Ithra’s Mirrors exhibition reflects new Saudi art scene

We take a closer look at how the kingdom is benefiting from the centre in Dhahran

A man and his uncle sit on the floor making a bisht, a gold-threaded formal robe worn by Arab men. A woman in a white abaya heads through a weathered wooden door. A man prays. Another writes letters to his mother. Women prepare for a wedding. 

The works in the Mara'ina (Mirrors) exhibition offer a portrait of the Arab world, seen through the lens of society and family. It is the third contemporary art show staged at the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture (Ithra) in Dhahran and the first to engage with wider international currents in the art world, with Arab and western artists from Akram Zaatari and Tasneem Alsultan to Michelangelo Pistoletto and Robert Polidori having each trained their lenses on the Middle East. 

The image of home, as it emerges, is a busy one – full of families, such as in Polidori's pictures of Syrian families and Saudi Arabian nationals on holiday in Jordan; events, such as Alsultan's images of women getting married or coping with widowhood; and, inevitably, diaspora and loss. Lebanese artist Camille Zakharia, who moved to Bahrain during Lebanon's Civil War, shows letters he wrote to his mother back home, with Hazem Harb, who lives in Dubai, showing collages drawn from his growing archive of antique photographs of Palestine, which he left as a student.

Meanwhile Hrair Sarkissian's two-channel video plays, allegorising the conflict in his native Syria. One side shows him as he raises a sledgehammer to deliver blow after blow to an unseen object. The other side shows a doll's house that is damaged bit by bit, though you never see how. Titled Homesick (2014), it is a beautiful rendition of the helplessness born from watching destruction remotely. 

Mara'ina is the kind of show about Arab art you would find in many places and displays the speed with which contemporary art is moving into Saudi Arabia. Ithra had a substantial role in this growing scene, as much through the art it has exhibited as through programmes that supported Saudi artists even before the centre officially opened last year. The idea for Ithra was conceived in 2007 to mark Aramco's 75th anniversary and was part of the company's "citizenship and social responsibility programme", as the centre's director, Fatma Al-Rashid, explains. "Aramco's early contributions were establishing and building up the infrastructure – the roads, the highways – and later on it contributed to building up the industrial infrastructure. To celebrate the 75th anniversary, the thinking was to contribute with something that would last for future generations." 

Though its official inauguration was in June last year, the centre was running art programmes even as stainless steel tubing was being wrapped around the outside of the building. From 2016 until last year, Ithra hosted a residency programme in New York for Saudi Arabian artists such as Ahmed Mater, Nasser Al Salem and Dana Awartani.

In partnership with local institutions, the centre also put together 10 exhibitions that toured across the US at the same time. These included shows of major Saudi artists, including Abdulnasser Gharem at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Mater at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, as well as exhibiting younger artists such as Ahmad Angawi, Sarah Abu Abdallah and Arwa Al Neami, in group shows at the likes of the Bates College Museum of Art in Maine and the Minnesota Street Project, a centre in San Francisco.

Ithra is also actively buying for its permanent holdings. Several gallerists in Dubai have sold to the centre, in a boon for the emirate's art market, and Ithra will acquire the commissions from its temporary exhibitions, as is standard for art organisations. From ­Mara'ina, for example, Ithra will receive Alsultan's remarkable Weddings (2015), her documentary project that explores how the Saudi government's reforms have affected women.

Ithra also acquires the works from its annual art prize, given in collaboration with Art Dubai, which offers $100,000 (Dh367,250) towards the production of a piece of artwork. This growing collection is already visible across the vast building and this year's Ithra Art Prize winner Daniah Al Saleh's Sawtam, a masterful digital translation of Arabic phonemes, flickers away downstairs, while Emirati artist Hassan Sharif's rope sculpture, Knots (2012-2016), a recent acquisition, tapers elegantly in the lobby. 

"When we started, we were the only entity," Al-Rashid says. "Now, with the latest support of the government, through the establishment of the Ministry of Culture, there are a lot of emerging institutions and organisations. In the Eastern Provinces, we see Ithra as something for the local community and a hub for knowledge seekers and curious minds. At a national level, we see Ithra as a partner. On a global level, we see Ithra as a bridge to Saudi culture and even global culture." 

<span>When we started, we were the only entity. Now, with the latest support of the government, </span><span>through the establishment of the Ministry of Culture, there are a lot of emerging institutions and organisations.</span>

For the local context, that means not only engagement – bringing audiences in – but building them up. This motivation runs through Mara'ina, from the choice of subject matter to the exhibition display. "We do a lot of studies of our audiences," the show's curator, Candida Pestana, says. "They are quite new to having a contemporary art perspective and this is a new institution of its kind in the kingdom, so we want to serve them and we want to hear from them. It's important to us to educate our community and to make exhibitions with them in mind."

The galleries for the show are purpose-built, as the space does not contain fixed internal galleries orientated towards showing art. For this show, Ithra built a small warren of rooms, each mirrored on the outside, so the audience, in a slightly belaboured metaphor, could see themselves as part of the show, triggering memories within them. 

At the opening, visitors used the mirrors mostly to snap selfies – a mobile phone-led engagement that Pistoletto memorialised in his portrait of Saudi society, Perzone in Communicazione (people in communication), in which three groups of people look at their phones or use their cameras. 

Elsewhere, visitors played with the audio and visual components of the centre's other show, Being Saudi, trying on headphones to hear different Saudi Arabian music styles or superimposing their faces on various kinds of tribal dress. A small black disc the size of an ice hockey puck stored the choices you made and offered you a representation of your Saudi self as you left the show. It was true to form about what it means to be Saudi now.  

"Saudis engaged with each other in digital space before they did it in public space," said Alsultan during a panel discussion at the show's opening. There were murmurs of assent in the audience.

As Ithra shifts its focus from international programmes to its four storeys of galleries, one of their most important roles might simply be to provide a place for community exchange.