Jeddah’s bustling art scene is in full swing with the 4th edition of 21,39 Jeddah Arts. The non-profit initiative, chaired by HRH Princess Jawaher bint Majid bin Abdulaziz and organized by the Saudi Art Council, opened the doors to its major exhibition, “Safar.” Co-curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath of Art Reoriented, the exhibit focuses on the notion of travel, exploration, and the process of discovery.
Playing host to installations, paintings, sculptures, photography, and films by 24 prominent artists, 16 of these are emerging talents from Saudi Arabia, including Sara Abdu, Majid Angawi, Abdullah Al-Othman, Mohammad Al-Faraj, and Reem Al-Nasser. Among the talents on display is Saudi artist Dana Awartani, who showcases a film installation. “It’s the first time I’ve worked with film so I was really anxious about it, but I thought it was an important medium to use for what I was trying to say,” she tells Vogue Arabia. Awartani’s work touches on the destruction of culture and heritage in Arab countries. “We are too involved in trying to be modernized and evolved by copying western cultures and not embracing our own. This piece is a cautionary tale to take a step back and really look at what we’re doing before it is all gone,” she says.
Filmed in a home that dates back to the late ’50s, Awartani discuss the importance of the location: “It was around that time when rich Hijazi families were abandoning their traditional homes for building houses that resembled Italian and French architecture. It was very alien to the environment during that period, but it was a way to show that they are more forward and more civilized. Unfortunately, that’s when the destruction started happening.” The film features an Arabesque patterned floor made entirely out of pigmented sand that sees Awartani slowly sweeping away the profoundly detailed pattern. “I wanted to recreate a juxtaposition with western architecture with very Islamic and Arab interiors. After doing the sand stencils, which were very labor intensive and took me a long time to do, I decided to destroy them with a broom. The way I destroy is important. I didn’t want to be aggressive about it, and wanted it to be very therapeutic, and quiet, so people contemplate what is happening.”
As part 21,39’s series of art events is “Tadafuq,” a group show co-curated by Qaswra Hafez and Noor Al Dabbagh, which introduces international and Saudi artists that interpret the theme “flow” through contemporary mediums, touching on topics such as migration, spirituality, urban sprawl, technology, and the experience of memory. Among the participants in the show is Saudi artist Ghada Da. With a focus on performative sculpture and video installation, Vogue Arabia caught up with the Central Saint Martins graduate who showed for the first time in her hometown. “I’m proud of the Saudi art scene and its vibrant energy. There are a lot of intriguing and thought-provoking works that are a direct response to what is going on in the world, and I am thrilled that we are reaching a space where we can share that freely and embrace each other for it,” she says.
Her style of work is identified as a journey of observation and exploration on the relationship of the body and the concept of space, disconnect, rebirth, identity, and the genderless body. On display at “Tadafuq,” you will come to find the artist’s two-dimensional mother of pearl creations mounted on birch wood. Titled Orient, the work is a result of an 8-month collaboration with the master lacquerer and mother-of-pearl craftsman Son Dae Hyun. Ghada Da drew inspiration from South Korea’s culture during her residency at Seoul Art Space in Seoul. Speaking about her most recent body of work, she shares: “I was interested in craft as a way of delving deeper into the history of the body and human psyche as part of my ongoing reach, and understanding the importance of pristine craftsmanship; looking at craft as political and social understanding, craft as an expression of human values and of the self. Understanding how something is made and why it is made is vital in today’s modern world.”
Athr Gallery’s “And Along Came Polyester” exhibition played host to five solo presentations by female artists from the Gulf. The shows explore the synthetic textile derived from oil, the main commodity in the region that has a direct impact on economic strength. The Shift by Qatari artist Aisha Al Sowaidi challenges the dynamics of traditional used objects and furniture, while, in the context of domesticity, 18 Blankets by Saudi artist Sarah Abu Abdullah showcases the absurdity of reconstructing daily life.
Legacy by Kuwaiti artist Monira Al Qadiri displays alien-like sculptural objects that explore the polarizing color scheme of pearls and oil, the two fundamental materials that played a role in shaping the culture and economic life in the region. Speaking to Vogue Arabia on the opening night of her show, Al Qadiri shares: “Having the opportunity to show my work in Jeddah was so thrilling for me, since the subject it tackles resonates with so many people here. Imagining a future without oil can be considered a provocative proposition to make, but I am happy that people want to start to think about these things more openly nowadays,” she says. “The reactions by the public so far have been really encouraging. Personally, I find Saudi Arabia to be the most culturally exciting place to be in the Gulf right now. I see all of these creative people coming out of the woodwork and bravely putting themselves out there.”
Meanwhile, Bahraini artist Hala Al Khalifa’s She Wore Her Scars Like Wings derives from a personal journey of healing; A Still Moment in Thought and Spacial Perception by Emirati artist Layla Juma reveals a rhythmic sequence of repetitive geometric shapes.
Meanwhile, over at Ahmed Mater’s Pharan studio, artist Arwa Al Neami and curator Raneen Bukhari are showcasing an exhibition titled “Live Demo,” across all mediums and with planned artist talks. All in all, the 2017 edition of 21,39 Jeddah Arts will encompass more than 50 events over a six-month period. Its impact on the Saudi art scene and the dialogue between local and international artists, however, will reach even further; a poetic echo of the program’s central theme, Safar.
Additional reportage by Sueraya Shaheen.