Fast Forward 21,39
Fast Forward 21,39 opening
Fast Forward
Safeya Binzager Museum
Jeddah old town
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Artists in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are offering a look into the questions and perhaps some answers to the country’s past, present, and future

Someone told me that everything that happens in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is tied to religion. From the limited opportunity I have had to experience life and culture in the Kingdom, I can’t say for certain that “all” that happens there is tied to religion. But the contemporary art that I saw showed that artists of the current generation are using their works to express the challenges they and the Kingdom are going through; and indeed, much of it stems from the Kingdom’s history and significance as the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad. He was born in 570 AD in the city of Mecca, considered the holiest site in the religion of Islam. The city is a draw for millions of pilgrims each year.

Over one hundred years ago, the Arabian Peninsula was inhabited by warring tribes. In 1932, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded by Ibn Saud, the patriarch of the ruling royal family. He united the region of fiefdoms and states into one country, which he and his family have ruled since as an absolute monarchy fully along with Islamic ideology.

When the country was founded, it was one of the poorest in the world, with limited revenue-generating capability. When drilling for water, the chance discovery of oil dramatically changed the fortunes of the country and its people.

The reserves were vast, and to exploit it, the government had to concede to allowing foreigners into the country to bring modern technologies to extract the oil. The wealth and the modernisation that came with this newfound source of revenue was immense, and life changed for many. By 1976, Saudi Arabia had become the largest oil producer in the world.

The rapid development and the tremendous changes the country went through in a few short decades created tensions. Many religious leaders felt the country had changed too fast and strayed too far from the teachings of Islam. The modernisation, the infiltration of the holy land by non-Muslims, and particularly the Kingdom’s ties to the West and the US were seen by some to be a betrayal. This resulted in the rise of Islamic militants and fundamentalism in the country. In the past several decades, the Kingdom has gone through many painful experiences because of it.

The pains of its past and the challenges of its future seem to be the themes that are most prevalent in the art of contemporary artists.

In Saudi artist Ahmed Mater’s ethereal installation, Magnetism, he explores the issues of Islamic culture, beliefs, and traditions. He created the installation using thousands of iron filings placed within a magnetic field to simulate pilgrims circling the sacred building at the sanctuary at Mecca. The work evokes the experience of the Hajj and addresses the iconic image of slow circling pilgrims.

At a recent presentation, Mater performed in front of a live audience at the Athr Gallery and penned the words “No Freedom for the Enemies of Freedom” in black on a bare white wall – a statement, it seems, on the turmoil that swirls in this turbulent region.

Rashed Al Shashai, an artist and a teacher of gifted children, explores the role of artists as mediators and as a source of enlightenment. In his recent exhibition, Section 11, at the Hafez Gallery, he guides the audience through questions, discussions and perhaps some answers to the Kingdom’s past, present and future.

In an exhibition of street art titled Inner Voices, the imagery is bold and edgy. The risk-taking of the artist probably had a lot to do with the promise of anonymity that street art provides. There were stencilled prints of black shrouded militants with guns, groups of “bad guys” and painful to see statements on society’s disenfranchised. There, artists had many questions with seemingly no answers.

Contemporary artists in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia seem to be very much like those in other countries that have had and are facing a collision of tradition and modernity. Their art shows that the Kingdom is experiencing growing pains, just like many other emerging societies and economies.

Text & Photos Cammy Yiu