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From the inside out

With Contemporary art from Saudi Arabia continuing to turn heads, some of the trailblazing artists involved come from unusual backgrounds. Warren Singh Bartlett and James Parry discuss Ahmed Mater’s seemingly diverse set of skills and experiences into works that are both thought- provoking and profoundly beautiful.


Ahmed Mater’s star is on a fast trajectory. At a time when Contemporary art from Saudi Arabia is commanding at- tention across the Middle East and beyond, Mater’s unusual and compelling works have helped ensure that he is firmly at the vanguard of the Saudi advance. He was one of two artists from the Kingdom to be included in the Word Into Art exhibition held in 2006 at the British Museum (Canvas 6.1), which led to two of his pieces, X-Ray 2003 and Talisman Illumination I, being bought for the Museum’s permanent collection. He also co-founded the Edge of Arabia project with Stephen Sta- pleton and in 2008 co-curated their debut show at the Brunei Gallery in London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Edge of Arabia has since showcased Saudi Contemporary art at the 53rd Venice Biennale, as well as in Riyadh and Berlin, and was recently in Istanbul as part of the 2010 European Capital of Culture’s Visual Arts programme. There has been a recent commission for the LACMA – Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Canvas 5.3) – and Mater’s work has even inspired the creation of a private museum of Contemporary Saudi art in Holland, the Greenbox Museum in Amsterdam.


It is all a long way from the Al-Miftaha Artists’ Village in Abha, the capital city of the Aseer province in south-western Saudi Arabia, where Mater began his artistic career. It is even further from the tiny village of Rujal Al-Ma’a, hard against the craggy mountains of Yemen, where he was born and grew up. Even by the notoriously twisting paths many budding artists follow before they find their calling, Mater’s journey to painting is somewhat unusual.

True, he did grow up with a solid grounding in art, at least of the traditional tribal kind, thanks to a childhood spent watching and helping his mother paint the vibrantly coloured geometric pat- terns – considerably more reminiscent of Guatemala than Saudi Arabia – with which the Aseeris decorate their homes. But his arrival on the Contemporary art scene only happened af- ter years studying medicine at the King Khalid University in Abha. He quickly became enam- oured of medicine, completing his degree and continuing to work as a doctor today. Though he initially had little time for art, he says that after a couple of years, his medical studies both fed and fostered the need to paint again.

What is interesting about this is not so much that Mater’s medical background is visible in his work and choice of imagery – after all, Contem- porary painters from Bacon to Basquiat have all dipped their brushes at times in medicine. Rather, it is the way medicine both nourishes and inspires his creativity. “I found myself through helping people,” he explains. “Medicine gave me the cour- age I needed to really explore my art.”The return to painting began with anatomy lessons. “It was fantastic, it was the coming together of my work and my art. It completely changed how I saw medicine.” It also completely changed how he saw art. Understandably perhaps, Mater gravitated towards the X-Ray as a medium of artistic expression and began to pro- duce a series of collages that combined X-Rays of actual patients with Qur’anic texts, talismans and medical notations in flowing Arabic script. It is out of this ongoing experiment that his twin series X-Ray and Illumination have emerged.


Printed on archival paper, the two series are initially quite similar. X-Ray and Talisman X-Ray are usually torsos, shot in a variety of poses – from the side, from behind, full frontal – framed by blocks of medical text or healing talismans, or more simply, successions of letters engraved in Chinese ink and decorated with gold leaf geometries. Illumination, on the other hand, is more of a portrait. While partial torso shots are sometimes used, subjects here are more frequently captured in profile or frontal shots that begin at the midriff and encompass the skull. Like X-Ray and Talisman X-Ray, the paper is treated with a mixture of pomegranate juice, tea and alum powder that ages it while lending a luminous sheen to the surface. The X-Rays are presented surrounded by simple Ara- besque patterns or elaborate gold-leaf geometric borders of the kind found in medieval manuscripts.


The overall impression both series give is of being artefacts of an alternative timeline, a world in which X-Rays were invented in the 15th, not the 19th centuries, relics of an Islamic golden age that, who knows, might have flourished had Baghdad not fallen to Hulagu Khan’s hordes. Sometimes on their own, sometimes presented in a pair, two grinning skeletons facing one an- other across the page, Illumination is part manu- script, part family portrait – here a husband and wife, perhaps, there, the matriarch of the fam- ily. Intimate and intensely revealing, albeit in an ‘everyperson’ kind of way, Illumination prompts one to wonder if one day, the series will grow to include Grandma and Grandpa, a family group portrait, or maybe a series dedicated to the kids at five, the kids at 10, the kids graduating from college... For Mater, it is the universality of the X- Ray that appeals the most. “They are pictures of what we all look like inside,” he says, laughing in- fectiously. “There is no key, no identification, even I cannot recognise who it is, even less whether they are Chinese or Arab or European.”

