From the rather enigmatic oil painting of a man sporting the traditional red-and white Arab headscarf to ornate calligraphic letters dangling in the shape of a tree and a video montage archiving the physical changes taking place in Mecca, the diversity and quality of the art on display during Jeddah’s first art week was an indicator of the city’s preeminent cultural position in the Kingdom.

The contemporary art days encompassed live performances, an auction, selling exhibitions, new gallery openings, and educational programmes as well as “auditions” for artists wishing to be included in Saudi Arabia’s pavilion in Venice at the end of May. There were opportunities to meet some of the Kingdom’s well established artists such as Ahmed Mater and Abdul Nasser Al Gharem as well as the doyenne of photography Manal Al Dowayan.

The concept, setting and feel of several of the exhibitions was more radical than might have been expected from a first time event. In the Hamra district near the Red Sea, in an high, roughly plastered space with an unfinished floor a Sotheby’s collection, touring the region prior to auction in Doha, Qatar in April, was placed cheek by jowl with a grass-roots display of raw, unpolished work by young artists many showing for the first time.

According to Lina Lazaar , an expert in contemporary Middle Eastern art who works for Sotheby’s, although the primary art market in Jeddah is the strongest in the Kingdom, the home-grown artists themselves need developing. “It’s not enough to bring an exhibition of art to Jeddah and attract buyers for the auction in Doha,” she explained. “Saudi Arabian artists need to rub shoulders with artists from other parts of the world so as to bring on their art.”

The Sotheby’s platform was a cultural mix of art from around the region with Lebanese Ayman Baalbaki’s showstopper of an oil painting “Al Mawsoud” greeting visitors as they entered and including the encyclopedic “icons of the Nile” by Egyptian Chant Avedissian and a work by Moroccan Hassan Hajjaj featuring cans of Coca Cola and woman wearing a veil. Iraqi artist of the moment Ahmed Alsoudani’s tormented work “Untitled” was also prominent.

According to Mark Poltimore, Deputy Chairman Sotheby’s Europe, the auction house is particularly interested in Jeddah and what he referred to as its thriving art market. “There are artists and lot of committed galleries of great quality,” he explained. “So we’d like to be part of this scene and that is why we are here – to see if we can grow the market, if we can bring a sort of international flavour to Jeddah.”

Although Sotheby’s may be in the vanguard of foreign art organisations coming to Jeddah, the city already has marked international links in part through the efforts of the Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives, which include an Islamic gallery in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum that opened 12 years ago and the increasingly significant Jameel Prize, an international award for con- temporary art and design inspired by Islamic tradition.

The Community Initiative was the original sponsor of Edge of Arabia, the Kingdom’s first contemporary art foray outside the country and is now patron of Arabian Wings a new Jeddah artistic collective.

However Poltimore’s polished performance at a charity auction held at the Athr Gallery in central Jeddah turned out to be one of the highlights of the week-long art event in February. The Athr Gallery, one of the most adventurous and best established in the city, displayed an exhibition entitled From Pen to Paper.

The concept behind each of the works, generously lent by prominent collectors in the region, was literacy in its wider sense – the notion of reading and writing but also communication .

Athr founder Hamza Serafi, a larger than life character on the Jeddah arts scene, generously provided the opportunity for the Arab charity Al Madad to raise funds for Iqra’ an association concentrating on educational programmes in Lebanon through a well attended auction.

Athr has more than kept pace with the demand for new Saudi artists who are increasingly well known around the globe. It would be interesting to see Serafi look beyond the West and its commercial art fairs to a more demanding path that leads to Africa and its creative, yet impoverished spirit. Angola, Zimbabwe. Kenya and Tanzania would all provide a new edge to the way Athr operates, widening its reach and providing countless opportunities for collaboration.

Through its geographic position Saudi Arabia’s main port city already has a long history of absorbing outside influences which compounded with the impact of the millions of pilgrims from around the world making their way to Mecca has imbued Jeddah with a unique character. This multi-culturalism has yet fully to filter through into the contemporary art scene.

Although Arabian Wings has only recently raised its head above the parapet there is much to be commended about its Limited Edition 2, which brought art to the people. The pop-up exhibition, held in an amphitheatre- shaped shopping centre called Teatro was by its very nature open to all. In addition to the paintings, two small sculptures by Tala Al Tokhais were interesting, although one cannot help but wonder if a larger example of his work might not have sat more comfortably in the vaulted space. However, as a result of this young Saudi’s participation he has since been commissioned to produce a far more elaborate work for a villa in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. Particularly striking was Khaled Al Ameer’s “Multiple Body One Soul”. A beautiful piece that suggests a great future for the artist. One cannot help but be re- minded of the early works of Ghanaian El Anatsui. What would it add to the piece, were the calligraphic symbols to have meaning? Mohammed Haider’s “Art*Art” was impeccably produced forming part of a series of highly decorative spades that refer to agriculture and the loss of the connection with the land.

Nostalgia also formed some work in the largely un- known artists exhibition, “Mostly Visible”, held in the same space as Sotheby’s but separated by a plush rope. Heba Abed’s “Lost in Transliteration” touches on an important theme and with guidance she will be able to create poignant installations that appeal to a wide audience. Unforgettable and emotionally challenging as many of the works were, the most important was Ahmed Mater’s video installation of Mecca. Without question the quiet insistence of this visionary artist will influence countless others to use video art in a meaningful way.

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