A Manifesto for Saudi Art

Originally Published in Art Asia Pacfic

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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.

In an actual movement towards a new understanding, the artist positions him or herself so as not to be bent backwards by the current. They lead their slow, deliberate and knowing movement against a current from a strong standpoint born of an understanding of the relevance of this action to their local context. This year has seen new underground groups emerge, share ideas and experiment without any expectation of pleasing the market, the government, the media or the brands dominating the contemporary art world. The current and core art scene in Saudi Arabia is an arena in which to communicate a way of experiencing life which has few other outlets in other parts of our society. Important exhibitions such as We Need to Talk (Jeddah, January 2012) #COMETOGETHER (London, October 2012), local galleries such as Athr and Alaan and artist’s organizations such as Telfaz11, U-turn, C3, Ibn Aseer, Tsami, Red Wax work towards representing these threads of a growing tapestry, of a platform that has a necessity to it in Saudi Arabia that does not exist in other parts of the world.

International exposure, interest and fascination in Saudi contemporary art has led to imported and commercially orientated systems that have started to dissolve and weaken the power of the people’s voice, the artist’s voice. This channel of expression is then no longer born of need, made with no audience in mind, it becomes self-conscious. Whilst we do not want to work to the same rules of exclusion that our government and society enforces on many facets of life in Saudi Arabia, by excluding new or appropriated foreign systems – we also recognise the risk to this burgeoning discourse. This conversation is a very delicate but instrumental move towards a new future, whose potential lies in the purity and honesty of the movement as it exists now. A potential and future only possible without the competitive, commodity-led misconceptions and misrepresentations inevitable as a result of importing mannerisms and habits of an art scene not yet our own, one that we are not entirely acclimatized to. Just as our artists have reached out to the world more courageously than any other Saudi Arabian entity, just as we are the voice of Arabia, so too does the art scene reach in – and the cohesion of the communication, of that understanding needs more time in order for the process not to corrupt the seeds and catalysts for this mutual interest and curiosity. Whilst we don’t yet have an answer, we are working on the question to find solutions and to ensure our existence and presence on a global level, without corrupting or diluting the messages of our practices – actions and behaviours that are imperative to change in our society. 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.

We are aware and respectful of the constellation of entities and individuals that create art, that experience it, and that build and maintain the arts infrastructure in this country. This includes individuals, the public and private sector institutions, commercial and non-profit organisations that provide support and venues for artists, the artists themselves who interpret the world around them and create works of art, and the general public participating and supporting the arts movement.

As in any network, the various players are connected to and influence one another, and their vitality impacts the system's overall health. The infrastructure of the art world is impacted by factors such as changing demographics, migration, advances in technology, and the national economy, but beyond these important elements, it cannot exist without a nexus, and that core is charged and driven by the spirit of a movement, by the artist’s voice, by the genuine force that points towards positive change.

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