Car sculptures to be removed in Jeddah after social media users criticise public art

Four abandoned cars, which were painted by Saudi artist Shalemar Sharbatly, were negatively critiqued online

An art installation. Courtesy Makkah Province
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A row has broken out on social media over the public art initiative #MovingArt in Jeddah.

Saudi artist Shalemar Sharbatly had made four sculptures by painting abandoned cars and installing them on a layer of debris. The resulting pieces, which invoke the appearance of an abandoned car lot next door to a paintball factory, were then displayed prominently in the city's old town.

Jeddah has a long history in ambitious public-sculpture programmes. Where else will you find works by Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Jean Arp, Joan Miro, Maha Malluh and numerous, luminous others casually dotted alongside the waterfront? #MovingArt was designed to follow in that tradition, in celebration of the city's 90th birthday.

However, the finished work didn't go down well with the people of Jeddah and they were quick to voice their disappointment on Twitter.

“You call this visual distortion an initiative," one user wrote.

"When you write a bad book, people just won't read it. But when you design an ugly building, then you're forcing the ugliness to the place for the next 100 years and that's exactly what the person who has taken this decision has done," said Nada Aljuaid on Twitter.

The painted vehicles were unveiled on Sunday evening and, by Monday, the government for the Makkah region, which oversees Jeddah, had called for their removal.

The announcement cited the online furore. “The pioneers of social networking sites have interacted with the work negatively, describing the initiative as a distortion of the visual scene,” it stated on Twitter.

Painting cars is Sharbatly’s hallmark. At the Monaco Grand Prix in 2018, the artist decorated a Pagani Zonda in swirly, rainbow colours.

The Jeddah-born painter has also worked on a Ferrari, a Porsche 911 and the Formula 1 race-car La Torq, all in a style not too dissimilar to what she showcased this week.

The subject suits a city with a strong car culture such as Jeddah, and Sharbatly found the four cars in abandoned auto lots, making it ecologically sustainable. The project, on paper, made sense.

Shalimar Sharbatly with one of her hand-painted creations. Via Twitter

Outcry over divisive examples of public art is also not new. Public art is the poor stepson of other genres, weighted down by the need to be accessible, produced at scale, inoffensive, often symbolic and amenable to numerous government committees – hardly a recipe for creative success.

In London last year, the borough of Stoke Newington unveiled a sculpture dedicated to one of its most famous denizens, writer Mary Wollstonecraft, who penned A Vindication on the Rights of Woman in 1792.

Despite being honoured for her feminism, she was depicted in miniature scale, like an addendum to the work itself, and unclothed – perhaps not the message that Wollstonecraft had intended. UK Twitter was similarly swift in its condemnation.

In that case, however, the artwork stayed put.

There is no word on when the four Sharbatly sculptures will be removed from the Tahlia Walkway in Ar Rawdah, a mixed-use area north of Jeddah's old town. But Twitter is already celebrating.

“Thank you, Governor of Makkah Al Mukarramah Region, Prince Khalid Al Faisal, for ordering the removal of this visual distortion," one Twitter user wrote.