"Photography has become an important artistic and recreational practice in Saudi Arabia," says Lana Shamma of Art Jameel, which is currently staging a show on Saudi photography at its Project Space in Alserkal Avenue in Dubai. “With this exhibition, we show the breadth of kinds of art photography practiced in Saudi Arabia and avoid its cliches.”
The Art Jameel exhibition, Saudi Seen, shows the work of 10 Saudi and Saudi-based photographers, with a particular focus on the younger generation.
Perhaps because of the sense of change that is currently gripping Saudi culture, many of these works look back on Saudi history, framing the contemporary moment as a fleeting opportunity to capture a society mid-change.
“There are some very well-known Saudi artists using photography in their practice,” says Antonia Carver, head of Art Jameel. “But there’s also another generation coming up that takes a quizzical look at the kingdom. In this show, timed to coincide with GPP Photo Week, we wanted specifically to show Saudi ‘from the inside’.”
Some works present an ironic take on life in the kingdom, such as the Saudi Tales of Love series by the Saudi-American Tasneem Alsultan, who works as both an artistic photographer and an established news photographer. Her images show daily scenes of life and social rituals, but any facade of objective documentation is undercut by the often stinging explanations that accompany them. One image shows a bride and a groom's feet as they tussle, in a traditional Gulf practise.
The social ritual is supposed to reveal which of the pair will have dominance in the marriage. Alsultan’s caption exhibited alongside the photograph adds what this happy occasion means for women: “When you finish high school, people start asking when are you getting engaged. When you’re married, they ask when are you having a son. It’s as if the man you marry and the man you bring to the world are the only reason for your existence.”
Filwa Nazer's digital collages The Children Series (2014-15) consider the impact of religious conservatism as refracted through photography, when many families returned to their own albums and covered up or cut out people's faces.
Nazer went back to her own family’s photo albums and created collages to obscure the faces of the children and in doing so she comments on the ways in which a generation’s sense of identity was seemingly defined.
A number of photographs capture the current confluence of old and new. Moath Alofi's project documents the region he grew up in, Madinah, as it goes through large-scale economic development – something that has also been the focus of Saudi Arabia's most important contemporary photographer, Ahmed Mater, who served as an adviser for Saudi Seen.
Mater documented the economic development of Makkah in his book Deserts of Pharan: Unofficial Histories Behind the Mass Expansion of Mecca, published by Pharan Studio, the Jeddah space that he co-runs.
Alofi turns his lens to Madinah, where he returned after 10 years spent abroad. "The city is undergoing massive changes – new developments, new demolition, new projects, new expansions, new districts – so I wanted to keep something for the next generation," he explains. "I want to remember how the city used to be."
He shows part of his series The Last Tashahhud (2016), which documents the makeshift mosques in the area around Madinah. Many of these mosques are abandoned as quickly as they are set up, often because they have been built near older highways that have been replaced by newer ones, or because they served villages whose residents have moved to cities.
The mosques – often made of concrete or other cheap materials, unembellished and resolutely rectangular – emerge in Alofi’s series not only as indexes of change, but also as purveyors of their own claim to spiritual kinship, made even stronger because of their desolate nature.
Alofi recounts when he first came across one of the structures: "I was by myself, 200 kilometres away from Khaybar [a town north of Madinah], and there was nothing. No cars, no people, but there was this mosque. For me there was a connection, a surreal feeling that you find nothing but this house of worship.
“It was like a shelter, but a shelter that needs to be sheltered. Sometimes these mosques are left behind and no one will take care of them or pray in them. So I started documenting them. There are now almost 100 on my list.”
Similarly, in the series Karasi (2014 onwards), Bader Awwad Albalawi photographs the plush sofas and chairs that are often inexplicably left outdoors or in odd places, sitting as little pockets of grand domestic comfort in the midst of dusty shops or the dry desert.
Art Jameel, which has its headquarters in Jeddah, has had a long engagement with photography. From 2010 to 2016, it ran the Art Jameel Photography Award, and recently inaugurated programmes in its Jeddah space that support photography in different ways. "Art Jameel ran a photography award in Saudi, and saw huge interest in all types of photography coming through," Carver says. "Now that award has morphed into a grass-roots year-round programme of workshops, talks and other opportunities for photographers, including a dark room set up at Pharan Studio for photographers to use."
Carver adds that the photography programme is only one of a number of new initiatives to be announced. While the UAE keeps its eye on the construction of the Jameel Arts Centre Dubai, Carver notes that Art Jameel "is active in Jeddah, in particular – with more exciting plans on the way there, too".
Saudi Seen runs until February 13 at Project Space Art Jameel at Alserkal Avenue in Dubai