Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat—The second edition of the 21.39 art initiative, organized by the Saudi Arts Council, was launched in Jeddah on January 22, with an exhibition that attracted a large turnout of visitors from across the social spectrum. This year, the Council opted to present an overview of the development of Saudi art, from the 1960s when scholarships were first awarded to young Saudis to travel to study art abroad, up until today’s thriving Saudi art scene.
This year’s exhibition is different to those that have gone before in some important respects; it lays more emphasis on documentation such as photographs, and chronicling the circumstances and personalities that influenced the Saudi art scene. Throughout the large halls, visitors can see the work of artists from the sixties and seventies, and then move on to the work of contemporary artists. Curator Bashar Al-Shroogi says this year’s exhibition is more like a “research project,” adding: “I can emphatically say that this marks the beginning of a search into the history of art in Saudi Arabia ever since the early stages of establishment and infrastructure.”
The exhibition is held under the title Fast Forward, in reference to the widespread impression that contemporary Saudi art appeared to emerge from a vacuum. “Why did we call it ‘Fast Forward’?” asks Shroogi, “When we talk about the story of art in Saudi Arabia, you might think that we mean the art movement since 2008. What we are trying to accomplish here is to say that there were several achievements and expressions before this date that laid the foundations of the contemporary movement.”
Asked whether the idea of chronicling the history of Saudi art risked giving the impression it was a dry and academic exhibition, Shroogi responded by saying “We are not writing history here, but are writing a story that raises questions and starts a dialogue. The problem facing us here is that the story of Saudi art has holes in it. For example, many are talking about Al-Moftaha cultural village in Abha and how it influenced a generation of contemporary artists. Yet, no matter how much you search, you will not find written or online information about this village. All that we came to know about it is in the phrase that reads: British artist Stephen Stapleton met with both artists Ahmed Mater and Abdulnasser Gharem in Al-Moftaha cultural village where they both introduced the Edge of Arabia initiative that was succeeded by a number of international exhibitions in London, Berlin and Venice.”
According to Shroogi, there is a growing curiosity about the early days of Saudi art in the modern era, especially the 1960s, when young Saudi artists traveled to Egypt and Italy to pursue their dreams of studying art. He added that the objective of offering these scholarships was that Saudi Arabia would eventually benefit from their knowledge when they returned home to inspire and teach a new generation.
In the first hall of the exhibition, we see the work and mementos of some of the artists who received these scholarships, such as Dia Aziz Dia, who studied in Rome in 1969. Dia’s diplomas, photographs and a portrait of the artist and his wife holding the certificate he obtained were all on display. According to Shroogi, all the documents on display are copies from the artist’s personal archive.
Upon their return to Saudi Arabia, the artists were employed as teachers in the Teachers Institute (founded in 1965) to train a new generation of educators. Shroogi related how ten batches of students graduated from the institute before its closure. Among the institute’s acquisitions is a diploma obtained by artist Mohamed Al-Resayes and a student register including the names of the students at the institute and the courses they took, such as photography, carpentry, sculpture, and urban planning. In 1969, the first group of art graduates were sent to teach in Dubai.
Having returned from their scholarships, the artists’ time abroad studying different cultures paid dividends, as testified by the art exhibition organized in Jeddah. In 1965, artist Abdulhalim Radwi organized his first exhibition in the Red Sea Club in Jeddah, which had a poor turnout of visitors: only ten people came to see the exhibition. Yet, after moving to Aramco facilities in the Eastern Province, the exhibition achieved notable success and became an example that other artists in the Kingdom would follow.
In 1968, there was a new boost in the Saudi art world when two artists, Safiya bin Zagr and Munira Al-Mousli, held their first exhibition. They printed their first guide in Arabic and English for visitors under the auspices of Prince Mishaal bin Abdelaziz, who attended the inauguration ceremony. Today’s exhibition includes the guide to Zagr and Mousli’s original exhibition, photographs of the inauguration ceremony, and samples of the exhibits. There is also a clipping from the Al-Madina newspaper, which published an article by writer Ali Hafiz about the event.
