A Visit to Athr Gallery: Celebrating Saudi Arabia’s Burgeoning Art Scene
As an art enthusiast and creative growing up in Saudi Arabia, there was very little in the way of a public Arts and Culture scene when I resided in the Kingdom about a decade ago. The more recent proliferation of contemporary art exhibitions is therefore marked; it brings a refreshing change and many opportunities to artists in Saudi Arabia. My recent visit to Jeddah’s Athr Gallery was an enlightening experience. Having been greeted by representative Adnan Z Manjal, I was given a tour of the gallery and its current exhibition Video (works) which ran between 14th May and 13th July 2013.
Located on the fifth floor of a tower block of offices, just off Jeddah’s bustling Tahlia Street, Athr Gallery is not one of the most locatable places. In time, Adnan explained, the gallery will be brought down to street level where it will be more accessible to the public. Because the art scene is yet to take off in Saudi Arabia, there is currently a gradual process of exposure and education about what is out there within the world of art. The current exhibition, Adnan told me, is not necessarily about making sales as a priority; this is an experimental exhibition for Jeddah and its local people. ‘There are very few video collectors in Saudi Arabia; this exhibition is not for selling purposes, but just to highlight the medium’, he said.
By exhibiting a diverse range of works to the Saudi public, Athr Gallery is exposing local audiences to different art forms in a progressive movement, which sets out to prove how wide-ranging and all-encompassing art can be. The idea is to take audiences out of their comfort zones, encouraging them to experience as art things they may not have previously understood to be art.
Adnan Z Manjal has been a part of the Saudi art scene since 2010, when he built a strong relationship with Athr Gallery, a team he joined in December 2012. Exuding passion and a great knowledge of the art world, Adnan is playing an intrinsic role as part of the small team that is putting Saudi Arabia on the map for artistic excellence. He is also Director and Co-Founder of Saudi Art Guide: the first of its kind in the country, it is an online guide and hub for art and design in Saudi Arabia.
Walking through the exhibition, there was an incredibly diverse range of material on show, ranging from documentary footage to staged ‘performances’ and videos expressing a comical and light-hearted tone. This comedic element was highlighted in a piece by video, installation, and photography artist Adel Abidin, whose multimedia works explore the complex relationships between culture, politics, and identity. Born in Baghdad in 1973, Abidin currently lives and works in Helsinki, Finland. His 2011 installation Consumption of War is a perfect example of his personal style of work, which adopts a sharp palette of irony and humour. He is known for expressing the theme of identity in his work, his ‘dialogue’ often exuding an acute sense of paradox and irony.
Abidin’s video is set in the generic space of a corporate office, and sees a pair of suited men battling childishly with Star Wars-inspired light sabres, which mimic the typical fluorescent light strips, here taken from the office ceiling. The ‘battle’ sees each light strip smashed one by one, the light relinquishing progressively as the men continue to remove them from the ceiling. Eventually, the room is plunged into darkness, bringing the game to an abrupt end. Foolish and childish on the surface, this office war alludes to wider global environmental crises in which the world is at the mercy of corporate entities that encourage consumption on a massive scale for maximum profit.
The themes of existence and personal identification are repeated throughout the exhibition; each artist expressing the concept in their own personal way. David Zink Yi’s exploration of identity in his 2006 work Untitled exemplifies his unique approach to the problematic fields of identity, origin, and social roles, their intertwining with cultural norms and the emotional experiences of nationhood. Born in 1973 in Lima, Peru, the artist films a street scene in a narrow alleyway in Cuba; three musicians play the Cuban Rumba known as ‘Abakua’ and a local joins in as a dancer – taking centre stage in the video. His role as protagonist is soon usurped by the global brands that adorn his t-shirt: Star Wars and Pizza Hut. Borders are blurred as the concepts of nationhood and globalisation merge in what becomes a parodic dance, highlighting the tension between global pop culture and the individuality of the dancer, whose identity is governed by the branding that his clothing promotes.
Touching on a similar line of expression and identification is Hazem Harb, a Palestinian artist whose 2012 piece Impossible Travel signifies the demarcation of land between Israel and Palestine by a dividing wall described as ‘pitiless and racist’ in the gallery’s catalogue. A divide that has created an impact so great in the history and contemporary politics of the Middle East; Harb deconstructs this demarcation to a simple notion of stasis. Impossible Travel sees the artist alone in an empty room, but for the placement of a chair and a suitcase laden with bricks. These bricks, the building blocks of the dividing wall, create a weight so heavy that one cannot move it; one cannot travel. This literal impossibility of movement represents the lack of freedom and restraint on the Palestinian people.
The pièce de résistance of the exhibition, for me, was the 2013 film Staging Silence II by Hans Op de Beek. Renowned for his visual art, de Beek lives and works in Brussels, where he has developed his career over the past decade. Inspired by his personal experiences, this series of videos constructs various ideas of reality; incredibly purposeful in nature and staged to perfection. They are described by the artist as ‘proposals’, and the decision is left with the viewer as to whether they will take them seriously as parallel realities, or to see them as no more than two-dimensional visual constructs.
De Beek’s work thus ‘diminishes the line between what we see as imagination and reality’, and the viewer is left questioning the difficult relationship between reality and representation — between what we see and what we want to believe. This is what makes the Belgian artist’s work so accessible. The lack of any human presence in the video creates an atmosphere of suspense and latent abstractness from reality, as a false or different sense of realism emerges from the screen.
Video (work) exemplifies the intellectual, philosophical and critical scope of not only Athr Gallery, but contemporary art made and exhibited in Saudi Arabia as a whole. The hub plays the necessary role in creating means of exposure for the artistic talent and creative drives residing in the Kingdom, ensuring international notice and renown.
By Sarah Zakzouk
Originally Published in The Arab Review.