Notable public art pieces in Jeddah to undergo restoration

We talk to the people behind the restoration of ageing public sculptures in Jeddah, which have been on display since the 1970s.

Sculpture by Henry Moore on Jeddah's corniche.
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Forgotten masterpieces tend to be found, a little worse for wear, in attics and basements rather than the windswept streets of Saudi Arabia.

But lining Jeddah's corniche are sculptures by some of the most famous names in modern European art. Works by Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Jean Arp, Joan Miro and others were brought to the city between 1973 and 1986.

There's a sinewy cube by Arnaldo Pomodoro, a bronze monolith by César and a selection by regional artists with sculptures of boats and entwined metal. But years of sea salt and sandy winds, and the extreme humidities of the city, have left these great works in need of a little love.

Restoration by the municipality has taken place over the past 30 years, somewhat haphazardly. But the Jeddah-born patron Fady Jameel has stepped in to initiate a project that will restore these works to their former glory under expert hands.

"The project started about three months ago", says Jameel, "and we decided to work on the 15 bronzes first. The rest of the pieces we're restoring are made from sheet metal, granite and local stone, totalling 40 sculptures in this first phase."

The Jameels are key figures in arts patronage within the region. Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives sponsors Edge of Arabia, which promotes contemporary art from the kingdom and hosted Jeddah's largest ever exhibition of new Saudi art in January. The family is also patrons of the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art in London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

There are now five restoration specialists working on-site from Plowden and Smith, a British company with a CV that ranges from dusting off Gulf War-era US planes to schooling staff at the National Museum of Qatar on good conservation practice.

As new Saudi art continues to attract global interest, it's a fitting moment to look at the abundant heritage on Jeddah's doorstep. "These sculptures show the longevity that Jeddah has of arts initiatives," says Fady Jameel. "They show how it really was a pioneering city in that field."

Mohamed Said Farsi became mayor of Jeddah in 1972, and by the time he left office just over a decade later, he had placed 400 works of public art around the city. Farsi funded this entirely from public donations or his own pocket - not from government coffers.

It was a forward-thinking urbanist project, and it aligned Jeddah with the great artistic centres internationally. "These sculptures were placed not long after Chicago, New York and London were putting modern art into the public domain," says Jameel.

Farsi had trained as an architect in Alexandria before entering government service. "His philosophy was that a straight line is the shortest distance, but not the most attractive," says Mohamed Farsi's son Hany, who today runs a philanthropic organisation in his father's honour. "My father also designed the corniche itself, and tried to create a waterfront that zigzagged through the waves rather than cut across. It was all about slowing people down as they moved through the city."

This idea fed into the mayor's public art vision, siting the pieces within the urban landscape rather than in designated "cultural" areas. The sculptures became de facto landmarks to navigate the city, as there were few street names at a time when Jeddah was on the verge of its present urban sprawl.

"People came to identify with their favourite sculptures," says Hany Farsi. "You would see them having picnics next to the works, studying underneath them, kicking a ball around. Ultimately, the city was given an identity and a sense of civic pride."

Saudi still has little in the way of formal art education. There are, as yet, no museums of contemporary art, and platforms for such work, such as Jeddah's Athr Gallery and Edge of Arabia, are fairly recent. Bringing the then superstars of modern art to Jeddah created an open-air museum for the city.

"Back then, there was no internet, no museums - how would a person become culturally aware?" Farsi says. "People began to question what they felt about these pieces of art to find what they like and don't like. My father even wrote magazine columns at the time, discussing the ideas behind these works."

Meanwhile, commissions from regional artists demonstrated a broader interest for those in the Middle East who were trying to get their work seen.

"He was attacked mercilessly because many thought the money was being wasted," Hany Farsi says. "But none of it was government money. The public donations that came in showed that you can ask businessmen to contribute something different to this city other than building mosques."

With privately funded restoration now underway, the power of donations for public art remains pertinent. Fady Jameel hopes that he can draw in other Jeddah denizens to contribute: "There's maybe another 100-150 sculptures that need attention, and hopefully we can work on these in collaboration with business owners in the next year. There are huge Quranic pieces, as well as marble works in the Old Town. We want to draw in banks and industrial groups who could work together to fund the restoration of a piece."

Public art as a city-building strategy has long been underexplored elsewhere in the Gulf, but that is changing. Doha is investing in works by Louise Bourgeois, with one of her "Maman" sculptures now a permanent fixture in the Qatar Convention Centre; and as Abu Dhabi's cultural district on Saadiyat Island develops, the need for more public art seems likely.

But the vision of Mohamed Farsi was keenly social. He placed these 400 works in the public eye, and incorporated them into the day-to-day experience of Jeddah.

In the restoration process, Jameel has had to consult with numerous foundations that manage the legacy of the original artists to ensure that any work done would be in line with what they would have wanted. He's now writing a book on this subject. "I hope that these ethics of restoring contemporary artwork can reflect in the restoration of our own heritage, like downtown and our historic buildings."

Though Hany Farsi says that his father protected Al Balad, Jeddah's Old Town, from demolition and tried to pedestrianise it during his time as mayor, today it's falling apart. These stunning streets with their protruding mashrabiya windows are in desperate need of restoration that remains sensitive to the original mastery of the architecture.

More is being done, with the structure of Biet Nassif - once a souq in the area - at least safeguarded for now. But as Jeddah emerges as the country's cultural capital, there's an increasingly apparent need to engage with the city once again.

Restoration plans like this herald something of a return to the spirit that fired Farsi's urbanism in the 1970s.

"Public art is a community initiative, and not purely a [governmental] responsibility," says Fady Jameel. "When people realise that, I think it tends to be a catalyst."


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