© 2016 Copyright | Ahmed Mater | All Rights Reserved
2012 was an important year for me and for many artists in Saudi Arabia. We decided to come back to the original movement of contemporary art which began in my home town of Abha over 10 years ago, and to return again to the source and foundation for our inspiration – namely our role in this society. In instinctively doing this, we were unconsciously reacting against the pressures of the growing Middle Eastern art market, with its desires to develop the art scene for commercial reasons, treating our practices as a means to a resulting commodity, our visual languages and aesthetics being transformed into identifiable and inflexible brands’, Ahmed Mater, December 2012
Immediately upon my arrival in the smallish town of Abha, the celebrated Saudi artist Ahmed Mater or the ‘doctor-artist’ as he is usually called there, is keen to explain that the provocative words he published in January 2013, on the pages of the magazine Art Asia Pacific , are important in order for me to understand the current feeling among fellow Saudi artists. Mater, who has become a spokesperson for the young Saudi art scene, studied medicine and surgery at Abha’s King Khalid University while taking art courses during a residency-program at the legendary, local Al Meftaha Arts Village. The artist and doctor Ahmed Mater, who is making a living as a medical practitioner at the army hospital in Abha, not only cares for his own art, he also cares for the work of his collegues and the future of contemporary art in the Kingdom.
Mater doesn’t want to hide that his open letter was also meant to redefine the role of the influential art-organisation ‘Edge of Arabia’, which he co-founded with another celebrated alumnus of Al Meftaha Abdulnasser Gharem, a lieutenant-colonel in the Saudi army, and British artist and curator Stephen Stapleton after they first met in Abha in 2003. Especially after the first presentation of contemporary Saudi art through ‘Edge of Arabia’ in London in 2008, young Saudi artists started to hit the international scene. Yet, in Ahmed Mater’s view, ‘Edge of Arabia’ has already become too codified by the international art-system to still function as a tool for local change.
‘This year has seen new underground groups emerge, share ideas and experiment without any expectation pleasing the market, the government, the media or the brands dominating the contemporary art world’, wrote Ahmed Mater in his text for Art Asia Pacific, entitled ‘Young soul rebels’, which reads as a manifesto.
Why did Stapleton and Mater call their initiative ‘Edge of Arabia’? Mater: ‘The edge of Arabia, the region at the far west of the Arabian peninsula, from Sanaa in Yemen, towards the Saudi town of Abha, and the sprawling cities of Jeddah , Mecca, Medina and Tabuk, was once the cultural centre of the Arabian peninsula . Now this region has become a footnote. Because of the oil, the desert became the edge or the centre. We want to re- invent the old edge again. We want to bring back culture, that is creating a centre of and for contemporary Arabian culture. ’
Already as early as 2006 Mater’s own art was being shown and collected in major museums around the world, the British Museum in London to begin with. But Ahmed Mater wanted to achieve more. Mater began initiating various independent exhibitions, creating different artist initiatives, mentoring younger peers, advocating contemporary art with local business and political leaders, and sharing ideas and images not only with influential, international art professionals but with local audiences as well. Recently Mater began email-exchanges with Chinese provocateur Ai Wei Wei, who is popular in liberal Saudi art-circles. One can easily imagine why.
Ahmed Mater: ‘As Saudi artists, we seek to find a system and platform relevant to our local context, we seek to preserve and nurture our communal voice. Because we know that only through a solid, paced and strong movement can we make our way upstream, against the current of society and its potential to materialism. We are full of nervous optimism about the potential of this real movement. We believe that art galleries, institutions, organisations, ministries, patrons, local and social media can support each other to instigate and develop a movement that will become part of the change needed in this society’.
Abha, a cultural centre
It is the beginning of an intense 2 day-visit, which will take me from the artist’s studio cum living-quarters, which he shares with his artist wife Arwa Yahya Al Neami, on the lower floor of a modernized, simple apartment-block in a middle class neighbourhood, nearby Abha’s airport and Mater’s daily job at the army hospital, to his ancestral village Rijal Alma or ‘Smart Village’ in the mountainous, spectacularly beautifull Aseer region surrounding Abha. Abha had always been an important cultural center, at the cross roads between continents and different world-cultures. But the ancient cultural melting pot of Abha was, like the cultural renaissance of Saudi Arabia as a whole, undone by the rolling back of the liberalisation in the 1970’s. And in recent years things became even worse due to the aggravating tensions in the Aseer region and the rest of Saudi Arabia between conservatives and liberals, the overwhelming number of migrant workers - recently thousands of Yemeni workers were expelled from Saudi Arabia after the kingdom issued new laws to tackle its own employment crisis - and not in the least the many internal and external religious rivalries.
