London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Saudi artist, Dr. Ahmed Mater, is scheduled to give a keynote talk as part of the Catherine David’s Gulf Artists Programme, at the Louvre Museum in Paris on 11 December. This lecture is entitled ‘Illumination: Art, Science, and Identity,’ during which Mater will talk about the unique context in which he works, and some of his recent projects including his ‘X-Ray Illuminations’ series, ‘Magnetism’ and ‘Yellow Cow Project.’
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat about his lecture, Mater said, “I speak about my experience and the environment that I grew up in as an example of the experience of contemporary artists [in Saudi Arabia].”
In Mater’s work, one can see how he links local culture and his practical experience as a doctor in his artistic works, and perhaps one of his most famous works in Europe and the Middle East is his ‘X-Ray Illuminations’ series that blends medical X-ray images with historic and Islamic drawings and calligraphy. One artistic work of this series, ‘X-Ray 2003,’ was bought by the British Museum [which depicts the image of a torso with the Kaaba in place of the human heart]. Mater told Asharq Al-Awsat that ‘In this work, I utilized my own experience and I incorporated my religious heritage as represented by the Kaaba, and this is a simple self-expression drawn from daily life.”
Some of Mater’s recent work was displayed at the 2008 Art Dubai exhibition, as well at the ‘Edge of Arabia in Venice’ exhibition that took place on the sidelines of the 2009 Venice Biennale including ‘Magnetism’ which is an image of one of Mater’s installations of the same name [of the Kaaba as repressed by a magnet, surrounded by iron fillings which represent worshippers]. In a [previous] interview that Mater conducted with Asharq Al-Awsat in Venice, he said that this image is about the salvation that can be found in religion, and the spiritual feelings that are awakened when performing the circumambulation of the Kaaba. Mater said, “The exhibit is [created by use of] physics, magnets, and iron fillings. We see the strength of [magnetic] attraction and repulsion at the same time, which forms the movement of the Tawaf [circumambulation] around the Kaaba. Personally, this is the [spiritual] state that I find myself in when making the Tawaf.”
Mater’s lecture will touch upon his own experience as an example of the [general] experience of contemporary artists in Saudi Arabia, and about the artistic atmosphere [there], and how he got involved in the international arts movement, while at the same time keeping in touch with his local culture.
Mater said, “The beginning [of the lecture] will be about the contemporary scene of Saudi art, and then [I will talk] about my experience and my transition from the local heritage and culture to the international contemporary arts scene, and how this is connected to my career as a doctor.”
This lecture is the first time that Mater is appearing in the French art scene. Mater will also take part in a Saudi tour in the coming days as part of the ‘Edge of Arabia’ exhibition which will begin in Riyadh, and will also tour a number of world capitals. This tour will end with a personal exhibition of Ahmed Mater’s work in London in October 2010.
When Mater speaks of his experience as an artist, he recalls his Yellow Cow Project installation which was shown for the first time at the Sharjah Biennial. For him, he says, this project is linked to the imagery of a cow portrayed in the Quran, “Surely she is a yellow cow; her color is intensely yellow, giving delight to the beholders,” [Surat al-Baqara, Verse 69].
Mater adds, “Sometimes a person becomes obsessed by images and ideas, and I have always been obsessed about the imagery of a yellow cow…how do I present such an image? I went to my village and I picked a white cow, but still I was obsessed by the same imagery, and so this time I decided to set the idea completely free, and make [consumer] products [of this yellow cow].”
In Ahmed Mater’s blog, under the title ‘Products without Ideology’ Mater writes that “In the world of the Yellow Cow, the world seems to be a fascinating and fun colour. This brightness suggests that it also has great value; as this is all that man wants and needs, and represents everything that he lives for. But once you are captured by this world (so long as you think that you own it) you begin to understand that this is a poor world, and you thereby become a poor person [by living in it].”
Throughout this project, the Yellow Cow becomes a consumer commodity in the marketplace. Mater’s Louvre lecture is accompanied by a video of him choosing the white cow and painting it yellow, and then in a video sequence we see how this Yellow Cow is transformed into consumer products, such as dairy products like milk and cheese, which are then displayed on supermarket shelves. In Mater’s opinion, this reflects mankind’s arrogance of destroying nature, land and plants, and transforming them into consumer goods.
The Yellow Cow Project, along with five other works of art, will be shown at the Ahmed Mater exhibition in London next year.
Mater also talks about a new project that he is preparing for which is a “book that we will launch at the London Book Fair next March. This book has the same name as the lecture, ‘Ahmed Mater: Art, Science, and Identity.’” This book is being prepared by Stephen Stapleton, the chief curator of the Edge of Arabia exhibition, and is about Ahmed Mater’s art works and projects. As for his experience with international auctions, especially as one of his paintings was sold at auction by Christie’s auction house in Dubai in March 2009, Mater said that this is an important experience for any artist. He also said that participating in international auctions “opens the door for getting to know Saudi art. I think we still need more time to mature and for the world to get to know us and our culture.”
Mater believes that the ‘Edge of Arabia’ exhibition which he co-founded with Stephen Stapleton and was held in London and also along the sidelines of the Venice Biennale was a big success and is now considered “a way of supporting the cultural movement in Saudi Arabia.” The world tour of this exhibition will begin in Riyadh, and exhibitions will later take place in Dubai, Berlin, and Istanbul. In just a short period of time, this exhibition has become a landmark of contemporary Saudi art, and it introduces new faces to the art world at each exhibition.
With regards to this coming tour, and the method of selecting which artists will have their work exhibited, Mater tells Asharq Al-Awsat that “we are concerned with the new names in the art world, and support their efforts, and we are conducting an intensive search for artists in Saudi Arabia, collecting their works and meeting with them, and a group of advisors residing in London will make the [final] selection|.”
As to why some of the artists who participated in the London exhibition failed to participate in the Venice exhibition, Mater said, “Some names did not appear at the Venice exhibition…we chose to focus on the best of the names in terms of contemporary art which depict modernity in a way that suits the [artistic] atmosphere of the Venice Biennale…and in the future it is expected that there will be more artists participating in the exhibition.”