Art in Saudi Arabia

Earth and Ever After
The catalog for the Earth and Ever After art show in Jeddah.

It is interesting to think about art’s place and function in Saudi Arabia, a very conservative Muslim country.  Coming to Jeddah, we didn’t know if art and cultural offerings existed here.  Although there is not a burgeoning cultural scene here, we have found limited art, museums, galleries, and musical offerings, which we did not expect.  We attended a recent art opening in Jeddah, and found it to be an illuminating way to read the contemporary art scene here.

 

“Earth and Ever After” – An Art Show in Jeddah

Earth and Ever After, February 10, 2016
This is the entrance to the Earth and Ever After art show. The exhibit space was set up in a mall.

This art opening was set in a vacant section of a mall, which sounds sort of weird but in actuality was done in a pretty cool way – lots of open space to display the art, high ceilings, and sufficiently ample space for attendees to move about.

A cloud sculpture on the ceiling with large pencils poking out of it.
This was the first piece of art guests saw upon entering.

The pieces were by local and regional artists, mostly from the Arab world.  As I understand it, the Wahabbist doctrine of Islamic adhered to in Saudi Arabia views depictions of the human form as inappropriate.  So essentially all of the large outdoor sculptures out in town are not of the human form – they are of bicycles, hand tools, globes, tea and coffee kettles, books, waves, etc. – but no people.  And this theme was carried on in the Earth and Ever After art show – the paintings and sculptures did not take the human form as subject matter.

The Absence of the Human Form in Art

So, what to make of the absence of the human form in the art pieces at the Earth and Ever After show?  One must assume the artists are conscious of the notable absence of the human form in their own and other artists’ works.  The question is – do the artists avoid the human form because of a fear of garnering attention from religious or government authorities?  Do they avoid the human form because they have internalized the religious teachings of their society and also believe this is an inappropriate subject?  Or is it that such “safe” subject matter ensures they actually have a chance to get shown and earn money?

Whatever the reason, this practice seems to run counter to our western sensibilities.  Art, in our world, is most essentially about the human experience – what energizes us, what gives us comfort, what repels us, what we are as a society and as an individual, how we relate to other groups.  To almost completely remove the human, and thus the humanity from works of art results in a lot of the art at this show lacking emotion.  That is not to say that a work of art must depict the human form to be meaningful, but it was hard to deny that there was a sense of palpable emotional flatness permeating much of the works on display.

Representing Syria

The decimation of Syria, that once beautiful and welcoming country with it’s incredible capital Damascus, seems to be a theme a number of the artists in this show concerned themselves with.

The bag is made of strips of a map. Is the hanger suggestive of the shape of Syria on a map. What is the message - that Syria is barely hanging on? That it is a shadow of itself? That the world was unable to hold it's responsibility?
The bag is made of strips of a map. Is the hanger suggestive of the shape of Syria on a map. What is the message – that Syria is barely hanging on? That it is a shadow of itself? That the world was unable to hold it’s responsibility?
The flames and the fury in the background speak volumes.
The flames and the fury in the background speak volumes.

Perhaps one of the most memorable and touching piece in the show  was a large canvas filled with a sort of “stream of consciousness” outpouring about the tragic loss of the fabric of life in Syria.  The artist discusses cafes he used to frequent, streets he used to hang out on, friends he used to spend time with.

A touching piece about the Syrian artist's memories of his hometown of Damascus, Syria. Random thoughts of all that was lost due to the current crisis in Syria: restaurants, places of congregation, cultural institutions, homes of friends and family...
A touching piece about the Syrian artist’s memories of his hometown of Damascus, Syria. Random thoughts of all that was lost due to the current crisis in Syria: restaurants, places of congregation, cultural institutions, homes of friends and family…
A closeup: are the faces disfigured as a representation of pain, injury, or, more broadly, as the disfigurement of a city and a people?
A closeup: are the faces disfigured as a representation of pain, injury, or, more broadly, as the disfigurement of a city and a people?
A detail shot of this important and significant work.
A detail shot of this important and significant work.

Other Memorable Pieces

There were other cool pieces in the show, too.  Arabic calligraphy and design is renowned for its beauty and grace, and this piece demonstrated how a motif is built from a basic shape to completion.

I also really liked this photograph of some old carvings on a desert wall.

This piece of art is a photograph of some fascinating rock carvings from a long time ago. We see camels, weapons and warriors...What do you see?
This piece of art is a photograph of some fascinating rock carvings from a long time ago. We see camels, weapons and warriors…What do you see?

Conclusion

From the small window on the artistic and creative ethos that Earth and Ever After provided, it appears art does play a role in contemporary Saudi life, at least in the relatively liberal city of Jeddah.  There are limitations, however, on what society would accept, and what an artist would dare to represent in a piece of art.  Certain topics are off limits – revolution, sexuality, the human form, criticism of Islam.  And an artist’s decision not to deal with these subjects (whether self-imposed or proscribed by society) has the outcome of limiting the expressive and transformative power of art.  Based upon the pieces in this show, it appears art in Saudi Arabia inhabits a narrowly defined space and it is hard to discern whether the artists themselves even realize this.

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