The Edge Becomes the Center

Kevin Jones profiles Ahmed for Art Asia Pacific, order the issue here

Call him naive, but Ahmed Mater sincerely believes art has the power to change the world. He believed it in the 1990s, when he was working as a community physician in the small mountain city of Abha, located in southwestern Saudi Arabia, and toying with the thought of becoming a professional artist. He believed it when his fledgling artistic career began to attract international attention during the decade-long roadshow of Saudi contemporary art produced by the Edge of Arabia initiative, which he co-founded in 2003 with British artist Stephen Stapleton and Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem. Certainly he believed it in 2011, when he moved to Jeddah and, with his wife, the artist Arwa Alneami, established Pharan Studio, a platform that continues to mount under-the-radar exhibitions with a changing cast of young, critically inclined artists in the privacy of a home and studio.

As the newly anointed director of the Misk Art Institute, Mater ostensibly still believes in art’s capacity to change society. Established in 2017, Misk is the cultural spearhead of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud’s (MBS) ambitious vision to economically and socially transform Saudi Arabia, weaning the Kingdom off oil reliance while shedding its arch-conservative veil. Misk’s agenda is to support artistic initiatives in the Kingdom and fuel cultural diplomacy abroad, with the first Saudi Arabia pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in May 2018 and the upcoming Misk Art Week in Riyadh on the lineup of projects for its first year. Mater is eminently suited to the role at Misk: as a former medical doctor, he is professionally embedded in the social fabric in a country where inclusion is everything. As an artist, his practice advocated a shift from an obedient conservativism to cultivating collective memory and valuing Saudi-ness. “I have decided to be within the change,” he said to me in our conversation in April, “rather than sit out and criticize.”

But Mater’s unfailing faith in art-as-agent-of-change, especially in regard to his new appointment, raises questions about how he will wield his own critical artistic voice. From his early “Yellow Cow” series (2006–10) of mock-cheery, Laughing Cow-like graphics, taking a swipe at both consumer culture and the commercialization of religion, to the acclaimed “Desert of Pharan” (2012– ) photographs, depicting the massive redevelopment of Mecca—which reveal the spectacular collusion of late-capitalist enterprise and the religious establishment in the erasure of history—Mater’s criticality has floated somewhere between considered forms of activism, and long, research-heavy investigations that culminate in a prognosis.

Like many of his works, Mater himself can be hard to pin down. At the beginning, “physician-turned-artist” was the reigning trope—a gentleman-creative wrapped up in a clumsily enthusiastic “Saudi art really exists!” narrative catering largely to Western audiences. That portrayal tended not to shift after his early Edge of Arabia years, even as he went on to have an increasingly prominent individual artistic career and made contributions to an underground Jeddah counterculture through Pharan Studio. On the other hand, the announcement of his role at Misk has spawned the image of him as a shrewd networker, relocated to a plush Riyadh enclave instead of his upstart Jeddah studio. So, has the slow-burn social activist become an agent for MBS’s modernization agenda, complicit in fast-tracking Saudi Arabia not only to a gilded cultural reputation, but also to becoming a thriving creative economy? Will the softpower posturing and cultural diplomacy of his job curtail or delimit his own artistic practice? Questions like these resound in the Gulf, where people curious about the Kingdom’s new direction are also awaiting Mater’s next move.

Now that the Saudi delegation has completed its recent cultural tour, promoting exhibitions across the United States and France, and the artist’s role as beaming international poster boy for the Kingdom’s artistic cause has peaked, Mater is settling into the hard work of expressing his strategic vision for Misk through partnerships and programming, publications and events. From this vantage point—an agent of liberalization but from within the fortress of power—does he still think art can change the world? “I’m nervously careful,” Mater admitted. Perhaps because of his background, but now more than ever, the artist speaks like a true believer.

Born in 1979 in Tabuk, in the northwestern corner of the Kingdom, Mater grew up near the border with Yemen, amid Abha’s fertile greenery and rolling mountains—a spot topographically and culturally at odds with the monochrome, inhospitable climate shrouding much of the country. It was a watershed year in local history, with extremists seizing the Grand Mosque in Mecca and calling for the overthrow of the ruling House of Saud. After quelling the upheaval, the victorious monarchy opted to amplify the clerics’ power and ushered in some of the very policies—restricted women’s rights, gender segregation, a cinema ban and intensified religious education—that the current 32-year-old Crown Prince is trying to dismantle.

