Ahmed Mater for Sotheby's
When Saudi pioneer Mohammed Al-Saleem wrote in 1976 “the plastic arts in this part of the world, as in every other part, must derive their flavour and distinct characteristics from that culture,” he could not have foreseen the dramatic and tumultuous changes that would come to shape the generations that followed him. As is the case in other countries, the history of art in Saudi Arabia is a reflection of its wider social-political context. What makes this story distinctive is the degree to which the vying influence of religion and politics has so dramatically affected artistic output, both in its volume and its character, as the society contracts and expands with the breathing of the body politic.
In many ways, this is a story told in reverse. Where one might hope, even expect, to see a progressive enlightenment – an art scene that gathers strength moving from early pioneers to popular awareness, with a growing infrastructure to support education and production – it has instead been a non-linear journey, punctured and stalled, gathering pace in closed communities though often limited and isolated in society at large.
We also begin in the middle of this story: though the transformations in the second half of the century were major, we cannot forget that this was a kingdom already shaped by strident regional debates on identity-making – from pan-Arabism to nationalism and Islamism. It was also a relatively new country, a massive and sparsely populated geographic area yoked together in 1932 and then quickly intertwined economically and, in some crucial ways, socially with the United States – who had made their first oil discovery in 1938, just six years into the life of the newly established kingdom.
In 1960, OPEC was founded, granting a significant degree of financial autonomy to Saudi Arabia over their prospecting American counterparts – our current story begins here. From the oil boom until today, two currents can be observed influencing modern and contemporary artistic practice in the rentier state. These internal and external influences intersect, introducing great tension in the kingdom – between its wealth and relative interconnectedness with world geopolitics, and the conservative religious forces that have jostled within its borders and enhanced its isolation.
At this time, the kingdom was relatively open, enjoying the wealth of its oil boom it was engaged with the world. This openness was matched with a vibrant artistic productivity throughout the 1960s and 1970s, supported at the highest levels. For the kingdom’s leadership, education was of paramount importance – a central effort of the government, it shaped a whole generation of thinkers. From 1958, art was taught at every public school and was essential in the kingdom’s general education system. An acceptance and proliferation of art amongst students and teachers was supported through government ministries. Within that first year, an exhibition for students was held at the Ministry of Education in Riyadh, inaugurated by King Saud, and supported by his brother Fahd, the Minister of Education and Knowledge who would go on to rule the Kingdom from 1982 to 2005. This advocacy continued with another major student exhibition in 1959. Demonstrating the significance of these early educational seeds in shaping future generations, this time the exhibition’s main award went to a young Abdelhalim Radwi who would become a pioneer of modernist painting.
Throughout this time, generous scholarships from the government allowed a burgeoning creative class to study in cultural capitals: Jamil Mirza, Ahmed Saleh Sharaf, Ahmed Aldeshash and Mohamed Abdel Hamid Mohbeet went to Cairo; Abdelhalim Radwi and Abdul Rashid Sultan studied in Italy; women too were pursuing artistic study abroad – Safeya Binzagr and Mounirah Mosly in Cairo, Nabila Al Bassam in Lebanon. As they returned to the kingdom, they became part of an educational effort to engage the next generations of art students.
It was this busy atmosphere of at home support and international exchange that saw a flurry of exhibitions from the mid-60s onwards. Beginning with Abdelhalim Radwi in 1965, often attributed as Saudi Arabia’s first professional art exhibition, swiftly followed by further presentations by Abdulaziz Al-Hammad, Mohammed Al-Saleem, Safeya Binzagr, and Mounirah Mosly. Domestic educational initiatives also thrived, with the establishment of the Institute of Art Education in Riyadh in 1965, focused on teacher training and the development of consistent resources and a standardized curriculum. Spearheaded by Professor Ahmed Aldashash and Jamil Mirza, the group of artists engaged in the process included Saudis Ahmed Saleh Sharaf, Dr. Abdelhalim Radwi, Abdul Rashid Sultan and A. Abdul Rahman Damanhuri, as well as other Arab artists and professors such as Saad al-Kaabi from Iraq, Muhammad Shehata Hameed from Egypt and Ahmed Adam from Sudan. The group exemplified the fruitful cross-country exchange that influenced Saudi Arabia’s nascent artistic scene.
This productive era marked a moment of emergence for a first generation of artists. Scattered though they were pursuing higher education abroad, they shared a commitment to arts education for the next generation, as well as a pioneering commitment to present their own work despite limited spaces to do so. An impetus to host more group exhibitions followed and throughout the 1970s there were a series of efforts by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Labor to establish centers at the post-secondary level, where professional exhibitions and exchange might take place.
It wasn’t until the end of the 1970s that these efforts would coalesce into the beginnings of a sustainable, independent infrastructure for artists. Yet, the geopolitical context strained such efforts: while the arts gathered strength, Saudi experienced the most unstable social and political domestic period since its founding, including, in 1975, the assassination of King Faisal – just nine years after he had deposed his brother King Saud. It was 1979, the same year that Mohammed Al-Saleem founded Dar Al Funoon Al Sa’udiyyah (The Saudi Art House), that the course of history would once again shift irrevocably. As revolution seized Iran, shocking the world and rocking the region, Saudi Arabia had its own insurgency to contend with; from 20 November – 4 December, Islamist militants, led by Juhayman al-Otaybi, took the Grand Mosque hostage.