Ahmed Mater and Arwa Yahya Al Neami live next door to a religious police station with the looks of a small fortress. “There is an Arabian saying,” jokes Mater ” which says ‘If you want to do something wrong be near a religious police station, they will not see you because they are short sighted’”. In any case the religious police does react immediately when they smell the Shisha, which is officially forbidden in prude Abha. And on last March 14, upon the public execution, under Sharia –law, of 7 young criminals in the centre of Abha , even Mater didn’t dare to go out and record on camera what Amnesty International has since called ‘an act of sheer brutality’. Mater and his artists friends however record and show in their art many other ‘facts and fictions’ related to the enormous social and religious difficulties and complexities of the Kingdom.
In a country with no public cinemas and where only a few films have been shown to the public in recent decades, it is a radical step. In Abha, a handful of anonymous filmmakers, under the name Red Wax, have launched last autumn a secret cinema group, showing short, amateurish films that explore social and political issues such as women’s rights, the live of migrant works, urbanisation and the belief in black magic. Dozens of young people attended the first screening of the Red Wax group, about which David Batty in the Guardian reported in October 2012, under the heading “Secret cinema gently subverts Saudi Arabia’s puritanism”. Saudi people love cinema, so they sit hours in front of satellite tv, see thousands of films on pirate DVD’s , download BitTorrent, file share, drive to Bahrain or fly to Dubai to watch a movie. When I ask Ahmed Mater which kind of films he is interested in, he immediately mentions the Chinese documentary `Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks’ by Wang Bing of 2003, a 9hour epos about the devastating effect of the new China on human beings. Besides, he buys up archives of films, such as instruction-films left by the Americans when the Arab American Oil Company or Aramco was nationalized in 1973 during the oil boycott against the USA and other western countries that had supported Israel in the Yom Kippur war. As a result the revenue of the Kingdom increased dramatically.
In the ‘new’ Abha, there is equally interesting ’stuff’ to make documentaries about, for instance two years ago when hundreds of students took to the street to protest against the treatment of female students at the local King Khalid university. Although women comprise 58% of Saudi’s college students, only 14% of its work-force are females. Mater: “But things seem to get even worse , since recently the Saudi government counts less and less women amongst its population. One wonders where they all went. Maybe to Dubai?” Mater therefore admires the work of ‘feminist’ Saudi artists such as the equally internationally acclaimed Manal Al Dowayan, who recently presented in Cuadro Fine Art Gallery in Dubai the work “ The State of Disappearance”. A major part of this work consists of clippings from various Saudi newspapers, covering very different topics yet all illustrated by exactly the same stock-photograph of an identical group of ‘politely’ veiled Saudi women. Mater: “Activists cannot be artists, but an artist can be an activist.”
Not only social mobility is hard to achieve for Saudi-women, also mobility in essence is a major stumbling block as it is forbidden for women to ‘drive’ cars. At least the ban on women riding bikes has been lifted, as long as women cycle for ‘entertainment only’, not transportation. The move was announced recently by the ‘Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’ or ‘Hai’a’. Also Mater’s wife Arwa creates works which are commenting on the situation and representation of women in Saudi’s official and religious society. In the work ‘Ya Tayba’ - Tayba another name for the holy city of Medina - Al Neami filmed tacky, automated children’s dolls, made in China, depicting westernized young females, yet customized for the Saudi market through added reciting of looped verses inciting listeners to visit Tayba in celebration of the Quran. Camp and critique at the same time. 2011 was a landmark year for artist-women as the government of Saudi Arabia commissioned the sisters Shadia Alem and Raja Alem to represent the country in its first ever pavillon at the Venice Bienniale. In 2013 there will be no such presentation, ‘ things got too complicated for the government’, I was told by an insider.
