'My problem was not that I was a woman but that I was an artist': Inside Saudi Arabia's art scene

A new show at Riyadh's historic Red Palace would be unusual in any country, but in Saudi Arabia it is unprecedented

Leading Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem with fellow artists outside his studio. James Langton.
Powered by automated translation

Inside the entrance hall of Riyadh's historic Red Palace is what at first glance appears to be a pile of old chandeliers. And that is exactly what they are. The crumpled crystal shapes are heaped inside an enclosure of metal frames that once supported air-conditioning units.

For the past four weeks, the palace, constructed in 1945 on the orders of King Abdulaziz for his son, King Saud, then crown prince, has hosted an exhibition that would be unusual in any country, but which in Saudi Arabia is unprecedented.

Having long been empty and stripped of any official function, the 74-year-old palace is filled with a series of installations that are part artwork and part time capsule. In one installation, dozens of thermos bottles, hand-painted with folk art designs and abandoned by Hajj pilgrims, stand on individual rough concrete plinths.

In another room are boxes of dusty gas masks given to Saudi citizens during the first Gulf War, while another work involves a group of metal mashrabiya screens taken from the Masjid Al Haram in Makkah. They are riddled with bullet holes, the result of the mosque's two-month seizure in late 1979 by insurgents. Old stereoscopic viewers, mounted on the screens, show scenes of the seizure. Much like the gas masks, these displays remind the old and enlighten the young about events that might still be regarded as sensitive aspects of Saudi Arabian history.

Bullet scarred mashrabiya screens from the grand mosque in Mecca, the result of an attack by insurgents in 1979 and now part of an art installation at Riyadh's Red Palace. Courtesy Sultan bin Fahd bin Nasser.

The works are created by Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan bin Fahad bin Nasser, who as well as being an established artist, is also an adviser to the government on the development of cultural tourism at the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage. "I've been obsessed by the palace ­forever," Prince Sultan says. "I even had my own house painted in the same colours."

The timing of the exhibition, which runs until April 20, and the opening of the palace to the public is no coincidence. Last week the new Ministry of Culture, an organisation that was only created in June last year, launched its strategic vision in Riyadh. It was a suitably glitzy affair, with a dazzling light show taking place inside a huge temporary building erected outside the National Museum. A large orchestra from Lebanon filled the stage, while Saudi singers performed in styles that seemed to echo everything from the Titanic theme to the smooth jazz of Kenny G.

Among the audience were hundreds of young Saudis, men and women mingling freely. They heard the Minister for Culture, Prince Badr Bin Abdullah Bin Farhan Al Saud, promise a flowering of the arts in Saudi Arabia, with everything from a national band and a national theatre, to arts scholarships, fashion shows and a film festival. As an event, it perfectly encapsulated the new norm in Saudi Arabia, where reforms have led to cinemas being opened and women being allowed to drive. The cultural changes also mean the exhibition at the Red Palace could look at aspects of the country's history, such as the 1979 attack, which precipitated greater conservatism across the kingdom.

"It is educating a lot of people, like the young, but it is also factual," Prince Sultan says. "We are talking openly about what happened during that time." Art, he says, has the power to educate. "I am sick and tired of art that is simply something beautiful to be hung on a wall."

Musicians Anas Subeati and Bader Abogoda rehearse a reggae composition at the recording studio in Studio Gharem. James Langton. 

Contemporary art produced by Saudis is nothing new. What has changed is the government's support. With the Ministry of Culture's vision outlined only in the most basic terms, it is still hard for those in the art scene to know exactly what it will mean for them.

Lulwah Al Hamoud was born in Riyadh in 1967, and by her late teens fostered an ambition to study the history of art at university. The problem? No Saudi college offered any such courses and, in the end, she did a degree in sociology. Now a respected artist, her calligraphy-based work has been shown in galleries from Sharjah and Dubai, to New York and Hong Kong. Al Hamoud also did her master's at Central Saint Martins in London, where she lived for 22 years.

"I am sick and tired of art that is simply something beautiful to be hung on a wall."

The changes in Saudi society under King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, mean she now feels more comfortable bringing her work home. Al Hamoud has opened a studio in Riyadh and she plans to hold a solo show in the capital next year. "There is art and creativity in Saudi Arabia," she says. "But the problem is an absence of the arts and culture in general. I've been trying to promote Saudi art for 15 years, but it's not been supported."

