Feb 09 2012

“Edge of Arabia: We Need to Talk”

by Maria Baibakova

Installation view of the opening of “Edge of Arabia: We Need to Talk,” al-Furusia Marina, Jeddah, 2011. Photo by Alex Maguire. Courtesy Edge of Arabia. 

Installation view of AHMED MATER’s The Cowboy Code, 2011, at “Edge of Arabia: We Need to Talk,” al-Furusia Marina, Jeddah, 2011. Photo by Alex Maguire. Courtesy Edge of Arabia.

Installation view of the opening of “Edge of Arabia: We Need to Talk,” al-Furusia Marina, Jeddah, 2011. Photo by Alex Maguire. Courtesy Edge of Arabia. 

Installation view of MANAL AL-DOWAYAN’s “I AM” series, 2007-09, at “Edge of Arabia: We Need to Talk,” al-Furusia Marina, Jeddah, 2011. Photo by Alex Maguire. Courtesy Edge of Arabia. 

Installation view of MANAL AL-DOWAYAN with her installation Esmi “(”My Name Is"), 2011, at “Edge of Arabia: We Need to Talk,” al-Furusia Marina, Jeddah, 2011. Photo by Alex Maguire. Courtesy Edge of Arabia.

Installation view of MANAL AL-DOWAYAN’s Esme (“My Name”), 2011, at “Edge of Arabia: We Need to Talk,” al-Furusia Marina, Jeddah, 2011. Photo by Alex Maguire. Courtesy Edge of Arabia.

Installation view of AHMAD ANGAWI’s The Street Pulse Project, 2011-ongoing, at “Edge of Arabia: We Need to Talk,” at al-Furusia Marina, Jeddah, 2011. Photo by Alex Maguire. Courtesy Edge of Arabia. 

Jack Persekian and Antonia Carver in the Old Souk, Jeddah, 2012. Photo by Maria Baibakova. Courtesy Maria Baibakova.

Any discussion of the Edge of Arabia’s homecoming exhibition “We Need to Talk” must begin with its context, the city of Jeddah in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Criticized for its alleged draconian treatment of women, the Kingdom was a radical choice for an exhibition whose central artist was Manal al-Dowayan—a Saudi woman. A platform co-founded in 2008 by British artist Stephen Stapleton, and Saudi artists Ahmed Mater and Abdulnasser Gharem, Edge of Arabia has organized exhibitions of contemporary Saudi art in cities including London, Venice, Berlin and Istanbul. “We Need to Talk” brought these works home, with the largest showing of Saudi contemporary art thus far in the Kingdom. Both the city and the exhibition itself surpassed all expectations, proving Jeddah to be a swiftly maturing center for contemporary Saudi art.

To appreciate the importance of “We Need to Talk,” the reader needs to understand the logistics involved in putting together a contemporary art exhibition in Jeddah. When an exhibition is produced in North America or Europe, the greatest hurdles are usually physical: the shipping of works to their intended destination and their installation alongside each other so they can coexist coherently. In Saudi, these challenges are the same, but they also apply to the visitors themselves. The two fundamental problems that Edge of Arabia encountered were: how to bring foreign guests to Jeddah and how to organize an exhibition where men and women could mingle freely and enjoy a post-opening dinner together in a restaurant.   

I had firsthand experience of how difficult it was to get to Saudi Arabia. As a Russian woman with an American passport traveling alone to Saudi for the first time, I went through three months of preparatory paperwork and four trips to Saudi consulates in two countries before I was finally issued a visa, six hours prior to my flight, with the help of my friend and host Sharifa al-Sudairi, a Jeddah native and supporter of Saudi art currently working at Pace Gallery in London.

Many more friends—male and female—were not as lucky. By my count, at least ten invited guests were not able to obtain a visa, and those who succeeded had to fight. Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans actually applied for a second German passport because his original had an Israeli stamp, which automatically disqualified him from a visa. These obstacles ensured that the attendees were all incredibly committed to Edge of Arabia and the contemporary culture of the Middle East at large. Among the guests were Chris Dercon, director of Tate Modern; Jerusalem-based curator Jack Persekian; Alia al-Senussi, a patron of Middle Eastern art; Negar Azimi, editor of Bidoun magazine; Bashar al-Shroogi, founder of Cuadro gallery in Dubai; and Jussi Pylkkänen, president of Christie’s Europe.

The program for “We Need to Talk” kicked off on January 18 with a symposium about the development of contemporary art in Saudi. Before it began, however, the gathering itself provided a lesson in diplomacy for Abdullah al-Turki, creative director of Edge of Arabia. Just to allow men and women to convene in the same public space required a highly bureaucratic process to secure multiple permissions from the government. While the paperwork may have been in order, there were other hurdles that could not be stamped away: both sexes had separate entrances and reception areas for mingling, and the women were asked to sit in the nosebleed section of the auditorium. As it was the inaugural event, several Western guests were confused about the local social norms. Some men stumbled into the women’s section during a coffee break, dolling out double-kisses to their long-time, female art-world acquaintances only to be ushered out with the warning that such behavior is not acceptable. Western women were seen tripping on the tails of their long abayas, or fumbling about with unruly headscarves before eventually giving up and walking around bare-headed which, by the way, was underwhelmingly unproblematic.

