Saudi art show examines the impact of change on the places people love

Prayer-filled walls, a lone tree in Baghdad, watercolors from Gaza stand out in works from 28 artists at the Ithra Center

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia Brick fragments and pieces of coral, stone and wood are held loosely together to form a wall. Slips of paper containing prayers and Islamic texts sprout from the cracks.

Created out of construction rubble from Jeddah’s historic district of Al-Balad, the work by Saudi artist Asma Bahmim titled “Wandering Walls” is an ode to her birthplace. As the port city’s streets are being torn up in a $20 billion government-financed urban facelift, Bahmim’s piece recalls growing up there with an aunt who filled their home with her scribbled supplications.

Bahmim’s work is part of “Amakin,” an exhibition featuring works by 28 artists from Saudi Arabia and around the world, taking inspiration from the idea of “place,” or makan, in Arabic. Organized by Venetia Porter, curator of Islamic and Contemporary Middle Eastern art at the British Museum, the exhibition runs through Sept. 30 at Ithra, the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, which was built by the state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco in the eastern city of Dhahran. 

The works on display, which range from paintings and collages to sculptures and film, document places from a variety of locations that carry emotional connections for each artist.

“They interface between art and documentation,” Porter told The Circuit during a visit to Ithra. “There’s a strong Iraqi-Saudi connection in the show, but then I also wanted to bring in the work of Pakistani artists Imran Kurashi and Aisha Khalid — their makan is further away but connected.”

Nostalgia for Baghdad

Porter says nostalgia is particularly pronounced in the Iraqi works, pointing out artist Sadik Kwaish Alfraji’s “The Tree I Love at Abu Nuwas Street.” In a set of 40 abstract drawings, Alfraji, who now lives in the Netherlands, illustrates his enduring connection to Baghdad. His 2015 animated film, “Ali’s Boat,” plays next to the drawings.

Another group of Iraqi artists demonstrates the fervent attachment to their homeland they felt amid the international sanctions that crippled the economy in the 1990s after Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Called “Dafatir,” or “notebook,” these vivid, colorful works by artists Dia al-Azzawi, Ghassan Ghaib and Nazar Yahya document a time when basic art supplies were almost impossible to obtain.

Porter said she was inspired to produce the show by Saudi singer Mohamed Abdo, who wrote, “Al-amakin kullaha mushtaqah lak,” or, “All the places long for you.” As in the song, she asked the artists to “take us to your makan – a place you love, somewhere real or in your imagination.”

She began work during the COVID-19 pandemic and spent hours talking to the artists on Zoom and arranging for works that were either newly commissioned and on loan for the show. The curatorial process and the works themselves, she said, constituted an escape from isolation, a way to contemplate the places the artists held dear even as they underwent periods of change.

The Ithra show was originally presented in March at the annual “21,39 Jeddah Arts” festival and staged by the Saudi Arts Council, which is led by Princess Jawaher Bint Majed Bin Abdulazziz, a pioneer in the Saudi art world for promoting the involvement of women.

The Amakin exhibition, which focuses on contemporary and modern Saudi artists, is linked to themes of memory and heritage, as well as to the subject of climate change. The intricate paintings and works on paper of Saudi artist Safeya Binzagr, for example, depict the daily traditions, rituals, landscapes and people she met as she traveled around the kingdom. She seeks to document through her art what she believed was a heritage under threat.

A Woman’s View
Binzagr is in a rare club with her contemporary, Mounirah Mosely, whose art offers a woman’s view of the ancient Saudi past. In the show, her works are displayed near the intricate surrealist works of Abdulrahman Al-Soliman, who says his art constitutes “diaries and facts in my life.”

In the earlier Jeddah show, Porter says there was a black wall filled with names, phrases and drawings, where the public was invited to express their own makan with white chalk.

“People wanted to write about their place and why it was important to them, and this engagement was important to bring out,” Porter said. “It’s very important in an exhibition to find ways to make that connection between you as the visitor and the artwork,” she adds.

That’s missing in the Ithra show, but she says the sheer number of emotive works offers visitors to the current exhibition a powerful entry point into each artist’s interpretation of makan.

Works by contemporary Saudi artists are found in a variety of media, including film, installation, photography and painting. These include Bader Ali’s “Entropy,” a series of expressionist drawings featuring a multitude of sketchy, squiggly lines on paper that reflects his connection to makan, even as he’s lived in Berlin, Paris, London and now Jeddah.

Emy Kat’s “Blue” focuses on the color found on many doors, street walls and shops in Al-Balad, the old city he remembers from his childhood in Jeddah. Kat’s abstract composition displays the many cracks, holes and disarray that give character to the historic seaside neighborhood.

“North Khobar: The City’s Alive” by Saudi writer and photographer Bader Awwad AlBalawi, is a haunting poetic study through images documenting the shifting lives of the eastern city’s inhabitants due to demographic and urban change.

In the whimsical “Impossible Selves,” Jeddah-born Obadah AlJefri presents cartoon-like figures in scenes he recalls from childhood memories.

Exile From Gaza

From the Gaza Strip comes Taysir Batniji’s “Home Away from Home,” an intimate series of framed watercolor and pencil drawings charting the artist’s personal experience of exile and displacement. He explores the idea of “home” from the perspective of a Palestinian family now split between continents.

There’s also “The Digger,” a powerful film by Lebanon’s Ali Cherri, who recently won the Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale. It tells of Sultan Zeib Khan presiding for 20 years over the ruined Neolithic necropolis in the Sharjah desert of the United Arab Emirates, where the film was shot. Cherri explores the idea of one man’s ability to help heal a landscape that overwhelms him yet desperately needs his help.

Pakistani artist Aisha Khalid focuses on Islamic iconography in  “The Garden of Love is Without Limits.” Khalid engages with the cube-like form of the holy Kaaba shrine in Mecca, coloring it gold and black and situating it in the heart of a rich green, black and blue geometric patterned carpet.

One of the most powerful works in the “Amakin” show is “The Infinite Now” (2022) by Saudi artist Sara Abdu, who was born of Yemeni parents in Jeddah where she lives and works. Her installation, made of abstract forms, sound and poetry examines ideas of the self, memory and home. For Abdu, the makan is a world created by lovers — it is a meditative act that invites the viewer “to experience the world temporarily outside of time through meditative acts.” Her installation is made of a series of scrolls that together reflect the curved structure of the mihrab, the niche placed in the wall of a mosque or religious school in the direction of Mecca, which Muslims face when they pray.

Hypnotic Film

The Ithra exhibition ends with Saudi filmmaker Mohammed Hammed’s “Yallah, Yallah Beenah!” which is filled with joyful images that stem from his fragmented recollections of growing up in Jeddah.

“The film is a fantastical tale of how I look at Jeddah after living most of my life abroad,” he said. “Many of the nostalgic cues from my childhood visits are fading away with the rapid developments of the city’s infrastructure.”

The film’s hypnotic soundtrack and visual language easily grip the viewer into a similar state of nostalgic introspection amid Hammed’s dreamy scenes that pendulate between fiction and reality.

In one, a boy is initiated into manhood by an older woman who places a sword on his shoulder. Her eyes light up through her niqab veil shortly after as she says to him: “I leave you with the riches you once possessed.” 

It’s a statement that echoes the desires of all artists in the show: to retrieve the various riches from different times and places – makans – that may soon be no more.

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