprawl.

Saudi Arabia, despite its long artistic history, has only recently captured the attention of the global contemporary art scene, with the country’s recent social reforms and cultural initiatives following Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan.

'Nothing short of brilliant'

The event is a welcome addition to a regional art scene in need of more cultural initiatives of this nature, with the long-standing Sharjah Biennial seemingly holding the fort for decades.

At the VIP preview of the biennale on Friday evening, Aya Al Barkee, the chief executive of the Diriyah Foundation, called the inaugural event “nothing short of brilliant”, with words such as “catalyst” and “seminal” also uttered by other speakers.

During the opening, attendees – mostly Saudi men and women, some visitors from neighbouring Gulf art scenes and a handful of international names – got to see works by 63 artists from the kingdom and abroad. Around half of the works have been commissioned by the Diriyah Foundation, and thus now being seen in public for the first time.

“There’s a performance at 8.30 that we can’t miss,” one visitor said to her companion. She was referring to Marwah AlMugait’s The Sea is Mine, which featured 12 female performers moving to chants from South Africa and the Arabian Gulf. The gestures expressed forms of resistance – the women cupping their mouths and trying to break free – and moments of solidarity, with performers clasping hands to form a ring. The 15-minute performance was met with great applause.

While many initiatives that aspire to be groundbreaking fall short of their ambitions, the first Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale is not one of them. What sets it apart is not so much its title as the first of its kind in the kingdom (there have been other biennial art events adopted by Saudi Arabia from abroad), but the exhibition’s curatorial framework Feeling the Stones, developed by Philip Tinari, director and chief executive of UCCA Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

The title and theme are drawn from the slogan “crossing the river by feeling the stones”, attributed to Chinese politician Deng Xiaoping who used it to describe how China navigated its social and economic transformation in the 1980s. Feeling the Stones draws parallels between China’s past and Saudi Arabia’s present – an influx of economic investment and a shifting global outlook in societies previously closed off to foreigners.

“In times of rapid, substantial transformation, it is easy to be caught up in the moment and not understand the gravity of what’s going on,” Tinari tells The National. He sees Saudi Arabia’s moment as one “where suddenly all these new things are possible”, which he says “also spoke to my understanding of that time in China”. Specifically, he refers to a similar “dynamism and optimism” present in both societies, but also the “incremental” and “experimental” ways in which they approach progress as they cross the other side of the river.

You have this slate of [Saudi] artists who are fully formed and mature and ready to be in an international biennale
Philip Tinari, director and chief executive of UCCA Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing

Charting the waters of change “requires a level of comfort with change and uncertainty”, Tinari says, and the exhibition offers a way to “think about what a moment like this means in a larger historical sense” through art. When it comes to understanding and interpreting social and cultural shifts, he says “artists are always the first responders, and you start to get artworks that reflect on that and process it in interesting ways”.

The US-born curator, critic and writer has lived in Beijing since 2001. For the Diriyah Biennale, he led a curatorial team comprising Wejdan Reda, a curator and researcher who lives in Jeddah, and Luan Shixuan and Neil Zhang, both curators from the UCCA Centre for Contemporary Art.

How Tinari came to work with Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Culture, which organised the event, happened on the grounds of another biennale – Venice in 2019 – where he met the culture minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al Saud. Later that year, he began making several visits to the kingdom to meet artists and learn more about Saudi art.

Works by 27 Saudi artists are included in Feeling the Stones. The rest are from elsewhere, with Chinese artists making up most of the second half. The show is divided into six sections, starting with Crossing the River, which pays homage to Saudi Arabia’s earlier artists and figures from the Chinese avant-garde.

At the entrance, a new iteration of Richard Long’s Red Earth Circle, first made by the seminal British land artist in 1989, is displayed alongside Maha Malluh’s World Map, where tapes of religious sermons have been coloured and assembled to create an image of the world, evoking both textile patterns and pixels.

Long’s inclusion is a nod to the influential 1989 show Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth) at the Centre Pompidou, where curator Jean-Hubert Martin presented 100 artists – 50 from the West and 50 from other parts of the world – side by side, without geographical categories or commentary.

Tinari references the show several times, in interviews, tours and statements, and it is evident that he wants to replicate its effects in Feeling the Stones. “You have this slate of [Saudi] artists who are fully formed and mature and ready to be in an international biennale,” he says, also noting that his aim is to build “equal and open dialogue” between them and the rest of the world.

The biennale, he says, is about “the act of putting the Saudi art scene into global dialogue on Saudi soil”, which he hopes will have the same effect on the artists as the 2000 Shanghai Biennale, which included foreign practitioners for the first time. “It changed the whole self-conception of the art scene, for the underground to be more open and start thinking of itself as part of the global stage,” he explains.

