Jeddah’s art scene takes shape under its own terms

21, 39 is the programme of art exhibitions and talks in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s liberal port city on the Red Sea

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“Working within a system which is not accommodating to artistic practice, people are really shaping new formats for existing and for doing things,” says Vassilis Oikonomopoulos of the exhibition he guest-curated for 21, 39, the Jeddah art events that opened on Wednesday. "This kind of energy and vibrancy of the city was the initial part of 'Refusing to Be Still': something that is in perpetual motion, always trying to move forward or sideways or somewhere, in order to avoid being static.”

21, 39 is the programme of art exhibitions and talks that is now in its fifth edition in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s liberal port city on the Red Sea. Like much else in the art scene here, the event grew organically: when the Saudi Art Council started the initiative, other events and exhibitions began happening around it.

A woman takes a picture of an art work at Makan gallery in Jeddah.

The main exhibition is held in unused spaces in the Gold Moor Mall, an otherwise nondescript shopping centre along King Abdul Aziz Road, the main drag of Jeddah, which runs parallel to the coastline. Last edition a new venue was added: the crumbling traditional house Rabat Khunji in Al Balad, the city’s UNESCO Heritage-protected old town. Rabat Khunji this year hosted an architectural presentation by the Saudi studio Bricklab that examined the meeting of old and new — the very leitmotif of the show, and, it seems, of this moment in art in Jeddah.


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Change is the name of the game in Saudi: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman  has signalled headline-grabbing relaxations of rules — most famously allowing women to drive — capping a period of smaller scale reforms away from the strict Wahhabism of even 10 years ago. Most malls in Jeddah, for instance, are now mixed gender, and women walk around with their hair uncovered and their abayas open, encountering no interference or ill will.

Jeddah’s artists are looped into this narrative of change, but unlike other “emerging art scenes,” Jeddah’s feels different. It is less hungry for international attention and more keen to hold on to the elements that have so far constituted it: youth, self-organisation, a fascination— both critical and not — with Saudi as subject, and a willingness to be political about matters confronting other Arab states. Hayy, Art Jameel’s new centre that opens in 2019, takes the form of a neighbourhood, bringing together disparate entities rather than imposing the single view of an art institution.

People admire a painting at the opening of 21,39. Willy Lowry / The National

On the roving bus tour of international visitors who arrive for the previews, I was told I was the only foreign journalist — the rest were “friends,” people who had been involved in supporting or working with Saudi artists in years past. We took in the Gold Moor Mall, Rabat Khunji, and the Pepsi-Cola factory, where a resplendent dinner for 300 was held the opening night; a solo show of Ahmed Mater; Makan, a new nonprofit outpost of Hafez Gallery; and Athr Gallery, which hosted the absolutely thrilling show “The Clocks Are Striking Thirteen.” Many of the artists in the Athr exhibition had been in previous 21, 39's and their maturity was evident in the confidence of scale, materiality and narratives — around Syria, colonialism, spirituality — chosen.

This feels like the better purpose of 21, 39: less an international showcase for Saudi art but a means by which the Jeddah art scene works together and grows, whether on its own or with others.