The smart village
In the village Rijal Alma, in which ‘heritage center’ instruments, once used to ‘punish’ socalled vice- offenders, are called ‘social politeness tools’, everybody seems to know Ahmed Mater. After all, Mater’s own grandfather Ahmed Mohammed Al-Ziad was not only a famous doctor, but a legendary shaman as well. Mater’s mother painted vividly coloured geometric designs in the traditional Aseeri –style and his father was a retired army-man turned farmer. “As an artist to me the village is as important as the city”, remarks Mater. The photographs of desolated desert zones and habitats , full of rusted industrial infrastructure and tools, of Mater’s acclaimed series ‘The Empty Land & Seventh Sister’ are proof of his love for the land of Saudi: “ In the drive for development and progress in Arabia, more people than ever are moving to the new cities, leaving behind a scarred and empty land. In this migration it is not just the material things like cars and generators and buildings that are abandoned…it is also traditional values and connection to the land’. Therefore the artist Mater doesn’t mind at all being called ‘doctor-artist’ “Everyday as a doctor I meet a person with different needs, and the same need is often addressed completely differently. That is what medical care links up with my art”.
The elders of his ancestral village are proud of this younger ‘Son of Aseer’ , who has started to make a reputation in the Kingdom first and foremost through the British Museum in London. His inclusion in the London- exhibition ‘Hajj – journey to the heart of Islam ’in 2012, with the kinetic sculpture ‘Magnetism’, first conceived in 2006 – a magnetic black cube draws iron filings into hajj-like patterns of devotion on a sheet of white paper - gave Mater a privileged access to the ruling classes in the capital Riyadh and the holy city of Mecca. “Only the British Museum opened for me the door to Saudi Arabia”, states Mater humourously. ‘Son of Aseer’ that is how Mater and his artist-wife together with their closest artist-friends, photographer Abdelkarim Qassem and poet Ashraf Fayadh, have decided to call their future art space downtown Abha, which is still under construction. The space is being financed , partially through the sales of Mater’s works - which now sell for thousands of dollars on the international art market and at international auctions- and not in the least through the day-to-day jobs of the artist-founders.
Mater is not the only Saudi artist with an ‘odd’ job. Qassem also works for the Saudi army, designing signage and drawing maps. The army is in this poor region of Saudi the only stable employer. Unrest in and around neighbouring Yemen have caused lots of military activity in the recent past. Mater shows me his recordings of Saudi army -helicopters firing at local insurgents, Houthi rebels at the border with Yemen. And the south-western part of Arabia has been and is still famous for its young fighters or ‘jihadis’, who the Kingdom once recruited by the thousands to fight the communists in Afghanistan. As an army doctor, Ahmed Mater is conscious and outspoken about the legacy of these problems which continues to cause burdens and worries in Saudi Arabia with liberals and conservatives alike. But Mater is not the only one worried. All who i have spoken to, even in art circles, are convinced that if the masses, led by religious social groups, take to the streets, as in other regions and cities of the Middle East, the whole of the Arabian peninsula will be up for destruction. Mater: ‘One needs to find a balance between stability and change. In the last 20 years so much has changed so fast in my country, and I don’t think we as a society have taken the time to reflect on this change”. One of Mater’s poetical-political works illustrating remarkably well this subject, is a video installation entitled ‘CCTV’ from 2010: ‘ Aseer Central Hospital, like so many new institutions in Saudi Arabia, has been built and developed based on models from the west. As doctors, we navigate the space, the signage and even the language of medicine that we practice based on European models and attitudes. But through CCTV footage I discovered random local interventions and a kind of resistance against the imported model. CCTV is a metaphor for a possible reinvention of these institutions based on local cultural and religious sensibilities”.
Jeddah, mostly visible
After Abha, we set out on a 8-hour car drive towards Jeddah, where Mater and his Abha artists-friends have conceived the exhibition ‘Mostly Visible’, to coincide with the privately organized Jeddah Art Week. They present, curated by Palestinian artist Ashraf Fayadh, the work of 24 young Saudi artists, 15 men and 9 women. Many of them show their work in public for the first time. There is, just as elsewhere in the emerging art world, lots of photography and mixed media around socio-political and gender subjects. The works are remarkably crude and personal. The video-screens showing the shrieking dolls of Arwa Yahya Al Neami are also on view. The exhibition is to create a critical alternative for the Sotheby’s Exhibition of Contemporary art, a promotional or sales-exhibition with on offer mostly decorative, blue chip Middle Eastern artists at exaggerated prices. Sotheby’s seemed not to have liked the presence of the radical art works of the young neighbours disturbing its ‘commerce’ and did demand separate entrances for each exhibition.
