JEDDAH. Usually it is the job of an art historian to pinpoint when an art movement begins. But last month, on the west coast of Saudi Arabia, the overwhelming feeling among visitors to a ground-breaking exhibition of Saudi contemporary art was that they had witnessed the birth of something new. They may well be right.
Organised by Edge of Arabia, an independent arts initiative, “We Need to Talk” (until 18 February) features more than 40 pieces by 22 young Saudi artists, almost half of them women, and includes videos, sculpture and photography from the likes of Abdulnasser Gharem, Ahmed Mater and Manal Al-Dowayan. Most of these artists have shown together over the past three-and-a-half years in London, Venice, Berlin, Istanbul and Dubai, but never before in Saudi Arabia. Could an exhibition like this have been staged in Jeddah ten years ago? “Of course not,” said the show’s curator Mohammed Hafiz, “because we didn’t have the artists, we didn’t have the works of art… there are many elements.”
One of these elements was a degree of indifference or suspicion displayed back then towards contemporary art. Now, members of the Saudi royal family, including the participating artist, Princess Jowhara Al Saud, as well as legions of young art fans packed the opening. A smattering of non-Saudis were also there, including photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, Jack Persekian, the former director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, Antonia Carver, the director of Art Dubai, and the following day Chris Dercon, the director of Tate Modern, took a spin round the show, later describing the artists involved as “true intellectuals with a great eye for form and immanence”.
Nonetheless this fledgling art movement faces some obstacles. There is no fine art college, no contemporary art museum, no dedicated art publication and no surplus of innovative art spaces in Saudi Arabia, with the notable exception of Jeddah’s Athr Gallery.
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