This intention is part of why Feeling the Stones works so well. It not only breaks away from the tired dichotomies of East and West, Global North and South, but also binds artists to their ideas, rather than their national identities. It becomes unnecessary to say Saudi artists are on par with the West or elsewhere, as the evidence is in the works themselves.

As the show progresses, the sections become stronger. In Experimental Preservation, which examines the tension between progress and past in rapidly developing societies, Daniah Al Saleh’s That Which Remains projects eerie AI-generated faces on and around paper cylinders that hang from the ceiling. Taken from news media and footage of the kingdom since its founding, as well as the artist’s own personal photographs from 2021, the blended images give a hazy view of history, where official narratives and memories compete for dominance.

This interplay of seen and unseen, of visions masquerading as something else, is also in Xu Bing’s Background Story: Streams and Mountains Without End (2014), a lightbox installation that shows a serene Chinese landscape painting on one side and an assemblage of detritus and discarded paper on the other.

The third section, Peripheral Thinking, examines the globalisation of art and art histories, where Miguel Angel Payano Jr’s tetraptych painting Ascending Stars combines influences from American, Chinese and Caribbean cultures in sweeping elements of sea and sky, shown next to Sarah Abu Abdallah and Ghada AlHassan’s Horizontal Dimensions, a 25-metre-long yellow canvas of embedded with the artists’ personal histories, memories and dreams.

In Going Public, the fourth section, artists are under the spotlight, highlighted for their role in interpreting cultural shifts, challenging staid traditions and presenting novel ways of thinking. These ideas were best expressed in two works – Manal AlDowayan’s Tree of Guardians, a participatory work from 2014 that asked 300 Saudi women to recall the matrilineal lineage and visualise them on paper. Such a gesture is of particular significance to a place such as Saudi Arabia, where most family trees, including the Royal House of Saud, only contain its male members.

There is a dazzling, dizzying effect to Feeling the Stones, compounded by the multitude of economic and cultural strides the kingdom is taking alongside the event

The other work is Tavares Strachan’s EIGHTEEN NINETY, a room covered with entries from the Bahamian artist’s earlier work The Encyclopaedia of Invisibility (2018), which makes visible histories, people and events forgotten or removed from everyday knowledge, such as the contributions of black inventors in the US during the late 19th century.

One of the more impressive sections in already extraordinary show is Brave New World, significant for its urgency and thoughtful presentations, such as Sarah Brahim’s Soft Machines / Far Away Engines, a 10-channel video installation of the artist’s performance work that navigates the intimacies of breath, with the body as a machine that produces it and is fuelled by it at the same time.

The rest of the works contemplate ecological destruction, such as John Gerrard’s Leaf Work, updated for the biennale, which shows a verdant figure covered in leaves dejectedly circling a barren landscape; Timur Si-Qin’s Oracle of the Ashes of Plants, which recreates the remains of a tree found in a Romanian archaeological site; and Ayman Zedani’s installation Between Desert Seas, a research-based and installation work that contemplates the fate of the Arabian Sea humpback whale, of which fewer than 100 exist.

Finally, the show ends with Concerning the Spiritual, which includes works that explore Islamic themes, such as Lulwah Al Homoud’s light work The Alphabet, which breaks down the geometries of Arabic script, and Sultan bin Fahad’s Dream Travelled, a room filled with beaded works depicting the three holy sites every pilgrim aspires to see in the cities of Makkah, Madinah and Jerusalem. A video work by Andro Wekua All is Fair in Dreams and War journeys through the vision of dreams, exploring the illogical and psychological planes unexplored in waking life.

There is a dazzling, dizzying effect to Feeling the Stones, compounded by the multitude of economic and cultural strides the kingdom is taking alongside the event. The lure of unbridled progress is hard to resist, but a successful opening is not always a sign of a catalytic moment – the biennale will have to win over people outside of the art world for it to make an impact. The foundation expects to bring in 200,000 visitors, opening the exhibition 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with school group visits scheduled in January and programming in the coming months.

But a question from a Saudi journalist during the press conference offers up practical considerations: why is the biennale being held in Diriyah, outside of Riyadh’s city proper?

As part of Vision 2030, Diriyah has been “renewed as Saudi Arabia’s cultural capital”, as the government website states, with projects such as Diriyah Gate. It’s a 15-minute drive away from Jax and is claimed to be the "birthplace" of the kingdom and the original home of the Al Saud royal family. The triangulation of history, heritage and modernity (via contemporary art) fits neatly into Saudi Arabia’s rebrand.

In light of this, AlShashai’s archway acquires more meaning, separating the Saudi Arabia that the biennale wants it to be – one of openness and internationalism – and the wider kingdom that is still moving through new currents. When it comes to progress, the biennale proves artists can help us traverse new territory and illustrate what may be on the other side.

Updated: December 12, 2021, 10:32 AM