AHMED MATER, Workers Camp, 2015, C-print, 51 × 76 cm. Courtesy the artist. 

Mecca Journeys

Ahmed Mater

Also available in:  Chinese

Moving between the sacred and secular, Saudi artist Ahmed Mater’s photographs, videos and installation works at the Brooklyn Museum situate the city of Mecca as both a historical pilgrimage site for Muslims and a locus of contemporary urban development. Adopting a chiefly documentarian approach, Mater records the influx of international believers as they travel through Mecca and its surrounding locales for the hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca obligatory for all Muslims, whose annual date is specified by the Islamic calendar) and ’umrah (an optional visit to the holy city at any time), and juxtaposes these crowds with intimate images of construction workers and Mecca’s residents at home. The wide range of photographs, taken between 2011 and 2016, are culled from Mater’s project, Desert of Pharan: Unofficial Histories Behind the Mass Expansion of Mecca, and accompanied by texts written by the artist that tabulate the holy destination’s rapid changes. 

In his photographs, Mater highlights class disparities within Saudi Arabia: an image of a workers’ camp taken in 2015 is presented alongside an image of upper-class Arabs sitting in their majlis, or living room, captured in the same year; crowds of worshippers in Hajj Season (2015/17) gather in the glow of illuminated signs of fast-food chains and other businesses. Mater’s dialectical approach in documenting the gap between rich and poor frames the city as one of extremes, and establishes Mecca as foreign to, and distant from, his viewers. Even in the more intimate images of Mecca’s vulnerable populations, such as his portraits of Rohingya Muslims in Neighborhood – Kids (2015/17), the artist’s photographs tend toward pseudo-journalistic voyeurism that pits these inhabitants as decoupled from the city’s rhythm rather than a vital part of its everyday function.

Other works in the exhibition hone in on the hundreds of thousands of visitors who make their way to Mecca each year. In the two-channel video installation Road to Mecca I (2017), distorted color images of caravans are projected alongside footage of highways that connect Mecca with other parts of Saudi Arabia, where cranes and construction materials dot the desert landscape. Captured from inside a moving vehicle, the shaky footage is juxtaposed against its sequel, Road to Mecca II (2017), which shows crowds of pilgrims as they move through the city’s holy sites on foot, in massive crowds. These immersive films evoke the sensory overload of the spiritual journey while reaffirming Mecca as a place beleaguered by a constant flux of wayfarers.

Mater turns to architecture to document the scale and breadth of Mecca’s expansion both upward and across the desert landscape. Aerial photographs of the Ka’aba and the larger metropolis region peg the city as an isolated urban center in the desert. These views are dominated by the Makkah Royal Clock Tower, a luxury hotel and the fifth-tallest freestanding structure in the world. In one of the most compelling works in the exhibition, Mater highlights the people who erected this ostentatious edifice: the 20-minute video Leaves Fall in All Seasons (2013) is a compilation of video clips recorded by construction workers who worked on the clock tower, shot with their cellphones. The snippets show migrant laborers from South Asia and the Middle East asking about each other’s lives and joking about their daily routines. The film reaches a climax when a worker named Jibreel straddles the crescent moon that is hoisted to crown the tower, captivating the attention of cheering crowds on the ground.

The sea changes in Mecca are also registered in Mecca Windows (2013– ), an arrangement of wood-framed, stained-glass windows mounted on a wall. Salvaged after a neighborhood was razed to make way for more luxury hotels, these windows are a synecdoche of the families and livelihoods lost to gentrification. Departing from the often-anthropological gaze of Mater’s photographs, the artwork achieves a delicate balance in documenting the process and outcome of urbanization without aestheticizing its consequences. “Mecca Journeys” not only showed us a side of Mecca that is often ignored by its visitors, but also took us on the ground and to the pinnacles of the skyline, introducing individuals who have been instrumental in shaping the city’s character.

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