What’s your art attitude in Jeddah?
Have you found your art groove in Jeddah yet? Now is as good a time as any to start thinking about it.
We all have a certain attitude towards art. We all live the experience of art in some way or the other and to some degree or the other. Some of us seek it by walking all the way to a gallery and regularly frequenting places designated for art. Some of us are convinced that we’re not ‘into art’ but have a good eye for color and aesthetics in general, and that might show in the way we do up our house, or the flair with which we attend to detail or naturally make an arrangement, be it with flowers, fabric or quite simply, a child’s lunchbox. Whether we are conscious of it or not, a sense of beauty is inherent in us. We recognize and appreciate it despite ourselves, and we don’t need a certificate from the Slade School of Fine Art to know that we can enjoy art.
At this point in time, in the city of Jeddah, a variety of art forms and art experiences are available to those who’re interested. With the way this year started for Jeddah art-wise, this just might be the year and the moment to discover your art attitude. How much do you like to take in, and in what forms? It changes with every place we live in, and is fashioned by specifics of that place. In some cities, art is literally all around you, or places where you might find it are well-known and readily accessible. In some places, like Jeddah, the accessibility of art is uneven. There is public art on a scale and of a range which is uncommon to the rest of the world, round almost every bend. However, until very recently, specialized spaces for art were scanty and information about art events was not openly or timely diffused. This has changed, and art as an experience is on its way to becoming a part of popular culture. The sway of things calls for you to discover your art attitude. I’m sharing mine here, and hope it’ll help you find yours in some way.
- The first time I attended an opening in an art gallery, a member of the personnel walked up to me and asked if I would like to buy any of the works. It flattered me enormously to think that I passed for someone who could spend that much money, but in the course of the evening, I realized that the opening was not really about people enjoying art. It was a trade, and there was too much focus on buying and selling. The atmosphere was unfriendly towards anyone who was not there to purchase a work. For this reason exactly, I believe, a lot of (less obstinate) people never bother going to art galleries after a first harsh brush, and die believing that galleries are cold places with snooty people. Plus, it was too crowded, and the whole talk of money in the air took away from the idea of enjoying and understanding the art at leisure. Since then, I steer clear of openings. I like to go at a later day, and preferably in the mornings, when galleries are still quiet and sleepy (in Saudi Arabia at least). I make an exception for the opening of events with amateur artists, who’re not yet commercially hard-wired. A case in point would be Young Saudi Artists, whose openings are very contact-based, the event space punctuated by small groups of artists and attendees. I went to the opening last year and this year again. It was a pleasure both times. Not only are the artists very accessible and easy to talk to, even eager to talk about their work, but the crowd is also young and unprejudiced. While I understand that selling is the ultimate end of most art, I like to be able to forget that and focus on the art work itself.
I feel that most ‘big’ art openings are really about networking and trading. I much prefer the informal warm evenings with emerging artists, like the Young Saudi Artists or The Courtyard Urban Show. It’s a personal thing really. How do you feel about openings? Do you seek them or avoid them?
- I am attracted to art because it’s an inroad to culture. I love to discover culture through art. It’s endlessly fascinating to see how art from a region is marked by a sense of place, and how, at first, art from some countries might seem similar, but once you spend more time with it, you discover the idiosyncrasies of art from each region. It’s as if the place is etched into the consciousness of the creator, and the same imprint carves itself out over and over in the works. In the context of Saudi Arabia, Saudi art opened a gateway to the culture that even my daily encounter with locals at work hadn’t. Artists everywhere in the world, particularly in the Middle East, are concerned with the changes their lands have been subject to. Saudi Arabia’s context is unique enough in that way. I guess all Saudi artists explore some themes as common denominators, like tradition, like the pace and nature of change, like old values and new ones, like apocalyptic visions of the future, but they all do it in a way that is at the same time, uniquely individual for each one among them, and also unmistakably Saudi.
Conduit to culture: I love how art opens doors to culture. The lived reality of places and people is mapped in the art from that region. Why aren’t we taught world culture through art instead of boring sociology books? ‘This way’ by Maha Malluh about the urban Saudi man, ‘Jamaa’ by Noha Sharif about the aesthetics of groups in worship, ‘Magnetism’ by Ahmed Mater about how science and faith echo the same principles if one is listening intently, ‘I am a petroleum engineer’ by Manal Al Dowayan, showing a staged photograph of a real Saudi woman working as a petroleum engineer when the world thought they were stifling in chadors or milking camels, a work from the series ‘Out of Line’ by Jowhara Al Saud about how the physical marks of censorship create a visual language of their own, ‘Makkah Street Sign’ by Sarah Muhanna Al Abdali about the urbanization of Makkah.
(Picture for Maha Malluh by artist, picture for Noha Sharif courtesy of the Athr Gallery, picture for Manal Dowayan by Cuadro Gallery, Dubai, Sarah Abdali’s picture by artist)
- I need to visit an exhibition more than once. I go the first time because if I don’t, I’ll die. I make a second trip to soak up some of the works I particularly loved, and which lingered in the mind after the first visit. I generally need to revisit books and movies I have enjoyed, and dwell over parts which were particularly moving or inspiring. I dwell over them until I almost memorize them. It’s the same with art. I spend enough time at exhibitions to attract suspicion and to become very good friends with the gatekeepers.