In difference of Lebanon or the Gulf, most contemporary Saudi artists belong to the lower middle classes, they are self taught or at best enjoyed, like Mater did, short art courses by traditional, local artists- only very rich Saudi youngsters are able to attend art or other schools abroad. Mater got to know, mainly via the internet, international art and artists and discovered Ernst Gombrich’s ‘Art and Illusion’ while working after hours in his studio in the Al-Meftaha Arts Village, an initiative founded by art lover Prince Khalid Al-Faisal, the current governor of Mecca. His close friend, Prince Charles of Wales took up house for a few weeks in the studio next to Mater’s, executing water-colours of the surrounding landscape. A more colourfull art education one cannot dream up. Yet it was especially the combination of subjectivity and objectivity or art and science – as prescribed by Gombrich - which fascinated Mater and which is still at the core of his art.
Just as with ater, the majority of Saudi artists learn about art via the internet and make their art after work. Yet they want to be considered serious and professional artists. It is this ‘bottom-up’ phenomenon which makes the Saudi art scene real and interesting, much in difference with the ‘bottom -down’ approach of other artistic scenes of the Middle East. In Saudi art circles one likes to quote the young Sheikha Mayassa , a royal of Qatar and the most powerfull art buyer of the Middle east, who was heard saying once: “We know where future artists will be coming from. They cannot come from a mere 200.000 Qatari (Qatar has a population of 1.9 million of which 80% are non-Qataris -red). Because of social challenges, diversity and history they will come from 30 million Saudis”. Did she really say this? However it might be, just like other international power-collectors, the Sheikha recently started to buy Mater’s work.
I ask Mater and his collegues, if what they are doing should be considered ‘conceptual art’? : “’Naqd’ is Arabic for ‘critique’ and quite a normal word here these days, both conservatives and liberals like to use it. Yet we don’t make conceptual art, nor do we believe in any particular style. We are a critical, social movement. ” I can now understand better why Ai Wei Wei is suddenly such an important artist here, he is as critic David Joselit describes in his recent book ‘After Art ‘- and just like Mater! - a networker, sharing ownership of ideas and images with many others, who believes in image power – the capacity to format complex and multivalent links through visual means - through a wide variety of media, not in the least social media. But Mater is realistic enough when he comments:” To tell you the truth, I don’t like all from Ai Wei Wei. For one, I don’t want to be a star nor a martyr. We have to choose the right moment to change things here. I do believe in change, but it is rather making change than speaking about change which drives me. What we need is a ‘smart’ change.”
Mater takes me to the gallery Athr which started to represent his work only recently . Athr, founded in 2009 by Hamza Serafi and Mohammed Hafiz, is much more than just a commercial gallery, it offers also a large studio and exhibition space for very young artists, organizes various workshops and lectures and publishes excellent books about their artists. After the Arab Springs in Tunisia and Egypt , Athr published a catalogue in the form of a newspaper called ‘The Bravery of Being out of Range’. Furthermore, Athr funded Mater’s participation in the first Kochi-biennial, on the other side of the Arabian peninsula, in Kerala, south India, and financed the exhibition ‘Mostly Visible’ during the privately organized Jeddah Art Week. In Jeddah as in the rest of Saudi Arabia, there are no art magazines, no specialized art schools, no public funding for the arts, and barely a local market for contemporary art. Yet! According to Mohammed Hafiz ‘ The Saudi collector base is building, but we are still a long way from where we should be. We still sell most works to non-Saudi collectors’.
