There's a legend in the town of Al Balad, the Unesco World Heritage Site in Jeddah, that a spirit roams the narrow streets in order to scare the young men who are out and about, and send them back into their homes. Another myth holds that the waters snaking off from the Red Sea and into the Arbaeen Lake make women fertile. Women who could not get pregnant used to bathe in it to change their luck.
"There are so many myths in Al Balad," says Effat Abdullah Fadag, who is curating this year's 21, 39 Jeddah Arts, the annual visual art festival in the city. The academic and artist, who lives in Jeddah, is exploring the idea of myth in the exhibition, which, as in previous iterations, takes place at Gold Moor Mall and in the old house of Rabat Khunji in Al Balad. The latter area is renowned for its intricately carved doors and mashrabiyas, which date back to the 19th and early 20th centuries.
"When people go to Al Balad, they look at the exteriors, but they never go across to go inside, to know what is happening behind these doors," she continues. "We are looking through myths and legend at old Jeddah, with three artists' projects there, each taking a different legend and seeing it through new eyes."
Nasser Alshemimry reanimates the idea of the djinn, or spirit, who travels through the city's streets to scare young men. The Jeddah artist, whose background is in audio and music, is creating a sound piece that he will show in Rabat Khunji. "Nasser is taking it like a mindset," says Fadag. "Not like a spirit, but something that is calling you from the inside, even haunting."
Another project will look at the tree that stands in front of the Bait Nassif, now a museum depicting what life used to be like in Al Balad. The wide, leafy plant is famous in the neighbourhood, as one of the few that have outlasted the urbanisation of the city.
This year's theme overall is Al Obour, or "crossing" – such as the new crossing into the old, the exterior crossing into the inside and, crucially, different generations crossing paths. Fadag explains that the emphasis on numerous generations came from Princess Jawaher bint Majed bin Abdulaziz, the patron of the event. "I gathered artists from different generations – pioneers, the upcoming generation, established artists – and added, of course, international artists."
21, 39 was initiated in 2013 by the Saudi Art Council – which is not a government body but a group of interested art professionals – to showcase Saudi Arabian artists alongside invited international artists. It has a different curator for each season, like a typical biennial, although it follows the rather gruelling pace of being yearly. Satellite exhibitions, workshops, talks and this year, a one-day symposium on the artists' work round out the event.
This year's version invites a number of GCC creatives, such as Khalid Zahid, Ali Cha'aban, Faisal Samra and Reem Al Nasser, as well as artists from further afield, such as Charlotte Spiegelfeld, a photographer from Germany, and Lawrence Abu Hamdan from Beirut. Abu Hamdan shows his Rubber-Coated Steel (2016), a video and sound installation about an incident in which two Palestinian teenagers were killed in the West Bank. Israeli soldiers alleged they fired rubber-coated bullets, but Abu Hamdan performed acoustic analysis on a recording of the event to determine that the soldiers in fact fired live rounds.
The Saudi Arabian artist Sarah Abu Abdallah will take part in the exhibition with her video installation The House That Ate Them Whole, which premiered at the Gwangju Biennale last year. If Abu Abudallah is well-known internationally, other artists have a higher stature inside the country, such as Bakr Sheikhoun, who began painting oils and pastels in the 1980s, and who is credited with helping to establish the art scene in Jeddah.
Fadag herself participated in the first 21, 39 exhibition, and now heads the art department at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, having gained her PhD in England. Previous curators for the event include Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, who recently resigned from Tate Modern, and Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, who are curating this year's UAE National Pavilion for the Venice Biennale, which starts in May.
21, 39 Jeddah Arts is on from February 6 to 9 at Gold Moor Mall and Rabat Khunji in Jeddah