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October 25, 2016  | Vogue Arabia

Ahmed Mater: Meet the Man Repurposing Islamic Art


ON THE DESERT OF PHARAN SERIES: “Setting out on the road to Mecca (Makkah) first requires that you set down your final will: in this way, the morbid infuses the sublime. For me, a doctor, the manner with which friends and family deal with this vast, mortal subject is strange. Its presence becomes perfunctory as they tidy it away in practicalities. Like few cities on earth, Mecca seems to buckle under the weight of its own dramatic symbolism. It is a hallowed site revered by millions, a point of perpetual immigration, and in recent years it has begun to be recast, reworked, and ultimately reconfigured. Mecca is being given a makeover, and the speed and breadth of its transformation is generating interrelated concerns regarding the city’s social mechanics and the ongoing and symbiotic relationship between demolition and construction.”—Ahmed Mater

“Ahmed Mater, who was educated as a medical practitioner, shows and tells the ‘violent change’ (as he calls them) of the greater Mecca in countless photographs and videos, through different perspectives of pilgrims and workers from all over the world, as well as local inhabitants, officials, and entrepreneurs. In this way the doctor-artist delivers a unique, critical guide full of ‘unofficial histories’ of the new Mecca—a Mecca having to accommodate for ever more millions of pilgrims, dominated by geo-politics, business-operations, security measures and sophisticated technologies. Mater presents this materialist and consumerist inspection of religious tourism and urban space squarely and boldly.”—Chris Dercon, Director Emeritus, Tate Museum


Shifting to a more intimate scale, Mater re-imagines life at different times in and around Riyadh and the Saudi Aramco compounds further east. These found images of long forgotten figures and distant moments hover over the distant desert landscape, glowing like signals from another world.

Illumination (Ottoman Waqf)

“Islamic art—and especially the mathematical harmony found in Islamic geometry—reveals natural structures and orders which are only now becoming visible to modern science. The Illumination series has been one of my most recognizable to date. It demonstrates how I have juxtaposed my life in the objective world of modern medicine with my subjective world of faith and spirituality. I want my works to Illuminate and give light and often use DNA codes embedded into traditional Qur’anic manuscripts.”—Ahmed Mater

Magnetism, 2012

“When my grandfathers spoke to me as a child about their experience of Hajj they told me of the physical attraction they felt towards the Ka‘ba; that they felt drawn to it by an almost magnetic pull.’”—Ahmed Mater

In this work, Mater has evoked that feeling by using tens of thousands of iron filings placed within the magnetic fields of two magnets—only the upper one of which is visible. For Mater, Magnetism also conveys one of the essential elements of Hajj, which is that all Muslims are considered the same in the eyes of God whether rich, poor, young, or old. As such, the iron filings represent a unified body of pilgrims—all of whom are similarly attracted to the Ka‘ba as the centre of their world.—Venetia Porter, Curator, Hajj, Journey to the Heart of Islam, the British Museum

Evolution of Man, 2010

“Most people will read it as an unabashed critique of humanity’s dependence on oil, and what ‘black gold’ represents to those living above the reserves. But Evolution of Man is more than just a political statement. I am a doctor and confront life and death every day, and I am a country man and at the same time. I am the son of this strange, scary oil civilization. In ten years our lives changed completely. For me it is a drastic change that I experience every day.”—Ahmed Mater

Antenna (White), 2010

“This story says a lot about my life and my art. I catch art from the story of my life. I don’t know any other way.”—Ahmed Mater

A boy stands on the flat, dusty rooftop of his family’s traditional house in the south west corner of Saudi Arabia. With all his reach he lifts a battered TV antenna up to the evening sky. He moves it slowly across the mountainous horizon, in search of a signal from beyond the nearby border with Yemen, or across the Red Sea towards Sudan.

“He is searching, like so many of his generation in Saudi, for ideas, for music, for poetry—for a glimpse of a different kind of life. His father and brothers shout up from the majlis (sitting room) below, as music fills the house and dancing figures appear on a TV screen, filling the evening air with voices from another world.”—Stephen Stapleton, Co-Founder Edge of Arabia


“I first saw Ahmed’s pieces in Istanbul in 2009, and knew immediately that he is one of the few Middle Eastern artists whose work transcends geography, religion, and politics,” shares Nazy Nazhand, Founder of Art Middle East. Nazhand subsequently introduced the Saudi artist’s work in New York in 2010, ahead of Mater’s Venice Biennial exhibit. Since then, Mater’s images and mixed media art have been included in shows at the British Museum in London; the Centre Pompidou in Paris; the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art; the Victoria & Albert Museum in London; and the Mori Art Museum; among others.

Born in Abha, Ahmed Mater was educated as a medical practitioner; his artistic work showcases his desire to communicate across borders. “As with much contemporary artistic practice, Ahmed Mater is not so much reinventing Islamic art as he is repurposing it so that it becomes more clearly a vehicle for personal expression,” comments Linda Komaroff, Curator of Islamic Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Here, for Vogue Arabia, Ahmed Mater gives further insight into a selection of his most exceptional pieces.