Al Hamoud says she faced challenges "not because I am a woman, but because I am an artist". She is excited by the ambitious programme set out by the Ministry of Culture, and last week attended its launch.

Others in the artistic community remain uncertain about how significant this will be, especially given the lack of detail. There was criticism that the orchestra at the launch was from Beirut, rather than the kingdom. However,

the first music school in Riyadh only opened in January. That wariness is perhaps exacerbated by so many established Saudi artists having made it on their own and

often moving overseas to build their reputations.

Gas masks distributed to Saudi citizens during the first Gulf War, now part of an art installation at Riyadh's Red Palace. Courtesy Sultan bin Fahd bin Nasser.

One practical, if unglamorous, area in which government support would certainly aid the arts is the removal of bureaucracy. Gharem Studio is hidden behind a steel door and cream-painted wall in a quiet residential street in the capital. It was founded by Abdulnasser Gharem, arguably the most celebrated contemporary Saudi artist, especially after one of his works, Message/­Messenger, sold in 2011 for about Dh3 million, making him the highest-­selling living Arab artist.

Studio Gharem is a hub for young artists in Riyadh. It also has a library of art books, perhaps the only one in the city. In its small recording studio, two young Sudanese musicians, Anas Subeati and Bader Abogoda, rehearse a reggae-infused composition. To the outside world, however, the studio is nothing more than a picture-framing business.

"We need spaces for showing work, for artists to practise and art centres to teach the people.  We need help with paperwork, and to get a licence as an artist. And then there is insurance, and shipping – the whole system. We don't have that."

Gharem, a former army officer, has for a long time promoted wider access to the arts through education in his home country. He explains that when he went to the authorities to register the studio as a business, picture framing was the closest they could get to when it came to categorising the company in the official paperwork.

Gharem has been described as the godfather of contemporary Saudi Arabian art. For years, he virtually supported young artists alone, ploughing the proceeds from the sale of Message/Messenger into Studio Gharem. He encouraged women to pursue their art, as well as men, despite the risk of intervention by the mutaween, Saudi Arabia's religious police, whose powers have been curbed by the Crown Prince.

Naif Shaqqaf, a 28-year-old filmmaker, benefited from the support of Gharem. Shaqqaf's three-minute short, Waqf, is a moving portrait of the last elderly worshipper at a 1,000-year-old mosque in a remote mountain ­community, winning the Colours of Saudi Award as the best cultural and traditional short film in 2017.

Shaqqaf last month attended the fifth Saudi Film Festival in Dhahran, which featured talks by Bollywood actor Salman Khan and Hollywood star Cuba Gooding Jr. 

Shaqqaf sees the potential for young Saudi filmmakers to thrive amid greater cultural freedoms, but he acknowledges there are also potential pitfalls. He says that young filmmakers are ­increasingly chasing unrealistic projects aimed at cinemas, rather than short films. "They want to do something big, but they are missing the foundational stuff from making a short," says Shaqqaf, who still works in a hospital and is happy to build a career free from commercial pressures. "People say 'this is the way you do it.'

It creates huge delusions and I try to isolate myself from that. Sometimes you have to minimise your vision."

Gharem also seems wary of the promises of the Ministry of Culture, and insists that he is only being practical. He says that his reaction to the launch of the ministry's vision was muted. "I haven't seen anything. It's all, like, festivals. I haven't seen anything that might help my career or develop my career."

At the same time, Gharem acknowledges that, as a recognised international artist, he hardly needs help to reach a wider audience. However, he wants to see more assistance given to artists who are only starting their careers.

"We need spaces for showing work, for artists to practise and art centres to teach the people," he says. "We need help with paperwork, and to get a licence as an artist. And then there is insurance, and shipping – the whole system. We don't have that."

An installation from an exhibition at Riyadh's Red Palace using old chandeliers 

He wants to see what he calls the "creative economy" being developed further. "Filmmaking, graphics – how many jobs are we going to get out of this?" Above all, Gharem advocates better education about the arts. When he takes his children to an art exhibition, he says: "I want them to have read about it in school". 

He says that Saudi Arabian society is more enlightened, especially for women. "No one can deny what's happening today. I can take my kids to a concert, which is an amazing thing," says the artist. "Lots of great things are happening on the ground. But when talking about culture, of course I will be critical. 

"I think the government realises culture is not only about the economy but it's about who you are. We have a Ministry of Culture. That's the start. We can have the details later."

The Red Palace by Sultan bin Fahad will run until April 20. For more information go to www.athrart.com