London, Asharq Al-Awsat – “A boy stands on the roof of his old traditional house in a small village in south-eastern Saudi Arabian. One night, he raises his television’s antenna to the sky…searching for a signal from beyond the borders with Yemen, or from Sudan via the Red Sea.” With these words, Stephen Stapleton, the curator of the “Edge of Arabia” exhibition, describes the celebrated Saudi Arabian artist Ahmed Mater, at the launch of a book about this artist and his work that includes a series of articles by experts and other artists on their impressions of Ahmed Mater’s work and creativity.
Stapleton’s words also apply to Ahmed Mater’s daily life and art, and his ongoing attempts to explore and expand [his work] beyond the borders of art and psychology; utilizing his own life and experiences to artistically express ideas that are relevant to society as a whole.
Ahmed Mater’s personal experiences are his first source in his art, and he recalls his childhood and remembers how his mother would decorate traditional houses in Asir, Saudi Arabia. This was where his special relationship with colors and shapes first began, before he moved from the village of Rajal al-Ma’a to the village of al-Mufataha, which witnessed his birth as an artist.
In Mater’s life, art comes from everyday life, from a conversation with a hospital patient, or an image of an x-ray that another might look at dozens of time a day, or even a television antenna. The latter is something that for Mater and other Saudi Arabians of his generation represents a means of communicating with the outside world.
Mater’s artistic beginnings in the city of Abha may have been humble however his artworks were soon being exhibited overseas after one of his pieces “X-Ray 2003” was displayed at the British Museum’s “Word into Art” exhibition in 2006. This piece [which depicts the x-ray image of a torso with the Kaaba in place of the human heart] was later bought by the British museum in what represented a significant artistic breakthrough for Mater.
Mater also participated in the “Edge of Arabia” exhibition of Saudi Arabian art in London in 2008, which was an event that drew the world’s attention to the Saudi Arabian art scene, with other “Edge of Arabia” exhibitions being held in a number of other countries, including an exhibition being held on the sidelines of the Venice and Berlin Biennales, as well as in Dubai. The “Edge of Arabia” exhibition is scheduled to take place in Istanbul 2010 as part of the European Capital of Culture programme.
However Mater has not limited himself to the “Edge of Arabia” project, and his artworks have also been included in a number of other exhibitions in Abha, Jeddah, Dubai, and finally London, where Mater’s first solo exhibition began earlier this week at the Vinyl Factory Gallery in the heart of London’s Soho.
Responding to a question as to whether this exhibition is the first solo exhibition of his artwork, Mater told Asharq Al-Awsat that whilst his artwork has been included in a number of exhibitions across the world, he considers the London exhibition to be the first solo exhibition of his work, due to the sheer number of his artworks on display – the Vinyl Factory Gallery will display around 40 individual pieces of Mater’s art – as well as due to the integrated artistic experience offered by this exhibition. Another reason is that this exhibition coincides with the publication of a book that documents Mater’s artistic career in the words of experts and other artists. Mater said that he believes this current exhibition is the distillation of all his previous exhibitions. Mater told Asharq Al-Awsat that this “is the summary of the four projects that I undertook…and I now feel ready to present my exhibition and discuss it with the world.”
This exhibition includes photography, paintings, calligraphy, video, and art installations. This exhibition will exhibit some of Mater’s most famous artworks such as the “Evolution of Man” which is an x-ray sequence depicting a gunshot suicide transforming into an oil pump and is a critique on our dependence on oil and an expression of Mater’s fears as to while this will lead, “CCTV” which is a video installation made up of closed circuit television footage from the hospital where Mater works which explores the relationship between faith and science in contemporary Saudi life, and “Yellow Cow” which is a series of interventions, performances, and installations inspired by the longest chapter of the Quran, and which Mater previously delivered a lecture on at the Louvre Museum.
In his artwork “Illuminations” Mater presents 9 X-Ray prints that he considers to be a summary of his work in this field [with x-ray]. Venetia Porter, the British Museum assistant curator for the Islamic and Contemporary Middle East described this work as “the skeleton…still in X-Ray form, this ghostly shape is placed at different angles sometimes looking straight on, sometimes turned to one side or another.” The most remarkable thing about Mater’s “Illuminations” is the number of questioned that people have about this artwork, which is about the idea of communicating with others and exploring one’s inner self.
Mater’s artworks highlight themes of traditional culture, whether this is through his utilization of his own personal experiences such as his own childhood in Asir, or exploring his Islamic culture and heritage in a more general manner, for example, his “Illuminations” artwork are bordered and decorated in a manner similar to the way that the borders of the Holy Quran are decorated and adorned, whilst the actual x-rays have been strengthened with materials such as tea and pomegranate, and these are materials that were traditionally used to treat Quranic manuscripts. Verses of the Holy Quran and Arabic calligraphy can also be found in a number of Mater’s other artworks.
Mater said “I believe that the cultural creativity of any artist must come from the scenes of his own life, and the experience of his daily life, so that he is more credible and can present a different message. The world now needs to see new and different experience, and a unique identity.”
Identity is at the heart of Mater’s artwork, and this is something that is clear to any observer; identity is the basis from where Mater begins, and this is the message that he is conveying to the world. This is why we see Mater warning against following [artistic] trends that could drive an artist away from his identity and roots.
Asharq Al-Awsat asked Mater to clarify something that he had previously been quoted as saying, which is that Saudi artists should not submit to the tendencies of the Western audience. Mater said “looking at a lot of artists in the Arab world, we find that they are molding their work to suit the requirements of the western market, and I disagree with this, for I believe that we must present something new…and that how we represent ourselves locally is also how we should represent ourselves internationally.”
The art scene in Saudi Arabia is witnessing a state of activity, according to Mater, and he believes that the public is also growing more interested in art. Mater pointed to the influence of the “Roads of Saudi Arabia- Archeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” exhibition that was held by the Louvre Museum recently. Mater added that “there is an activity and interest [in art], there is now an educational syllabus on artistic education, which is extremely important as this may be the turning point in the lives of many talented young artists, who will now be able to learn more about art.”
Mater acknowledges that his book brings with it “greater responsibility.” He added that the book “opens discussions for future generations. The experts who participated in this book are amongst the most important writers in the art world; I read the articles more than once…and I am happy with their interpretation of my work. However, what I am most concerned about is for this book to inspire others.”
Mater also revealed that he insisted that this book touched upon the artistic scene in the Middle East, and that “most importantly of all, that the book is printed in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia…and that it influences future generations.”