What, I ask, did his patients make of the se- ries? After all, they were the ones being shown to the world. Mater laughs again. “Sometimes they come to my shows and look, maybe trying at first to see if they can recognise themselves. You know, everyone is interested to know what they look like inside,” he says. “The paintings work on a more emotional level, they make you think that if we all look alike inside, maybe we’re not so differ- ent outside.”


Albeit in a slightly different form, it is Mater’s core belief in the essential similarity of human exist- ence that drove him to create his installation piece Yellow Cow, which he first displayed at the 2007 Sharjah Biennial. Again, a work in progress, Yellow Cow is based on a Qur’anic story about Moses that Mater remembers from his childhood and consists of two parts. Firstly, a photographic and video installation of a cow Mater temporar- ily painted bright yellow, using saffron dye, and secondly, a series of T-shirts and dairy products – milk, cheese and yoghurt – presented as yel- low variations on the ubiquitous La Vache Qui Rit range of products. Emblazoned with the logo ‘ideological free products’, Yellow Cow explores the cultural juggernaut of contemporary con- sumerism and, perhaps more interestingly, the judgemental nature of the herd. As Mater’s pho- tographs reveal, the other cows immediately shun the bright new arrival, even though it is, in fact, one of their own, the simple and tempo- rary change in its colour apparently sufficient to earn the herd’s hostility. It is at once a despairing commentary on ignorance and prejudice and an ironic commentary on just how little it takes to set one apart from one’s herd.

Yellow Cow was one of the centrepieces of Mater’s recent (October 2010) solo exhibition at The Vinyl Factory Gallery in London, his first in the UK. It was joined there by over 40 other pieces, which collectively served to emphasise the breadth and ingenuity of Mater’s oeuvre. The assembled works of photography, painting, cal- ligraphy, installation and video all reinforced the self-evident notion that this is a man who is con- stantly reassessing his own territory and redefin- ing his artistic and intellectual boundaries. Par- ticularly striking is Evolution of Man, Mater’s eerily compelling take on the oil industry and what it has brought, and meant, for Saudi Arabia. A se- quence of X-rays depict a gunshot suicide mor- phing into a petrol pump. “I am a country man and, at the same time, the son of this strange, scary, oil civilisation,” he says; “In 10 years our lives changed completely. For me it is a drastic change that I experience every day.”

New works in the show included CCTV, a video installation compiled from closed circuit TV footage recorded at the hospital where Mater works. The video continues the dialogue he ini- tiated in earlier works about the ways in which faith, science and superstition manifest them- selves in everyday Saudi life, the boundaries be- tween them never fixed or necessarily distinct. Also shown for the first time in London was An- tenna, a neon tube installation inspired by the TV aerials that, for many Saudis living around the geographical periphery of the Kingdom, as Mater did when a boy, provided a source of vicarious communication with neighbouring countries and peoples. “It is a memory of my generation,” explains Mater, “a relic of a time when, through the TV aerials on our roofs, we were able to receive television programmes from Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain, depending on where we were. Those aerials allowed us to reach out and make contact with the outside world, to find another life and a different voice.”

The London show also marked the launch of the monograph Ahmed Mater, published by Booth-Clibborn Editions and with contributions from the British Museum’s Venetia Porter, Linda Komaroff of LACMA, Stephen Stapleton and Tim Mackintosh-Smith, among others, covering a va- riety of seminal works, including his Magnetism series. With book signings and appearances on discussion panels (at Zoom Art Fair in Miami last December, for example), one wonders where this might leave the doctoring side of Mater’s life. Time to put away the white coat? Not at all. Having attempted in the past, at different times, to give up both his art and his medical career, Mater has found that to continue, he needs both. “Medicine is not only a science,” he once said, “it is an art. I would call it the art of medicine, or the humanity of medicine. For me the two are fused.” It is this innate understanding that life is not‘either/or’but rather‘and/and’that underpins and makes Mater’s work so appealing.

In a world that often finds itself trapped between a rock and a hard place, ground between the Scylla and Charybdis of globalisa- tion and dogma, Mater’s ability to hold more than one seemingly unconnected idea in his mind at the same time and beyond that – to highlight not their difference but rather the un- expected or overlooked connections between them – is a timely reminder that what is im- portant in life is not the clash but the coming together. Or, as he once wrote about his own paintings: “[They are] about two humans in conversation. Us and Them. And how this en- counter creates light.”

August 11, 2010 | Canvas Magazine