If it is up to the young, Prince Faisal Bin Salman – a much respected, Oxford-educated, collector of modern Arab art , who is chairing a leading Saudi newspaper which does cover contemporary art regularly , and who only a few months ago became governor of Medina, things should and could change quite a bit. But the Kingdom has its own pace, so I am told over and over again. Prince Faisal met Ahmed Mater at the British Museum upon the opening of the ‘Hajj’-exhibition. Since then they became friends, even if they didn’t speak to each other for a few weeks after Mater’s interview in the Guardian in January 2012 criticizing the Saudi government for being far… too slow and not at the height of the matter. Under the head “ Contemporary Saudi artists break down old ‘safety’ barriers”, David Batty quoted Ahmed Mater saying: “Like when we go to biennales or exhibitions outside (Saudi Arabia-red) they say, ‘We have problems with choosing …because the ministry didn’t give the artwork that fits’. It’s more the artwork which compliments (the regime-red)”
Prince Faisal invites Ahmed Mater and me to come and see him in a governmental palace at the outskirts of Jeddah. He apologizes for the pomp and glitter of the surroundings. Prince Faisal is a supporter of Ahmed Mater’s art and is much interested in the outcome of Mater’s long term project, about the expansion of Mecca a work-in progress which ought to be finished by 2015. Mater respects the Prince for his efforts to save historical monuments in and around the other holy city, Medina and his plans to create a platform for modern and contemporary expressions celebrating Islam in the same city. Prince Sultan Bin Salman, the Saudi minister for tourism, brother of Prince Faisal, is equally interested in the protection of art and heritage, including the highly necessary reconstruction of the astonishingly beautifull old city of Jeddah, which also Ahmed Mater is a great admirer of. Together with the planned Saudi King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture in Dhahran in the Eastern part of the country, run by Saudi Aramco, the stated owned oil-company, for which Mater got invited along with several foreign artists to propose a public sculpture, things seem to move - at least a bit - in the Kingdom even on a more official level.
A new look for Mecca
It was Prince Khalid Al Faisal – his old ally of Abha - who gave Ahmed Mater permission to take up residency in the heart of Mecca to document and comment upon the changes going on. ‘My approach is shaped by my background as a community doctor and my recent relocation to the city, where I intend to reside for the next three years. I am researching and documenting contemporary Mecca through shared experiences, both physical and spiritual; and through different perspectives: of youth, pilgrims, workers, officials and businessmen…The Arabic word for community is ‘ummah’ which has become synonymous with the growing community of Muslims around the world all of whom are obliged to visit Mecca at least once in their life. Every resident and visitor to Mecca has a strong emotional attachment to that place; as a result of the recent violent changes, you can see…a new memory of Mecca dominated by a more technologically advanced, materialist and consumer driven understanding of urban space’.
Ahmed Mater’s excursions into Mecca are countless, his production of images limitless, his negotiations are manifold and his research is thorough. He even got hold - kept so far under secret by the City Council of Mecca - of the design-proposals by international star-architects such as Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster for the multi-billion development plan to increase the capacity of the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, the holiest Islamic site which houses the Kaaba to which all Muslims face when praying. The ambitious architectural competition which was announced in 2008, was ‘buried’ in 2010 by the City Council. Since then nobody speaks about ‘ visionary architecture’ anymore. Instead, the Saudi mega-corporation Binladin Group (Osama Bin Laden’s family business) has won the tender for the expansion project. The company is employing once more German architect Bodo Rasch - ‘ the Norman Foster of the Orient’ - to make things look like… architecture, that is: a highly commercial version of ‘grand’ architecture with high tech features such as a spectacular ‘son et lumiere’ .
The Binladin Group was also responsible for one of the tallest buildings of the world, the Abraj Al Bait towers - with a pastiche of London’s Big Ben, called the Royal Mecca Clock Tower, surrounded by luxury high rises in equally crude Las Vegas-style, across the street from the Almasjid Alharam, built after demolishing the 18th century Ottoman fortress. What one does speak about in Saudi heritage circles or on numerous blogs, are the continuous, seemingly unstoppable demolitions of historical sections and monuments, including mosques and other ancient holy sites, neighbouring the Masjid al-Haram . A young Saudi product-designer, educated in Denver, Colorado, told me that the new, double ‘Crescent Moon’ above the Clock Tower, reminded some of cow horns or even devil horns. The holy cow or the devil of turbo-capitalism? Recently even the dazzingly beautifull Ottoman arcades were torn down. Riyadh’s disdain for historic Islamitic sites is well known, due to the Kingsdom’s association with Wahhabism, which is an interpretation of Islam hostile to any such reverence for fear that it may give rise to ’shirk’ or idolatry. In 2010, the New York Times quoted a Saudi decision-maker: ‘ When I am in Mecca and go around the Kaaba, I don’t look up’ . What’s behind the mega development is, of course, ‘geo-politics’ and ‘finance’ packaged as religious tourism. Hotels in Mecca have a capacity of 1.4 million pilgrims a month, but one expects in the years to come up to 5 million prilgrims to attend the 3 holiest, last days of the Ramadam alone. In order to receive the ever growing numbers who make the pilgrimage to Mecca, even the Haram or the Grand Mosque will be expanded soon and made 5 times as big.
