Saudi Arabia’s Contemporary Art Scene

A fresh breeze is moving through the contemporary art scene in Saudi Arabia

Manal Al Dowayan's Esmi
Esmi by Manal Al Dowayan'

The market for Arab art has benefitted from strong interest by investors in Saudi Arabia, who are keen to purchase works by artists from the region.  Jeddah has one of the strongest markets in the Kingdom and experts are keen to see more events like Jeddah Art Week, the first major visual art event that took place in February, to encourage artists in the city by the Red Sea.

Fostering artists and keeping this kind of momentum alive is important as the sensitive issue of censorship in the famously conservative country sees them testing the boundaries of self-expression time after time.  While they are learning they can put their message across in a subtle way, many see international attention as a long awaited prayer come true as showing their work abroad means more freedom.

Saudi Art Succeses
Artist Abdulnasser Gharem’s piece of installation art was auctioned for $842,500, over eight times its high pre-sale estimate of $100,000. Apparently this was the highest price ever paid at an auction for the work of a living Arab artist. The 2010 “Messenger/Message” is a three-metre-wide wood and copper dome that has a small dove hiding beneath its vast diameter. The leading contemporary Saudi artist is co-founder of Edge of Arabia, an internationally recognised, pioneering art project that is shining a spotlight on Saudi Arabia’s largely unknown contemporary art and culture scene, as well as other Arab countries.

Photographer and artist Manal Al-Dowayan is one of the most recognised and critically acclaimed Saudi contemporary artists. She has exhibited internationally and her artwork is part of the permanent collection in notable galleries like the British Museum, the Jordan National Museum of Fine Art, the Abdul Latif Jamil Foundation, the Delfina Foundation in London, the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), the Nadour Foundation in Germany, and the Barjeel Foundation in Sharjah.

Arousten by Sarah Mohanna Al-Abdali
Sarah Mohanna Al-Abdali

Al-Dowayan was born and raised in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. She won an international call for artists for her “Imagining Ourselves” anthology in 2003, which was managed by the International Museum of Women in San Francisco. The artist understands her photography is a tool to raise awareness around gender issues in Saudi Arabia and is using her work to try and break taboos. Her works include “Blinded by Tradition” and “Look beyond the Veil”. “Suspended Together”, one of her most famous pieces, shows a flock of doves made out of the paper husbands or male guardians have to sign so Saudi women can travel. Her photograph “Pointing to the Future” was exhibited in New York at the 49th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in 2005 and her “I Am” series was exhibited at the Clinton Public Library in Little Rock, Arkansas as part of the Club de Madrid’s 2012 annual conference, entitled “Harnessing 21st Century Solutions: A Focus on Women.”

Arousten by Sarah Mohanna Al-Abdali
Arousten by Sarah Mohanna Al-Abdali

Ahmed Mater is at the centre of the Saudi contemporary art boom. He is another co-founder of Edge of Arabia, which was set up in 2003 to develop appreciation of art through exhibitions, publications and educational programmes. The  movement is showing impressive results, for example six pieces by its artists sold for a total of £647,000 at Christie's in Dubai in April 2011. What’s more, they have exhibited across Europe and the Middle East, presenting emerging Saudi artists at major events like the Biennale di Venezia 2013. Curated by London-based art critic and independent curator, Sara Raza, and Saudi-based poet, curator and artist, Ashraf Fayadh, “Rhizoma” (Generation in Waiting) drew its inspiration from a younger generation of Saudi artists, and embraced visual art alongside technology, science and natural philosophy. The exhibition showed the works of artists including Ahaad Al Amoudi, Ahmad Angawi, Basma Felemban, Nasser Salem, Nora A. Al Mazrooa, Sami Al Turki, Sarah Al Abdali, Sarah Abu Abdullah and Shaweesh, who all created something new specifically for the exhibition. Events like these are helping to catapult the modern Saudi art scene and more are being planned.

A Hopeful Future 
In Saudi Arabia art has traditionally meant paintings of horses and elaborate Islamic calligraphy. With a restricted audience, a lack of fine art schools and very few galleries, the new school of artists is not having an easy time.  However, they are pushing for change with pieces tackling controversial issues such as the redevelopment of Mecca and the impact of Islam on Middle East peace. They are finding an international audience and fetching record prices and more and more galleries are opening in Riyadh and Jeddah every year.

Greenbox Museum
Greenbox Museum

Since 2008, there has been an official Saudi contemporary art museum, but as strange as it might sound it has opened in Amsterdam. The Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia measures just 750 square feet, the size of a cabinet of curiosities of the 18th Century, and has similar modest aims: to discuss, learn and enjoy. The museum specialises in showing the work of visual artists living and working in the Kingdom and is the first museum for contemporary art from a country that is a cultural and economic centre for a considerable part, or parts, of the world.

Greenbox Museum
Greenbox Museum

The museum is the most popular art gallery on Facebook with a staggering 1, 082, 484 likes, that’s more than the Louvre in Paris, which has notched up 923, 186 likes and the Tate in London with its 561, 370 likes. It has even surpassed the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Aarnaout Helb, the museum’s Founder/Director, is a collector of Saudi art. He is not at all surprised about the museum’s popularity, explaining most of the Facebook likes have come from young Muslims who are keen to show the world through their art and culture in a more positive way. These amazing figures could also be due to young Saudis’ love of technology. Google reports Saudi Arabia has the highest amount of image sharing of any country in the world and it is one of the biggest markets in the world for smart phones.

Alaan Artspace
Alaan Artspace is Riyadh’s s multi-functional contemporary gallery and educational art hub that helps inspire local talent while offering a library, store and café for all art lovers. Neama A. Al Sudairi, its founding Director, began her idea of nurturing artists in 2010.  The organisers at Riyadh’s first contemporary art gallery realised nearly all the artists in their first show were women and as a result named the exhibition “Soft Power”. Steps like these show women are creating new boundaries for a contemporary art scene that were unacceptable before.

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