The 2020 edition of 21,39 opens in Jeddah

'Art used to be at the margins of Saudi. Now we are at the centre,' says Mohammed Hafiz, vice-chair of the Saudi Art Council

‘Ephemeral witness’ (2019) by Manal Al Dowayan. Melissa Gronlund for The National 
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The seventh 21,39, the Jeddah Arts Week, has opened in the Red Sea city today. Curated by Maya El Khalil and titled I Love You, Urgently, the week consists of talks and a central exhibition. It concentrates on ecology and sustainability, inspired by the work of German architect Frei Otto, who built a number of projects in Saudi Arabia.

Community and the environment permeate the exhibition's projects. They range from an analysis of the unique ecosystem formed by the Al Manakh concrete factory outside of Riyadh, in a project by Fahad bin Naif and Alaa Tarabzouni, to interventions in Jeddah's Al Balad, or Old Town, neighbourhood. As El Khalil noted at the press conference, Al Balad is itself a unique ecosystem, with its Unesco-protected carved wooden doors and traditional houses.

Born in Lebanon and now living in Oxford, El Khalil has played an integral part in the development of art in Jeddah. Mohammed Hafiz, vice-chair of the Saudi Art Council, called her a "cornerstone of the scene" – for over a decade, she was a director at Athr Gallery, one of the city's two main commercial galleries. In the city's still-small art world, Hafiz is also the co-founder of Athr. The Saudi Art Council, despite its name, is not governmental, but an independent body that was first formed seven years ago, when 15 local Jeddah families banded together to create and support an art week.

Alongside the arts week, Saudi's Ministry of Culture is launching a spate of activities, but most of these centre in Riyadh. This goes on to show how successful the long-running Jeddah event has become both internally and internationally.

This year's event already feels scaled up from previous years. With the introduction of tourist visas and easier visa sponsorship, many more people have been able to attend — the figure quoted was 300 visitors for the opening days versus around 100 in earlier years. And while the exhibition has not changed in form — it remains in its two principle venues of the Gold Moor Mall and Rabat Al Khunji, a house in Al Balad — it has grown in ambition. All the works in this edition were new commissions by the Saudi Art Council for the show.

“It was amazing to witness the ideas evolve from a research phase to their final forms,” says El Khalil. “I felt privileged to be a part of it with the artists – especially in this region where before there has not been a strong research tradition before.”

And while previous years deliberately mixed international and Saudi artists, this year's felt more rooted in the local Saudi scene. The artists are drawn principally from Saudi Arabia, such as Daniah Al Saleh, Filwa Nazer, Maha Nasrallah, Muhannad Shono, and Nasser Al Salem. A number are living in the UAE, like Ayman Zedani, Raja'a Khalid, Christiana De Marchi and Mohammed Kazem.

“Art used to be at the margins of Saudi,” says Hafiz. “Now, we are at the centre.”

I Love You, Urgently is at the Gold Moor Mall and Rabat Al Khunji in Jeddah until April 18