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Saudi artist targeted over Jerusalem show
The Saudi artist Ahmed Mater has become the subject of an online campaign in Saudi Arabia calling for his immediate censure by the Saudi government, following the inclusion of his work Evolution of Man, 2010, in an exhibition in Israel.
The show, “West End”, opened this summer at Jerusalem’s Museum on the Seam, a socio-political contemporary art museum on the edge of the ultra-orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Mea She’arim. The display garnered extensive media coverage largely thanks to the participation, alongside 21 other artists, of seven non-Israeli artists of Middle Eastern origin. Of these, only two live permanently in the country of their birth: the Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr and Mater.
Several weeks after the opening of “West End” in Jerusalem, messages predominantly from fellow Saudis began to appear on Mater’s Facebook page. Although some were supportive of the inclusion of his work in “West End”, the majority were not. One female Saudi artist wrote (in English): “This is treason at the highest level. He [Mater] should be made an example of.”
In late August, names began to be gathered for a petition against Mater. Now this is set to be presented to the Saudi minister of the interior, the minister of foreign affairs, the Association of Fine Arts and ultimately King Abdullah. The petition describes Mater’s participation in “West End” as tantamount to the “normalisation” of relations with Israel. This is in spite of the fact that the Museum on the Seam receives no funding from the Israeli government. Moreover, Mater’s work belonged to a private collection when it was lent to “West End”.
“Ahmed Mater is not personally responsible for us receiving his work Evolution of Man,” explains Raphie Etgar, the curator of “West End” and the artistic director of the museum. “It was sent to us by a private collector in the United States.”
Of the petition against Mater, Etgar says: “I am shocked. It is not the first time an Arab artist has exhibited in Israel. The kind of thinking that lies behind this petition should have been demolished long ago. The Museum on the Seam is not part of the Israeli government. It is an independent socio-political contemporary art museum dedicated to improving inter-cultural understanding. I’m standing right behind Ahmed Mater and other artists like him. They are doing all they can to create a better world for tomorrow, and it’s amazing that people are trying to stop him from doing this.”
The precise location in Jerusalem of the Museum on the Seam is significant. It is next to, or on, the “Green Line” that divided the Israeli and Jordanian sections of Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967. What was once a military no-man’s-land lost to concrete blocks and barbed wire is now a road divided by a tramline, with the Museum on the Seam located on the western side of the road. Technically this places it in West Jerusalem. Had the exhibition taken place on the other side of the road, less than 50 metres away, there would almost certainly have been no petition.
Mater belongs to a new generation of internationally successful Saudi artists. Having originally trained as a doctor, his artistic career took off in 2006 following the inclusion of X-Ray, 2003, in the British Museum’s “Word into Art” exhibition. Since then, he has exhibited widely in Europe, the Middle East and the United States. His work was on display in “Gifts of the Sultan” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art earlier this year, and can be seen in “The Future of a Promise” (until 20 November) at the 54th Venice Biennale, as well as in “West End” (until December).
Yet for Saudi artists like Mater, there are no guidelines as to exactly what
they can show outside Saudi Arabia, or indeed where. Iranian nationals, for example, are forbidden by their government to engage with Israeli institutions. Saudi artists are free to show where they like, yet they may have to contend with indirect pressure from colleagues, family, members of the government, local clerics, prominent sheikhs or, in this case, members of the public via an online petition.
The response to this petition may offer an interesting insight into the actual freedom of Saudi artists abroad. It may also open the door to further participation by Saudi artists in exhibitions run by independent Israeli museums and galleries.
Mater declined to make any formal comment about what has happened.
August 11, 2011 | The Art Newspaper