The winds of change blowing through Saudi Arabia include a cultural renaissance that has seen glitzy music concerts, cinemas reopened and the introduction, from April, of tourist visas.
The opportunity to experience Saudi Arabia’s fresh dive in the world of culture was put on display in London’s Berkeley Square on Wednesday in a special exhibition by the General Culture Authority to coincide with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s visit to Britain.
The three-day event named Saudi Cultural Days aims to give those living in Britain a taste of what life is like in the Kingdom.
“Saudi Arabia has been a melting pot and crossroads of civilisations for 9,000 years. Our goal in London is to showcase both our history and contemporary Saudi culture and we invite everyone in London to come and experience the past, present and future with us,” said Ahmed Al Maziad, CEO of the GCA.
“The exhibition and events are being held to mark the visit to London of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud. We are dedicated to promoting the recognition of culture as vital for human development and are committed to promoting cross-cultural arts education to create an atmosphere that builds respect, knowledge and understanding for the world’s diverse cultural populations,” said Edward Dolman, CEO of Phillips auction house, which provided the venue.
Whole-istic, curated by Aya Alireza and Raneem Zaki Farsi, includes three exhibitions of art and photography, a virtual reality experience, musical performances as well as screenings of Saudi films.
The exhibition comes at a time of great cultural change for the Kingdom, which lifted a 35-year ban on cinemas at the beginning of the year and is preparing to issue tourist visas from April.
Upon entering the gallery, visitors are invited to take part in AlQatt Alasiri, an age-old practice by women in the region of Asir in the south west of the country. Women invite house guests to help decorate interior walls of their homes using colourful painting techniques.
By the end of the three-day event, two white canvases with geometric outlines drawn on will be completely coloured in by gallery goers.
“It is not customary to put the colour green next to blue” a General Culture Authority representative told The National, who attempted the practice.
Two Saudi films were screened to audiences at the gallery on the first day including The Departures, which won the top prize at the Saudi Film Festival. The Departures follows the story of two men on an airplane, one of whom is an extremist thinking of blowing himself up while the other is terminally ill and contemplating suicide. Released in 2017, the film was shown in a large marquee at the festival because cinema theatres were still banned.
To mark the Crown Prince’s trip, the exhibition incorporated a collection of photographs taken by Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone during a visit to Saudi Arabia in 1938. Princess Alice, the youngest granddaughter of Queen Victoria, was the first member of the British royal family to visit the Kingdom. Her legendary trip took place 80 years before Prince Mohammed made his first official visit. Princess Alice was the only member of the British royal family to meet King Abdulaziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, having been invited by his son to make the trip during a chance encounter at Ascot racecourse. In a journey that took almost three weeks, the British princess travelled from Jeddah on the west coast all the way through to Dahran in the east, taking 300 photographs across the way.
Bringing the exhibition back to the 21st century, visitors who had never been to the Kingdom were able to simulate being in the country via a virtual reality experience. By donning a headset, visitors could navigate their way through some of Saudi Arabia’s cultural ruins in an almost life-like simulation.
Saudi Cultural Days: Whole-istic runs at Phillips auction house in Berkeley Square, London from March 7 to 9