- I need to visit an exhibition alone. Even if later, I go with a friend or a group, I need to experience it well alone. For me, art is a very personal experience. Even before we can recognize or rationalize our reaction in words, the whole work of art plays upon our senses, and teases our consciousness, memory, and culture. T.S.Eliot said, ‘Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.’ That holds true for art as well. When you’re alone before a work of art, particularly one of a certain scale, you experience a range of emotions that you do not wish to ‘sort’ immediately, and you wish to persist in that state of puzzlement. I need my solitude for that.
Two works I have particularly enjoyed in my solitude: the first by Sabhan Adam and the second by Sara Abdu. Sabhan Adam’s huge canvasses were displayed in ‘self-Portraits’ at Athr in 2010 and Sara’s work is up in Young Saudi Artists currently. Both artists depict the inner regions of the soul, and are uncomfortable and inviting at the same time. I witnessed people who could not stand to look at Sabhan Adam’s work because they felt the eyes bore right through them. When you’re up against one of these life-sized canvases alone in the space of a gallery, staring at his droopy-eyed monster-men can be unnerving but cathartic. I love the contrasts that mark both works: the almost sublime physical ugliness and the spiritual intensity that their gaze betrays; the overall colourlessness which is set off by a strong little dab or blotch of intense colour, and the mood of perfect stillness that marks both works.
Some works make us uncomfortable and force us into regions of the self we habitually avoid. Would you like them in the intimate space of your house?
- Apart from a visit alone, it’s refreshing to go with people from other cultures or other age groups, and see how it works upon their consciousness and imagination. It’s a living proof that art is a universal language, and brings people together. I once went to an exhibition with a group of kids last year, and was bowled over by their responses. They all had clear likes and dislikes, and it was a pleasure seeing everything anew through their eyes. Another time, I went to an exhibition with Syrian, French, and Senegalese colleagues and they all interpreted the artworks through the filter of their native cultures. They also came out with a newfound regard for Saudi culture. Art beautifully confirms what’s common across cultures in a way that allows us to celebrate the differences.
Instead of diplomatic missions, Saudi Arabia should send these two artworks to countries. Of all people from different countries and faiths whom I’ve introduced these works to, there wasn’t one who didn’t instantly ‘own’ them. ‘Yellow Cow performance’ by Ahmed Mater about how myths and legends from our collective consciousness should be experienced up close, and brought down from their pedestal to real life. ‘The Path’ by Abdulnasser Gharem, that has spoken as powerfully to some Christian French friends as to my practising Muslim mother-in-law. At their imaginative heights, artists tap into the collective consciousness of humanity, and the visual metaphors they sometimes create have a power of universality that defies reason.
- I like my experience of art to be eclectic. I like to savor all that’s on offer in the gamut. And that includes the non-commercial spaces as well. While galleries showcase contemporary art which is ‘doing well’ and are a good index to what is current in the art market, a glance towards the past is good to balance things out; a visit to museums or places with a more cultural and long- term focus is essential to put things in perspective. In Jeddah, the Darat Safeya bin Zager is an inspiring private art museum, which houses invaluable documented information about Saudi heritage that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere. The city also has a unique public art heritage, and it’s been a pleasure discovering it not just on the daily drives to work and back, but also up close and personal. I would love to know more about traditional Bedouin crafts whenever possible.
As far as possible, I like to experience all possible art and craft forms a city has to offer. They all shed light on the way of life, but only few go on to be your favourites. I am attracted to anything with colour, and I love the intense colour of most traditional crafts. After six years of living in Jeddah, I am still mesmerized by the larger-than-life sculptures at roundabouts, and at night, the globe opposite Roshan Mall lit up in a million shades of colour still takes my breath away. What about you? What stops you in your tracks?
- In the two cities I’ve lived in before, and in most cities of the world, the best ideas, initiatives, and the richest insights don’t always come from mainstream sources. This is particularly the case in Jeddah, and more generally, Saudi Arabia, where mainstream media is a poor indicator of the ground reality in any case. Some of the most timely updates and regular coverage of art events has been through blogs and social media instead of mainstream newspapers and media. Recently, there was a serious need to create a platform for an informal exchange of ideas and insights among young artists in the city, and the solution was created by a blogger and artist, actively campaigning for the past years to promote a love of art and culture. The Casual Art Talks have gathered and focused minds to consider the direction in which Saudi art is headed, and to take stock of the distance it has travelled so far. I suspect it might be on its way to becoming an informal art-education platform in the long term. There are also other lacunas to be addressed in a nascent art scene still heavily tinged by binding traditional set-ups like patronage, which need to be discussed through the by-ways rather than the highways of art. A lot of wholehearted, bold, and direly needed steps are being taken by amateurs. While the professionals lead the way and the market in art, the amateurs bring the gift of enthusiasm, drive, and originality which is often infectious and very instructive. I love keeping an eye open for these second-tier amateur events because they are not commercially-driven.
Often in Jeddah, the people at the helm of new ideas and initiatives are simply young people with brilliant ideas and a sense of forward motion: Casual Art Talks by Soraya Darwish (picture by Ahmed Darwish) and Photography with an Italian twist, an informal and useful photography networking event/ workshop at Piatto (picture from Piatto’s facebook page). Both addressed a need for like-minded people to simply get together and start working towards a common goal without a formalized plan of action.
So, what is your art attitude in Jeddah?
– Naima Rashid