Jeddah exhibition showcases extensive, impressive Saudi art

21,39 is an exhibition of art in Saudi Arabia spanning six decades. From the earliest painters to the most contemporary artists, we discover the rich history of art in the Kingdom.
Manal Al Dowayan’s The Tree of Guardians, part of the 21,39 exhibition in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Courtesy 21,39
Manal Al Dowayan’s The Tree of Guardians, part of the 21,39 exhibition in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Courtesy 21,39

In what the curator describes as a former “white elephant” space – three disused stores in the centre of the Gold Moor Mall in Jeddah’s Al-Shate’e district – the inaugural 21,39 exhibition manages, over two shows and an education room, to display the rich and diverse history of artists in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since the 1960s.

For a visitor to the country, the diversity of the art as well as its seamless curation is certainly impressive, but it is the effect on the locals in which the organisers are especially interested.

“We are trying to deliver a message, to give each artist its worth and to tell a story, to educate and raise awareness and the public’s appreciation of the arts,” explains Raneem Farsi, the co-curator.

This is a fully home-grown exhibition. It is funded by a handful of wealthy Jeddah families and organised by the newly formed Saudi Arts Council – a group of arts enthusiasts headed by Princess Jawaher bint Majed Al-Saud, who decided to form their own cooperative to host this non-profit initiative dedicated to the narrative of art in Saudi Arabia.

And the choice of venue, as much as the art within it, reflects the kinds of obstacles the team underwent to present the show.

“Our standards here are not like anywhere else in the world, therefore we have to learn how to find alternative solutions,” explains Farsi.

In spite of and in some ways, because of the somewhat unusual location, the show is wonderfully engaging and memorable.

I visit during the late afternoon and I am immediately charmed by the golden leaves of Manal Al Dowayan’s The Tree of Guardians catching the sunlight during the late afternoon. They dance delicately on their threads and appropriately, too, because they deal with a somewhat delicate issue – the dominance of the paternal line in the Arab world and how the names of females are erased with time and through generations.

In the adjacent room, a large installation of found cooking pots, enormous in size even at their smallest, are hung with the base facing outward at the viewer.

“You can tell how hospitable a tribe was by how burnt the bottom is,” says Farsi of the work by Maha Malluh. “There are elements of our culture that will always be cherished, no matter how many generations pass.”

It is also perhaps a metaphor on the fact that Jeddah is a melting pot due to its position as a gateway to Mecca.

Throughout the room is a who’s who of Saudi’s contemporary art scene. Ahmed Mater’s 2012 photographic series of empty rural areas hangs beside Shadia Alem’s installation and her video work titled My iCloud Heritage. Shadia and her sister Raja were the first Saudis to represent their country at the Venice Biennale in 2011, and this piece was specially made to fit in with the vision of Hamza Serafi, the co-owner of Jeddah’s Athr Gallery.

Serafi chose the title Moallaqat – based on the seven poems that were hung on the Kaaba long before the revelation of Islam. It was a deliberate choice to shift the focus away from Saudi art’s entrenched association with religion, and also a way of proving the strength of the Arabic language as a unifying tool.

Alem’s piece questions the storage of memory in today’s digital world and how they will endure.

Saddek Wasil picks up this dialogue with his Abjadi Letters sculptures in the centre of the space. “Made from chains, these letters depict the strength of the Arabic language and its purpose in unifying us,” says Farsi.

Nasser Al Salem, one of Saudi’s rising stars after his nomination for the Jameel Prize in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum last year, explores Quranic verses in a very contemporary way. His hypnotic video An Adornment of Stars, projected on the wall, explores the rhythms of language as well as of the natural world as explained in the Quran.

There is also an exploration of geometry with two strong artists – Dania Al Saleh and Dana Awartani. Al Saleh’s Ahwak is a mirror image of a male and female that cleverly uses the idea of embossing and pattern to talk about hidden feelings within the taboos of society.

Then there is Awartani’s Orientalism, where you walk into a PVC-taped room to experience the meditative patterns of Islamic geometry, but at the same time feel as if you are entering a microchip and ponder upon the universal reliance of pattern both now and centuries ago.

Although the 20 artists in the Moallaqat show can keep you occupied for hours, once that is done, the space opens up for the second show – Past Is Prologue, from 24 artists from the first generation.

Here there are very few names to recognise; we leave the world of art celebrity behind and enter the world of the pioneer.

These artists have nicknames such as the Picasso of the Arab World, given to the late Mohammed Siam. The oldest painting in the show, Zaboun, painted by Safeya Binzagr in 1969, is dubbed the Saudi Mona Lisa. These artists were not painting from history books or from images they had been shown. They were true artists, painting from passion and against the grain of society. As she was collecting the work for the show, Farsi heard stories of artists who cut their own hair to make paintbrushes and who made lists of colours they needed to send off with fellow artists who might have been going to visit Europe and would have to wait weeks or months to acquire them.

Even getting the paintings to display in this show was a task. Farsi and her co-curator Aya Alireza spent several weeks visiting remote corners of the country, trying to explain to these artists the concept of a non-profit show and of their significance as pioneers in their craft.

“In order for a person to contextualise themselves with the contemporary scene in the Kingdom, we need to understand the groundwork first, and that what we see today is an evolvement of an older movement,” says Farsi. “We kept the older artists as a surprise until the end, because it is like that in real life – everyone knows about the contemporary scene, but not about what is behind it.

“We are putting things back into perspective with this show, which is mostly a tribute to these artists, who did it when they had nothing,” says Farsi.

• 21,39 runs until April 10 in the Gold Moor Mall in Jeddah’s Al-Shate’e district. For more information on all the artists, visit

Published: April 7, 2014 04:00 AM


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