The terrorists’ reasons were various, yet, amid the contrivances of their deluded leader, there was a strident rejection of Saudi society’s increasing Westernization. This prompted a major crisis for the kingdom’s rulers, resulting in an increased alignment between the twin powers of state and religion, between the conservative clerics and the Al-Saud family.
From the traumatic events of late 1979, there was a sharp shift in policy that in turn affected the status of art and culture, impacting the right to creative freedom itself. Saudi Arabia was transformed: cinemas closed, music was banned – in brief, the conservatism synonymous with the kingdom descended.
The shockwaves of 1979 changed life for a generation; those who lived through the 1980s experienced a time of deep and uncompromising social and religious conservatism. No longer was art and culture feted as mainstays of social progress, instead regarded with utmost suspicion. Stripped out of national curriculums,
its role was predominantly limited to the functional nationalistic and militaristic agendas that were dominating Saudi’s place in global geopolitics, where it could not inflame the suspicions of the re-invigorated religious conservatives.
The shifts towards conservatism were not limited to Saudi Arabia, nor were they received with concern by international communities. Modernizing efforts of the 1970s were being stridently checked across the region, not least in Afghanistan where a 1978 coup had installed a deeply unpopular communist government. Backed by the Soviet Union, the government was violently opposed by insurgent groups known collectively as mujahideen – guerilla fighters supported by a loose coalition that included Saudi Arabia and the United States. This cold war proxy had major international backing, and saw a huge influx of investment to train militants – a fight that held significant sway over the Saudi consciousness. Artistic production of this period was curtailed, a whole generation denied the cultural education that nurtured the creativity of the early pioneers. With limited support from the government and no spaces where creativity could exist, it was only those who worked underground or studied abroad that would continue to produce art, such as Mohammed Al Ghamdi who lived in the US during the early 1980s, where he received a diploma in Aviation Engineering in 1982.
The conflict raged throughout the 1980s, the international support afforded the Islamist fighters bolstering the nationalistic and religious agenda within Saudi’s own borders. The dire consequences of the conflict are well known: the very fighters the US armed became enemy no. 1 in the years to follow. In the decades after the Soviet-Afghan conflict, these mujahideen would wield brute force, but their battle would predominantly be waged over minds, not territory.
Though the Soviet-Afghan conflict drew to a close by the end of the decade, the early 1990s and beyond were also shaped by the aftershocks of regional military activity, with the first Gulf War began in the summer of 1990 after Iraq marched into Kuwait. Operation Desert Storm began on January 17, 1991, and though the ground war that ended weeks of bombing lasted just 100 hours, it came to epitomize a new kind of warfare – all television mediated action, a conflict of symbols and propaganda as much as it was a fight of boots on the ground. From January–March 1991, French sociologist Jean Baudrillard wrote in a series of short essays for The Guardian and La Libération that “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place” – this was not denialism, but instead a comment on the event’s unprecedented coverage, a feat of image-saturated propaganda that, he argued, carefully constructed the appearance of a war to justify the intense violence of the bombardment.
Throughout this period, the creative restrictions imposed on those within the kingdom, along with the highly mediated geopolitical narratives that informed their reality, shaped a restless sense of identity – as seen in the work of artists like Ayman Yossri Daydban. This was later exacerbated by the intense scrutiny of Islam and the region that would follow the events of 2001, when identities were further fractured through the constructs of Western media.
Within Saudi Arabia, the shifting sands of that tumultuous decade lacked sufficient cultural output to contend with or document the lived experience. As such, there was a great sense of history as told beyond the borders, by those who were not living it. Returning to the productive time just before this unpredictable period, to Mohammed Al-Saleem. Writing in 1976, it is almost as if he foresaw these changing circumstances, perhaps even the accusations of limited cultural output that would be leveled at later generations: “many may be misled on the subject of culture, describing it as backward, or falling behind the parade of civilizational progress. That is wrong, for culture, by its very nature, is continually evolving as long as there is a natural continuation of life.” The absence of production belies the significance of the period for the artists who would emerge afterward. It was a time of percolation that would coalesce in the more strident, probing expressions of media and internet-influenced groups, such as Shatta and Edge of Arabia, whose members lived through the period. Though they did not remember a life before the intense religious conservatism that dominated after 1979, they led the creative resurgence of the early 2000s, demonstrating that, despite the limits of curtailed education and output, cultural thinking had – as Al-Saleem foresaw – continued to evolve.
Al-Saleem, Mohammad. “A Word for the Sake of Art.” Modern Art in the Arab World, Primary Documents, ed. Lenssen, Rogers, Shabout, Museum of Modern Art, 2018, New York.
Elgibreen, Eiman. “Art Starts at Home: The Saudi Artists’ Dream.” That Feverish Leap Into the Fierceness of Life, ed. Sam Bardaouil & Till Fellrath, Art Dubai, 2018, Dubai.