In February 2012, for a brief moment, the eyes of the contemporary art world turned to Saudi Arabia. Seven years since its foundation, and after blockbuster exhibitions in London, Venice, Berlin, Istanbul and Dubai, Edge of Arabia, a Saudi-focused contemporary arts initiative, hosted its first exhibition in Jeddah.
We Need Tp Talk
Billed as the biggest collection of contemporary Saudi art ever shown in the Kingdom, the provocatively titled “We Need To Talk” exhibition showcased the works of 22 prominent contemporary Saudi artists. The exhibition, curated by local art scene heavyweight Mohammed Hafiz, featured 43 pieces, including videos, sculptures, photography and installations, and asked the artists to reflect on the past, present and future of Saudi Arabia. The results were bold and often controversial. Social critique was dominant throughout, and pieces addressed taboo themes, including the role of women, the commercialisation of Makkah, censorship and the influence of religion in daily life.
Speaking to the media, Stephen Stapleton, a British artist and co-founder of Edge of Arabia, explained, “[Until recently] the modern art movement in Saudi Arabia was barely known,” but “internationally there is a natural curiosity about Saudi contemporary art.”
Developing A Following
Saudi artists are beginning to develop a serious following in international art circles. In 2011 Abdulnasser Gharem, a forerunner in the flourishing Saudi movement, made history with the sale of his “Message/Messenger” sculpture for £521,449 at Christies in the UAE, establishing him as the highest-selling artist from the GCC region.
“Saudi art is regarded as ‘exotic’ among contemporary art collectors, and at the moment is relatively undervalued,” Adnan Manjal, a Jeddah-based art consultant, told OBG. “A lot of the major buyers are not from Saudi Arabia, or even from the Middle East.”
But despite this recent international acclaim, Jeddah is no stranger to contemporary art. The city is home to a unique public collection of over 160 major sculptures, including pieces by some of the greatest modern artists, including Henry Moore, Joan Miró, César, Victor Vasarely and Alexander Calder.
The collection was the brainchild of Mohamed Farsi, an architect and urban planner, who as mayor of Jeddah from 1972 to 1986 oversaw a period of urban expansion driven by the first Saudi oil boom. During these 14 years Jeddah grew from a city of 300,000 to a sprawling metropolis with over 1.6m people. Central to his vision for this growing city was beautification through public art, funded by local businesses and families, a novel concept in a culture where galleries, art museums and art education were almost non-existent.
Given the rules of conservative Islam, depictions of the human form were strictly forbidden. However, this meshed well with the styles and forms of 20th-century sculpture. The first pieces commissioned were by local artists and reflected traditional aspects of Islamic culture: incense burners, coffee pots or calligraphy. However, as the collection grew in size and ambition, the focus moved towards abstract pieces by international sculptors. Perhaps one of the most striking and best-known pieces is “Fist” by French sculptor César. This enormous bronze clenched fist sits on a roundabout in Prince Sultan, representing strength and defence.
Aesthetics aside, these sculptures also serve an important function. As Jeddah grew exponentially, without proper street names or major landmarks, it became increasingly difficult to navigate. To solve this problem, sculptures were commissioned and located on roundabouts to act as navigational beacons. Even today, Jeddawis still give directions according to the sculptures. However, some of the finest pieces are in sore neglect, and despite efforts from the art community, there is little public awareness of their true value.
The good news is that many of the best pieces are being restored and will be relocated to an outdoor sculpture park on the corniche, due to open in early 2013. Given the rising profile of contemporary art through initiatives like Edge of Arabia, Jeddah’s sculptures can expect to receive more attention in the future.