Interview with the curators of the ADACH platform at the 53rd Venice Biennale
Transcription from the film
Ahmed Mater, “My name is Ahmed Mater. I’m an artist from Saudi Arabia. I come from a rural region, in the south of Arabia. As I said, it’s in the south. It’s a beautiful region. It’s close to Yemen, and the Yemeni cultures. I work as a doctor in a hospital. I’m from the countryside. I learnt medicine and I became a doctor. I recently devoted myself to learning fine art. I grew up in an old house; in a traditional Assir house. Our parents used to paint calligraphy. My mother used to work with colours; that’s when I discovered art. I began reading and researching on art. I went to Al Muftah village for fine arts. They organised workshops and I learnt art over there. Then I took a more modern direction. Society influenced me very much: the nature of conservative society and rural life, the description of the way our life ought to be, or how to preserve our culture, our heritage, our religion, our knowledge. On one hand there was my attachment to scientific research. So the old and traditional beliefs collapsed. I denied my existing values; I went through an internal turmoil, but I still learnt from what had been imposed on me, and from old traditional teachings, whether it was religious, cultural, social or political…
“I assimilated all these ideas, then I tried to destroy them. From this turmoil, I experienced a big dilemma that gave birth to many experiments in my art, my rejection, my obedience, my religion…of everything that surrounds me. All this influenced what I call “the change”.”
“My experience in fine arts is based on a project that interests me. My artistic experience was influenced by 3 main axes. First, the huge gap between life in a village and life in a city. The extinction of basic human relations. And the era of consumerism. In one of my experiments, I thought about my life and my education at the mosque, where each day I read the Quran. I would go home and go to bed early. Get up early and see my parents working at the farm, then go back to the Quran Study Circle; these were the stories of my daily life. Those were my main references that formed my philosophical point of view, or should I say, my way of life.
I’ve started working on projects. One of the projects I worked on is a story from the Quran, Surat Al-Baqarah (The Cow). I worked on the project of the yellow cow. I imagined the story, I remember it, it encouraged me to work on this project. I went to the farm and I remembered my mother taking the cows grazing. I saw a white cow, I felt like living the experience of the yellow cow which had influenced me so much. So I took some saffron, with a bright yellow colour, just like it was quoted in the story. So I prepared the powder with water, I took a sponge, and I started colouring the cow. I turned it from white to yellow. I started imagining living in that illusion of that yellow cow; the very existence of that yellow cow was important in my life. I spent some time observing this yellow cow as quoted in the Quran, unique, with such a bright colour, that it pleases anyone who sees it; there’s nothing like it.
Then I decided to make mass production and line extension. As if I wanted to destroy this ideal the remains of the story of this yellow cow, hatred, despise and discussions. I was influenced by these ideas of reproduction and mass production. I took this idea and I wondered how I could produce: Should I kill it? Should I produce meat? But I waited a bit and I thought: I should make products. I thought about making yogurt, butter and cheese; I did everything I could do with this cow. I created a brand. Just like this, as you can see: I made the design of a nice cow. Easy to market and I called it the Yellow Cow. Made of 100% pure milk. Then I added all sorts of marketing signs and components to it. As if I wanted to market a unique, rare, and quantitative product that was going to flood the market, enter each house, each street, each human being, each garbage; everything. So I thought about the cheese and I liked it. I designed a quality label, three-dimensional. I don’t know why I did this big thing, but I have this enormous energy to do it and to talk about it. I produced butter. I produced everything. The yellow cow in itself is disturbing visually if you have a cultural heritage. If you’ve ever read the Quran or the Bible, or the Torah or anything, it is quoted everywhere. And that yellow cow exists in India as well; it’s very common. This is one of the projects I am attached to. I influenced this project and was myself influenced by it.”
Ahmed picks up “Evolution of Man” and begins to talk about it, “ok this is me, this is me when I was in the x-ray room. I took a gun from my friend and took this picture. And I don’t know why I thought about suicide. Maybe just because sometimes we talk about suicide with ourselves. I wanted to take this photo during my daily life at the hospital. I used the X-ray because for me it has a unique force revealing the inside. I don’t know if it true or not but that’s what I feel. For me it is a drastic change and I experienced it daily. I only cared about tomorrow; I’ve become a consumer. I am a person with a consumer way of life, a high inclination for consumption. Imagine, I’ll tell you a thing: As human beings it took us 3000 years to go from muscular energy to mechanical energy. It took us 300 years to go from mechanical energy to oil or fuel energy. Then another 30 years to overcome the energy that changed our lives a lot to get to the information energy that the contemporary generation lives in. In this triangle, from 3000 to 300 to 30, many energies evolved. In the idea of the third project that you saw, I had a great idea. All our parents and ancestors thought about pilgrimage, the Yemeni pilgrimage and how to reach the Mecca, and the aesthetic of the spiritual. When they came back from it they used to say there was a magical attraction. Something irresistible, drawing you to this spiritual state of mind.
“One day I remembered a game we used to play. We used to bring fillings and a magnet. We used to put the magnet in the middle and the fillings would create this circular shape, like a procession. For my project I took some iron fillings and added magnets, I placed the negative poles in front of each other which created an attraction in the surrounding field. I put the magnet on the paper and there was such an attraction that the fillings erected as if turning, as if in a procession, in adoration. I don’t know why these ideas of dependency, adoration, or the logic of troops fascinate me. I don’t know if I say all this consciously or if it’s a common human idea related to memories, knowledge and descriptions of ancient stories, or because of all these new elements in this scary modern life. All these ideas transformed this project and launched an idea that is not precise but that carries the idea of dialogue: Discuss what’s in front of you, recognize the truth, think about the truth. A beautiful attraction with beautiful images coming out of it on a larger scale, you start seeing people.”
“I don’t have any pictures of me as a child nor of my parents; nothing that can remind me of my childhood. To take a picture was considered to be against religion. People thought pictures were souls. We had to get pictures out of our lives, because souls are dangerous and they can turn into bad spirits. I don’t know how much this idea influenced me because later I took some photography classes; I remember my first picture. It was in primary school. It was important and was required, so you had to have one. I feel regret when I see that some of my friends have photographs or whenever I see albums of important people where we can see them as teenagers or children.”
“I worked on a photography project that I called Illumination, which means Light or Lighting. I used to take the same pages used in the Quran or the Bible or the Torah, or any other religious book, and I injected photos in it. But I used x-ray photos as if at some period of time, it was unrecognizable or unseen or untrue. That was a very important and marking experience in my life.”
“My life as a doctor and my life as an artist…I have two separate lives; one is very objective and in art, a very subjective one. For me art is between subjectivity and objectivity; that’s where I live my artistic life. I remember my mother used to tell me this story when we planted wheat in the village. People didn’t used to like the wheat that stood straight. She used to tell me that, “empty wheats raise their heads up,” encouraging me to be humble, like simple people, like normal people… To be true I had to stay at the same level as other people. She reminded me of that beautiful saying, “Empty wheats raise up their heads,” because they are empty and have nothing to say.”