While the sea, sun and sand may be among the main attractions for visitors to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second city, these powerful elements are also responsible for the gradual degradation of one of the world’s greatest outdoor sculpture collections. But the current restoration of the impressive range of sculptures on the corniche appears as significant for the city as the day they were erected.
The story behind any major art collection is never straightforward and behind Jeddah’s extraordinary sculptures lies a tale of grand vision at a pivotal moment in the history of the city, a mayor with the ability to persuade and cajole artists into creating works beyond their comfort zone and a cultural baton being handed on to a socially-aware company that will vastly extend the scope of Jeddah’s arts institutions.
While Jeddah’s restless, relentless traffic moves around the centre of the city, the more observant visitor cannot help but notice the outline of numerous abstract sculptures punctuating the skyline. The city has hundreds of public sculptures, some of metal, others of mosaic or stone. Some are enormous and others small but all are highly ornamented and positioned to catch the eye.
What they have in common is that they embellish the modern landscape as well as providing a much- needed alternative to street signs. The millions who live in Jeddah have the habit of making their daily arrangements to meet by referring to one or another of the city’s key sculptural landmarks. They are crucial to pinpointing a particular spot in the sprawling metropolis that seems to know no end to growth.
The start of the sculpture project is a little more difficult to pinpoint, but the catalyst appears to have be the drawing up of a regional plan for the Western Region, together with master plans and detailed studies for the principal cities.
A British architect, George Duncan was appointed to co- ordinate the project and to appoint a local team to carry out the plan. During the selection process a new graduate, Mohamed Said Farsi stood out as being a born leader with the drive and initiative to push through the master plan. His help was to prove indispensable and no one was surprised when this early promise saw Farsi take up the distinguished office of Mayor of Jeddah. A cultured and intellectual man who put his first-rate education to good use for his city, Farsi compounded what was already a formidable task with what turned out to be a stroke of genius. As there were no maps or reliable information on which to base a plan, local people needed to be won over since without their confidence and co-operation it would have been difficult to establish the cultural environment that Farsi had in mind.
Farsi and Duncan acted in tandem as both were aesthetes and respected the best of the past as a pointer to the future. Without Farsi’s intervention the remaining magnificent old buildings within the historic core would have been lost to developers. Overcoming criticism he introduced sculptures and monuments on to the city streets and promoted the development of a magnificent open air museum of modern art. He also developed other bold and imaginative schemes including the recreational corniche forming the Red Sea frontage of the linear city that Duncan and his team had designed. It was very much the meeting of these two minds that established Jeddah as what Farsi described as “the bride of the Red Sea”.
Although nobody is absolutely sure how many sculptures there are, records show that by 1980 Jeddah’s municipality was maintaining and cleaning 478 sculptures and 133 fountains in addition to keeping the city’s streets immaculate. Certainly the pace at which Farsi worked was phenomenal. And it needed to be – the city was growing fast, spurred on by the oil boom. His tenure as mayor also coincided with a great outpouring of contemporary sculpture in Europe and around the Middle East.
The large amount of investment going on in infrastructure, including construction of a new port, saw the city spread and urban sprawl suddenly became a reality. For Farsi the best way to retain the character and feel of Jeddah was to purchase, commission and create sculptures by some of the biggest names. The list of sculptors involved in beautifying Jeddah is long, even though Farsi clearly had favourites with the same names cropping up over and over again.
The most notable is British sculptor Henry Moore. His famous reclining abstracted figures are on display around the world, but perhaps the best kept secret is that the Corniche Road in Jeddah houses four of his enormous works, each looking out over the Red Sea. The British artist, who died in 1986, is famous for his monumental sculptures, punctured with modernist holes, smooth curves and protrusions.
And Farsi with his eye on the future saw Moore’s work as emblematic; the acquisition of a Henry Moore was proof that his city was going places. An early environmentalist, Farsi also saw to the recycling of metal pieces from the city’s first desalination plant into abstract sculptures. However over time soaring temperatures, wind-driven sand storms and careless human intervention removed the gloss from many of these iconic sculptures. With improvements being undertaken to a 10kms stretch of the corniche, the task of bringing back the sculptures to their best was assigned to the Abdul Lateef Jameel Community Initiatives, an organisation that embraces the promotion of arts and culture of the Kingdom. In a successful public-private partnership with the Municipality of Jeddah, the sculptures have since undergone a thorough facelift.
The British firm Plowden and Smith brought their many years of experience in the field of restoration to the task and have played a crucial role in the long and demanding process of returning the sculptures to their pristine best. Some sculptures were restored in situ, some were taken to a specialist workshop, while others were sent to the UK. Where sculptures had radically deteriorated Plowden and Smith would glean information from old photographs or trusts or foundations in the case of a deceased artist.
Conservation and restoration are close cousins but a great deal of care has to be paid so as not to infringe artistic integrity, or to enhance a piece to the point where it effectively becomes a new sculpture. But the Abdul Lateef Jameel Community Initiatives (ALJCI) group is going further than just conserving what was already there. With a modern arts complex in the pipeline including galleries, artists studios and a space for creative courses, new sculptures are being commissioned. One of the best-known Saudi artists Abdul Nasser Gharem is producing a giant seal, a hallmark of his work.
In line with the ALJCI’s drive to create jobs young Saudis are being taught how to care for and conserve the sculptures, which are now mounted on pedestals with special lighting to enhance their appeal. New technology allows visitors to review the history of the sculptor who created the piece and to note where other works by the same artist can be seen around the world – just by directing their mobile phones to the plaque that gives the name of the piece. It is also the beginning of a move to upgrade the other sculptures that are scattered about the city.
Carrying out this work has allowed the ALJCI to make a huge gesture of public patronage. It is also a sign that the innate generosity and trust of the people of Jeddah continues. The sculptures will not be roped off – rather they will be accessible to all as vivid and personaI to the city as the day they first arrived.
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