As an artist, Mater came of age in the post-9/11 generation, when the Kingdom was under global scrutiny for its citizens’ role in the 9/11 attacks. (Of the 19 attackers, 15 were from Saudi Arabia, and five were raised or born in the ‘Asir province of which Abha is the capital; Mater knew one personally.) The then-governor of ‘Asir, Prince Khalid al-Faisal bin Abdulaziz, a poet and amateur artist who championed creativity and saw its potential as an antidote to ideological orthodoxy, established al-Muftaha Arts Village in Abha’s ancient quarter. An advocate of preserving the distinctive character of the ‘Asir identity, Prince Khalid envisioned the Arts Village, equipped with artists’ studios, accommodations and galleries, as a place where people would come to paint and celebrate the area’s unique heritage. Unexpectedly, however, the al-Muftaha Arts Village would nurture something else entirely: Abha became the cradle of contemporary Saudi art.

Mater, along with fellow artists Abdulnasser Gharem and Ashraf Fayadh, were given studios in the Arts Village. Although Mater had studied medicine at university, purportedly to be able to draw human figures free of religious sanction, by the early 2000s he was easing himself away from his hospital practice into what would increasingly become a fully-fledged artistic career. In the prelude to the Second Gulf War (2003–11), fervent discussions smoldered among the al-Muftaha artists and the writers and journalists drawn to the new opinions voiced amid the traditional mud-and-stone walls. Stephen Stapleton, who visited al-Muftaha in 2003 after a six-month artistic trek through the Middle East, recalled, “It was a very political place. The conversations there were unusual. There was a feeling of something exciting, like in an arts college, at an important moment—the start of a war—when history and creativity overlapped.”

Stapleton, who also took a studio and wove himself into the al-Muftaha fabric, completed the nascent triangulation of a patron (Prince Khaled), the artists and, most importantly, someone—or something—to make them known. In 2003, the artist-led Edge of Arabia was born. Although the first five years of operation were largely devoted to connecting with peers around the region before their first official show at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, in 2008, Stapleton managed to broker an early solo presentation of Mater’s works at the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in London in 2006 entitled “Ahmed Mater al-Ziad Aseeri”—the artist’s full name, with the dutiful inclusion of his ‘Asiri provenance.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for an artist who suddenly found himself at the head of a “movement”—as Mater refers to Edge of Arabia— works from these early days have a critical edge, evoking religion while straddling a line between candor and respect. With “Yellow Cow,” for example, Mater essentially created a brand—a garish riff on the kitschy bovine icon of the ubiquitous processed cheese, Laughing Cow—to equate consumer brands to a contemporary form of idolatry. The title references the Surat al-Baqara (“Verse of the Cow,” the longest in the Quran), in which a yellow cow, of exceptional value, must be sacrificed in order for a reluctant people to find truth. First shown institutionally at Sharjah Biennial 8 in 2007, the installation included actual Yellow Cow products—laban, butter, cheese— produced from the milk of a cow that Mater had dyed yellow (with saffron), decrying capitalist arrogance in transforming nature. Each product bore the sly disclaimer “ideology free,” suggesting not only the mindlessness of consumerism, but also the loss of belief systems and even the dilution of faith. This last point had been made even more clearly in 2006, when Yellow Cow products invaded the grocery shelves in Abha, placed by Mater in a weeks-long art-meets-guerrilla marketing takeover.

The series that first endeared Mater to international museum curators, “Illuminations,” begun in 2008, uses strategies of juxtaposition to problematize the relation between faith and science, religion and the body, the subjective and the objective. Discarded hospital X-rays are framed by intricately designed Quranic texts, set on paper pre-treated by hand with alum powder, pomegranate and tea, a technique reserved for the illumination of Quranic manuscripts. The artist excises what would normally be a geometrical pattern on many of these plates and inserts an X-ray, leveraging the idea of illumination to highlight correspondences between the physical interior of the body and an introspective spiritual realm. While the gesture could be construed as somewhat subversive, the works also easily lend themselves to pious interpretations. Illumination I & II (2008), for example, first shown in the Edge of Arabia exhibition during the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009, is a symmetrical, double-page spread of two X-rayed torsos, each with the word waqf (“charity”) written beneath. The heads, seemingly in conversation, usurp the place of spiritually inclined calligraphic craftsmanship, or traditional motifs. In Mashq X-Ray I (2008), X-rayed head and text converge: the skull is literally teeming with multi-directional calligraphy referencing the omniscience of God. The torso here seems truncated by the calligraphic waqf line, and an eerily transparent huwa (“him,” meaning God) floats in the shadowy cavity. The beleaguered head and the sliced torso are uncomfortable intrusions on the serene page.