Moving the topic back to the main objective of the exhibition, Shroogi said: “This is not an exhibition for artists and their work, rather is a chronicle of events and history. The works of art you see around you are not exhibited as innovative work, but as examples of such events and stages.”
Other stages follow in turn, including a photo of artist Radwi drawing in one of Madrid’s streets. Shroogi said that Radwi returned to Madrid in 1974 after he closed an art institute he had established in Saudi Arabia, in which artists Dia Aziz Dia and Taha Al-Sabban studied. During his stay in Madrid to complete his higher studies, Radwi was awarded a prize in the Spain Biennale.
The exhibition covers other important stages in the history of Saudi art. Beginning in 1972, it shows the role Jeddah Mayor Mohammed Said Farsi performed in beautifying the public spaces of Jeddah. Pointing to a photo of the international artist Cesar with Farsi, Shroogi says that Farsi’s project to place sculptures by international artists side by side with Saudi artists’ work along the Corniche and roundabouts of Jeddah had a profound impact on the development of Saudi art.
Shroogi also pointed to a photo of the construction of the first building to host cultural festivals in Saudi Arabia, the Al-Harthi Jeddah Dome, where Radwi organized an exhibition of his work.
The exhibition continues by documenting how the sponsorship of Saudi art reached a new stage with the Saudi Airlines “Colorful” competition in 1992, which developed into the Jeddah Biennale. Throughout its short life, the Biennale presented important programs, lectures and activities. When the festival closed its doors for the last time in 2003, questions were raised about the gap its absence would leave in Saudi Arabia’s cultural life, and what would fill it.
Around us, we can see works by artist Ayman Yousri and the female artist Shadia Alem as part of an exhibition organized by the House of Fine Artists in 1993. The paintings on display are on loan from the Al-Mansouria Foundation, established by Her Royal Highness Princess Jawaher Bint Majed Bin Abdulaziz.
Among the most important buildings to have influenced Saudi art is the Safiya bin Zagr House, which is deemed to be one of the most prominent museums in the Kingdom. The Safiya bin Zagr House and the Al-Mansouria Foundation are both examples of the individual efforts the art world requires to flourish. Al-Mansouria Foundation offers support and sponsorship to artists, such as publishing books including their works. As an example of the foundation’s efforts, Shroogi points to enlarged pages of Jinnyat Lar by the two sisters Shadia and Raja Alem.
In considering the development of Saudi art, we must also pause to consider the role played by the Al-Moftaha cultural village in Abha, mentioned earlier, which was established by Prince Khalid Al-Faisal when he was the governor of Asir Province. A number of the brightest names on the Saudi contemporary art scene emerged from the artists’ village, such as Ahmed Mater, Abdulnasser Gharem, Ibrahim Abu-Mosmar, and Arwa Al-Naimi. In Fast Forward, we can see photographs and works of art that were born in the Moftaha studios. Shroogi says that the village was once a cultural center that hosted art exhibitions, theatrical performances and lectures by prominent artists such as Mohamed Al-Salim, Radwi and Ahmed Baqir from Bahrain.
In the section on exhibitions organized by Edge of Arabia, a highly regarded artists collective, you can see Ahmed Mater’s work Magnetism, works by Abdelnasser Gharem and Manal Al-Dwayan’s If I Forget You Don’t Forget Me. Next is a homage to the Athar Gallery, which represented Saudi art in a number of international art gatherings. Saudi Arabia was also represented at Expo Shanghai in 2010 and at the Venice Biennale in 2011 where the giant work The Black Arch by the Alem sisters was exhibited.
Overall, the exhibition is extensive and full of information and works through which a visitor can see a profound and clear image of the history of Saudi art and its most prominent icons. The effort exerted to bring such an exhibition into existence was undoubtedly huge, as visitors will find easy to appreciate.
This year’s 21.39 exhibition ‘Fast Forward’ runs from January 22, 2015 until April 22, 2015 in Jeddah at Gold Moor.