Ahmed Mater’s documents through video and photography all those, as he says, ‘violent changes’ and he comments on them on his blog www.artificiallight.com. Soon, he will be photographing the window-displays of Paris Hilton’s clothing and accessoires-chain in the Hilton hotel near the Almasjid al-Haram. In the meantime he had to strike a deal with the hotel management of the even more luxurious Fairmont hotel so he could photograph the action around the Kabaa from one of its gigantic ‘rooms with a view’. The rooms with the best view cost up to 3000,- dollar per night, which only the very rich can pay. But wasn’t the Hajj supposed to be a time when everyone is the same? Ahmed Mater showed these and other photographs at the latest Sharjah Biennial. And after Sharjah it looks like many more art venues, from Beirut to Vienna, want to invite Mater’s to show his visual documentation of the ‘new look for Mecca’.
The photographs are huge colour-prints full of details, printed in a specialized photo-lab in Dusseldorf, Germany where Andreas Gursky has his work made. But Mater’s knowledge of photography is much broader than the socalled ‘Dusseldorf school’. He likes to refers to the early photographs of of Abd al Ghaffer, the ‘Meccan doctor’, and Dutch Christiaan Snouck Hugronje, who first photographed Mecca in 1884. Further inspiration, he easily admits, came from ‘Almanakh 2’, published in 2010 by Rem Koolhaas’s architectural and urban think tank ‘AMO’, who was one of the first ‘westerners’ to thoroughly analyze the radical changes in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, taking the enormous challenges in the region extremely seriously without patronizing or cynicism: subjective and objective at the same time, just like Mater wants his art to be.
But is the approach of the ‘artist-doctor’ sufficiently critical to be effective? Ahmed Mater’s response is ambiguous, yet open enough to make one curious about the rest of his project and thus what’s going to follow : ‘Somewhere and somehow, someone in the Kingdom wants this kind of critique to happen. However I don’t want to be in the position to benefit from my critique. I am a grass root artist and therefore part of the eco-system. And I am a doctor, thus I treat everybody”.
Chris Dercon, April 2013
The Saudi art Guide,
covers art events around Saudi and follows Saudi artists around the world.
Robert Kluyver & Arie Amaya Akkermans, Contemporary Art in the Gulf, self published, 2013, a thorough analysis of geo-politics and contemporary art in the region, including Saudi Arabia.
Chris Dercon first got acquainted with Saudi Arabia in the beginning of the 1980’s through his father’s professional activities in the field of engineering and urbanism. The research in the Middle East of AMO and Rem Koolhaas, which began 10 years ago, raised further his interest. In 2011 Dercon gave a lecture about the future of art institutions at the Global Competitiveness Forum in Riyadh and visited Saudi Arabia with German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans and others, through Edge of Arabia, when he got to know Ahmed Mater in Jeddah. On behalf of the Goethe Institut in Cairo, Dercon travelled again to Saudi in March 2013.
Dercon worked extensively in and on the Levant and the Middle East through the program MedUrbsVie of the European Community in Brussels, and in exhibitions at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam and the Haus der Kunst in Munich, supported by a.o. Goethe Institut. At Tate Modern in London, of which Dercon is director since 2011, art and artists from the Middle East carry, in both programs and collections, a lot of weight.
Dercon published about art and politics, a.o. for the Belgian newspaper De Standaard and the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung. He worked on tv-programs around the same theme for Belgian Radio and Television and Dutch broadcast VPRO, a.o. with French photographer Gilles Peress.