Similarly, the installations and photographs in “Magnetism” (2008–12), one of the artist’s more emblematic series, foregrounds the duality of attraction and repulsion, and could be read as celebrating faith or critiquing unreflective belief. Using a black cubic magnet and iron filings, the work appears to resemble the tawaf—pilgrims’ circumambulation of the black-draped Ka’aba in Mecca. Taken literally, “Magnetism” is praised as encapsulating the magnetic power of pilgrimage and divine charisma. Yet the artist could equally be pointing to the contradiction of the Ka’aba as an icon, venerated in an iconoclastic society. Early works like those in the “Illuminations” and “Magnetism” series frame a societal critique while not criticizing religion directly. But another career-crowning work, Evolution of Man (2010), is uncompromisingly direct. Shown as both a series of digital prints and an animation with X-ray-like visuals, a silhouetted gas pump morphs into a human torso, the pump nozzle becomes a gun, held to the skull by an arm that has mutated from the pump tube. The irony of the title is clear, as the animation loops in cyclical doom, foreclosing any possible evolution. The enemy, too, is evident: the petrodollar economy and its irreversible fallout—social, environmental, historical. It is the closest Mater has come to an indictment against the Saudi powers-that-be.

Indeed, the first time the work was ever allowed to be shown in Saudi Arabia was after his Misk appointment, during Mater’s February 2018 retrospective, “Drum Roll, Please,” held in a grimy worksite on the USD-95-billion King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) master development outside Jeddah. Still very much a work in progress, KAEC feels like a luxury ghost town, although its role in the broader scheme of shifting the nation away from oil reliance made it a fitting venue for “Drum Roll, Please.”

At the corniche-side opening dinner, the PR-savvy KAEC CEO cooed into the mic, boasting about a future artists’ residency in the high-speed train station, while a five-panel light-box version of Evolution of Man flickered inside the gritty building, alongside another body of work offering a detailed portrayal of unbridled urban development, “Desert of Pharan.”

Mater’s approach is that of a preservationist, not a revolutionary. Of course, he and his colleagues are critical of the conservative strands in society, but he is staunchly opposed to contemporaneity at any cost. Safeguarding tradition, history and values in the face of often-reckless modernization—this is the activist banner he waves. And nowhere is it held higher than in the “Desert of Pharan” photographs documenting—and obliquely critiquing—the full-throttle expansion of religious sites and property development in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. The images plumb “unofficial histories”—the behind-the-billboards adversity of disenfranchised communities and ignored migrant castes—alternating them with visions of excess, such as regal Ka’aba-view hotel suites, the hyperreality of property ads, conquering sprawl, boundless traffic and the whorl and throng of pilgrims, with the haughty Makkah Royal Clock Tower, the world’s third-tallest building, lording over it all. The ongoing body of work fathoms the heart of Mecca’s contradictions: a city at once imagined and real; one of the most visited holy sites, yet one of the most exclusive. Mater’s activist lens could find no richer subject than this paradoxical intersection of Islam at its most devout and globalization at its most invasive.

First shown at Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2012, elements of “Desert of Pharan,” which also includes videos and installations, were presented in the artist’s first US solo exhibition, 2016’s “Symbolic Cities: The Work of Ahmed Mater” at the Smithsonian Sackler Gallery, and then at the Brooklyn Museum’s 2017 “Mecca Journeys,” perhaps the exhibition that did the most to cement Mater’s international reputation. The 2016 book Desert of Pharan: Unofficial Histories Behind the Mass Expansion of Mecca, clusters the works into concentric circles of sorts, moving from a divine perspective of Mecca and its environs to the cramped quarters where bodies adapt to the onslaught of superlative-bearing developments. These bodies—most notably, the long-standing yet vulnerable Rohingya community—have largely been invisible. Certain images from “Desert of Pharan” unearthed their stories, propelling their plight into the limelight. Mater’s campaign has had some social traction, prompting the city government to consider preservation. “I’m not the kind of guy who is going to clash with the government,” he said. “But look at what we did in Mecca: we opened eyes.