At once critical and hopeful about the development of contemporary art in Saudi, the symposium merited the logistical hassles. As the program was largely attended by a local and Arabic-speaking audience, the first panel, featuring artists Abdulnasser Gharem, Ayman Yossri Daydban, and Manal al-Dowayan, was conducted almost exclusively in Arabic. While I do not speak Arabic, the frequent use of three prominent words encapsulated the general topics of the discussion. Halas: “enough” with the local collectors ignoring Saudi artists, “enough” with not allowing female artists to attend their own openings, and “enough” with not having enough galleries and institutions for the development of contemporary art. Mashallah: “thank God and let’s not jinx” that there is Edge of Arabia and a few other such institutions that enable the development of Saudi contemporary art, “thank God and let’s not jinx” that we are able to be here together today to discuss these issues, and “thank God and let’s not jinx” that the exhibition is finally taking place in the homeland of the artists. Inshallah: “God willing” there will be more initiatives like this, and “God willing” Saudi citizens with means will direct their attention and resources to Saudi artists by investing in the institutions they need to thrive.

The second panel examined the enduring relevance of Saudi traditions, with architect Sami Angawi, outspoken critic of the commercialization and redevelopment of Mecca and Medina, in conversation with his son Ahmed, an industrial designer and artist currently making a film about the hookah pipe. For the concluding discussion, Alia al-Senussi, Basma al-Suleiman (of the virtual, private museum BASMOCA), and dealer Hamza Serafi (from Jeddah’s Athr Art gallery) joined others in reinforcing the importance of art patronage for cultural preservation of the past and the development of contemporary Saudi art in the future.

For the next 24 hours, the guests of Edge of Arabia mixed visits to the remnants of Jeddah’s old city with receptions in the homes of various art patrons. While the latter delighted guests with their eagerness and dedication to supporting contemporary art, the government’s disheartening attitude toward preservation was apparent in the disrepair of sites like the beautiful merchant house, Beit Nassief, that King Abdulaziz chose as his home base during his rule.

The topic came up at a farewell dinner at  Dr.Angawi’s home, where the host lamented to Dercon about the inefficiency of the authorities when it comes to protecting the local cultural treasures. Tillmans concurred, adding that this doesn’t just extend to the ancient treasures. When he went to the seaside boardwalk in search of sculptures by internationally famous artists—Alexander Calder and Henry Moore, among others—installed there by a visionary Jeddah mayor in the 1970s, he found them crumbling and covered up for indefinite restoration.

As a privately funded organization, Edge of Arabia’s professionalism and dedication to the display of contemporary art came into stark contrast with the state’s indifferent attitude towards culture. With more than 40 new works by 22 artists, “We Need to Talk” was installed in an impressive 1000-square meter, raw cement space in a commercial space near the Jeddah marina temporarily outfitted to meet global museum standards. Works by woman artists included Maha Mulluh’s cassette-tape installation, Food for Thought 7000 (2012), and Hala Ali’s Brainwash (2011), an installation of stacked newspapers in a long hallway that resembles the rotating dryers in an automatic car wash. The show also featured a variety of Abdulnasser Gharem’s works made of rubber stamps and Ahmed Mater’s Cowboy Code (2011), made of 3000 plastic cap gun discs.

As the 800 Jeddah VIPs filed into the long-awaited opening ceremony, the importance of Edge of Arabia as a local institution became clear. It is not only the ultimate platform for Saudi art, but it also serves as a forum that brings together Saudi society to discuss relevant, if uncomfortable, issues. Here, again, the organizers managed to bypass local rules about segregating men and women. It was a pleasant sight, as conservative, veiled women stood side-by-side with their more liberal, robed sisters with uncovered hair. The crowd in attendance showed that abayas are not tools of oppression, but rather a source of individual expression and style.

Encapsulating the open discussion of relevant issues was the most challenging project in the exhibition: Manal al-Dowayan’s Esmi (“My Name,” 2011). The project comprises volleyball-sized strings of prayer beads, woven together by Bedouin women and hung from the ceiling at the center of the exhibition space, with each bead displaying a woman’s name. Esmi addresses an alarming, recent phenomenon in which Saudi men are becoming increasingly embarrassed about pronouncing women’s—especially their mother’s—names aloud. Raised in an enclosed compound in the Eastern Province that did not adhere to Saudi’s strict social norms, al-Dowayan is perplexed by this societal development. She set off to do field research, enlisting hundreds of women to participate, only to discover that there was no rational or religious explanation for the men’s behavior. Al-Dowayan decided it was time to bring this issue up for public discussion and asked Saudi women to contribute their time, efforts, and names by painting them on the beads. The project went viral on multiple social media platforms, commanding international attention and support from women worldwide.  

The prominence of al-Dowayan’s work in the exhibition, the crowds that gathered around it, and the fact that every string of prayer beads was sold to Middle Eastern collectors  by al-Dowayan’s Dubai-based gallery, Cuadro Fine Art, encapsulated the dynamic transition which Saudi Arabia is undergoing. Mashallah, the work is universally important and Saudi patrons are noticing; this exhibition will be the first of many on the road to developing contemporary Saudi art, inshallah