Sylvia Smith

From the personal and private through specifically Saudi environmental questions to universal concerns of our globalised world, the previously easy-on-the-eye 21,39 is moving into the major debates of our time while maintaining artistic grace and critical distance.

Enter Safar, the Saudi Art Council’s major contemporary art show for 2017 comprising three exhibitions in a trio of contrasting locations. The largest show in the four-year history of 21,39, the umbrella terms for the Council’s annual art event, benefits from the rigorous approach of the curators in establishing an appropriate context for each artwork.

The production of a professional and comprehensive catalogue ties together this output of creativity and energy which can be classified neither as
biennale nor art fair. “We are finding our place,” explains Mohammed Hafiz, member of the Saudi Art Council. “We are doing this in accordance with our own culture and rhythm.”

Adding a sense of adventure the curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath arrange painting, photography, video, sculpture and drawing in galleries ne
xt to the Council’s headquarters in Gold Moor Mall, that curve around the central speakeasy space (al-majilis) where talks, debates and presentations by figures on the international art scene take place. “We want to explore and stretch boundaries,” explains Sam.

The semi-circular-shaped exhibition space encourages visitors to move in a clock-wise direction from the first exhibit, the historic Obelisk Of Tayma through 14 diverse artworks to Ahmed Angawi’s closing Simplicity in Multiplicity – not forgetting the delightfully quirky Venus Flytrunk by graffiti artists Frop and Muso which lends an edge to the speakeasy. (It looks as if there is an elephant in there!)

Venus Fly Trunk, Frop and Muso

With more female than male artists represented in this space, the feminine rather than the feminist manifests itself in a number of works. Social project, Crash by Manal Al Dowayan, reiterates a recurring theme – the impact of removing womens’ names from official reports, in this case car accidents in which female teachers have died.

Unforbidden Lands, Sara Abdu

Sara Abdu’s use of black biro on white paper in Unforbidden Lands enhances her search among rolling hills (which could also be a cross-section of the brain) for spiritual stillness – stripping away all clutter. “Dreams are part of my daily reality”, Sara says.”I can only suggest what goes on in my mind through my art.”

Silver Plate, Reem Al-Nasser

Cooking pots are put to good effect in Reem Al-Nasser’s Silver Plate, drumming the message home that the euphoria of the wedding ceremony is at odds with the slow, steady drip of tedium that later accompanies married life.

Domesticity sets Dana Awartani’s work, I Went Away and Forgot You. A While Ago I Remembered. I Remembered I’d Forgotten You. I Was Dreaming, in an old house in Jeddah where the artist sweeps away a traditionally patterned, tiled floor made of sand. An adjacent meticulously hand-made, sand floor covering reminds us of the skills that are being lost to modern life.

The Last Tashahhud, Moath Al-Ofi

Other works address the disconnect between the traditional and contemporary, most compellingly in environmentalist-cum-photographer Moath Al-Othi’s The Last Tashahhud and portraits of shepherds. “I went on a journey to capture images of abandoned Mosques that line the roads on the way to Medina where I live.,” Moath explains. “They are now deserted.” During his road trip Moath also captures the enigmatic countenances of herders whose work is all but forgotten in the urban fast-food environment.

Conjoining heaven and earth in circular screens, illustrator Mohannad Shono plots black and white, random waves of displacement and migration using drip ink drawings to animate Mesoamerican beliefs in a cyclical system. According to these calculations we are now in a time when the earth is shifting in relation to the sun with catastrophic results.

They Flaunt their Buildings, Nassar Al-Salem

Circling a similar idea but blending architecture and calligraphy to create an apocalyptic scenario, Meccan architect Nasser Al-Salem rephrases an Islamic saying to show mankind reaching for the heavens while creating a soulless ghetto on the ground. They Flaunt their Buildings makes a monumental statement whether or not the Arabic calligraphy captured on a ceiling mirror is comprehensible to the visitor.

Simplicity in Multiplicity, Ahmad Angawi

The final piece springs from the ever inventive mind of Ahmed Angawi whose detailed analysis of a beehive leads him to a deeper understanding of the building blocks of creation. Simplicity in Multiplicity engages with the hexagonal cells of the hive which interconnect and repeat over and over again to build a universe within the Universe.

The world of Safar takes us to other venues. An invitation, during the opening, to the home of an important collector to view a large and eclectic display of Saudi art, chosen solely on the basis of personal preference, was instructive. A pointer to the support given by enthusiastic individuals, the visit underlines the generous and often anonymous personal touches that distinguish this Saudi art event from the commercial nature of many contemporary exhibitions.

Suspended by Abdullah Al-Othman crop

On to Jeddah’s architectural jewel, the old town with its crook-back houses still elegant in their finery where Abdullah Al-Othman, wraps a historic building Cristo-style in silver foil. Suspended gives a historic house a new skin, a fresh patina.
Al Balad also features as a vertical structure attached to a wall in the main exhibition at the Gold Moor Mall. In The Labyrinth and Time, Zahra Al-Ghamdi reconfigures the structures of traditional Saudi Arabian houses to make an atmospheric map of the oldest area of Jeddah.

From Jeddah’s old town to the Kingdom’s newest town, the King Abdullah Economic City, (al-madinah) vitally a part of Safar’s journey, shows eight videos in rooms off a main hall. The novelty of looking at art in a city which is still largely uninhabited chimes with the secondary meaning of Safar – revealing or disclosing.

As the Jeddah art event grows in stature so does its reach in terms of international exposure and accompanying fringe shows. Along with the Athr Gallery’s Unique all women show, Al-Hangar presents Tadafuq and at the Pharan studio of Ahmed Mater fresh talents to keep an eye on in Live Demo, curated by artist Arwa Al Neami and curator Raneen Bukhari.

Curiously the English-speaking world knows the Swahili “safari” in the context of Africa bush travel, despite the word having been introduced by explorer and Arabist Sir Richard Francis Burton. This event gives back the word to the Arabian Peninsula.


Untitled, Majid Angawi

It also shines a light on six young artists who explored three important cities (Germany’s leading art city Berlin, and Gwangju and Seoul in South Korea) as part of an immersive approach to introducing the world to Saudi art and Saudi artists to the world.

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