Now there is a community commission to save Mecca.” The kind of social change afoot in Saudi Arabia today is systemic. Currently, in Riyadh, the sanguine faces of MBS and his father, King Salman, peer out of nearly every billboard in what amounts to a nationwide ad campaign for Vision 2030, the McKinsey & Coorganized framework document comprising the economic and social reforms intended to remake the country as a magnet of investment. “The picture may not be clear yet,” Mater conceded, “but everyone is looking for change in Saudi Arabia.”

The artist was invited by MBS to “imagine” the Misk Art Institute, so the story goes, on a trip to China when one of Mater’s works was presented as a gift to the Chinese leader Xi Jinping. “I made an Illumination which told the story of the Silk Road,” he said. “After this trip, bit by bit, we built the rest.” That “rest” was announced in a January 2018 press conference at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), during which he admitted that his “greatest shift was not from artist to administrator, but from documenting what is and was to instigating what could be.”

Education is a priority, he said, but the copy-paste approach— for example, inviting Goldsmiths to set up an art school—will be shunned. “We are trying to change the curriculum in Saudi Arabia,” he explained. “How to increase self-learning and how to get the artists inside the schools to teach. I believe in education stemming from the resources already in place.” Another talking point from the MoMA speech: identifying and investing in the next generation of creative leaders and cultural innovators in the Gulf. “Create and Inspire,” an artists’ exchange program between Misk and the London-based Crossway Foundation, will temporarily transplant young Saudi artists to Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area in December 2018, to be followed by an American cohort in Saudi the following year. What Mater calls a “festival format” will frame not only the upcoming New York Arab Arts Festival in October—a citywide initiative linked to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals led by Misk in partnership with the Metropolitan Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, MoMA and potentially Cooper Union—but also the Misk Art Week, in Riyadh, from November 2018. For sure, Mater’s rhetoric has become more polished of late. “Culture is a question of rulers,” he told me in our conversation. “Look at Sharjah. This is what will happen in Riyadh because there is an enlightened ruler.” Yet his activist flame simmers just below the functionary surface. Naive or not, Mater believes that Misk can operate as “a grassroots structure that gets its support from the top” and, indeed, he has rallied his artist colleagues to the endeavor. Misk has hired Stapleton as its international director, who reprises his role as the man who unleashed Saudi contemporary art on the world—from Venice to Istanbul, Berlin to Houston.

“In our field,” enthused Stapleton, “we are talking about building a creative economy, raising the status of the artist in society, supporting arts education in schools. There is more of a chance to do something on a systemic level, to influence the system. Edge of Arabia was outside of the system. But Misk is the system.” So where does this integration into the system leave Mater’s critical voice? “We are in the time of intervention,” he says in a promotional video for his 2017 show “Mitochondria: Powerhouses” at Italy’s Galleria Continua, perhaps his most critically biting exhibition to date. “Standing Rock” (2016–17) is a body of photographic and video work that sprung from the artist’s desire to express solidarity with the Lakota Nation tribe in North Dakota in celebrating the repeal of the permit to build an oil pipeline through their land. The tension between local tribes and the national need for oil highlighted by the Standing Rock protests overlaps with Mater’s own Saudi ‘Asiri upbringing and obliquely refers to tensions in his own country.

Beyond this, the strength of “Mitochondria” lay in how Mater consistently linked local issues back to global dynamics— invisible hands and forces of control. Mater’s photograph of a lightning strike in the desert, his fulgurite-like sculptures— mirroring the delicate forms created in the sand after a lightning strike—and a large installation featuring a Tesla-coil machine (Mitochondria: Powerhouses, 2017), were powerful visual metaphors for how a massive bolt of energy can create sudden change, forming something from nothing. Here, the “Desert of Pharan” photographs were framed in the context of similar “economic cities,” rapidly developed by the circulation of international capitalism, trade and tourism, rather than just dwelling on the Saudi, Mecca-focused specificities. The economic and geopolitical undercurrents that connected the works in the exhibition made it seem less documentary-based and gave it a confident sting that other shows, until now, have lacked. Critically, Mater seemed to be hoisting himself well above his Saudi ken.

While skeptics of Mater’s Misk tenure abound, the success of his relationship with power hinges on the compromises he must make to the system that has just handed him the keys to the cultural kingdom. The “nervous optimism” endures as he embraces the complexity of his current situation. Yet he also feels that he has the power to create reciprocal change. “The edge is becoming the center,” he agreed. “But the center might also become the edge.” Call him naive, but Mater believes now is the time for art to influence Riyadh, and the world.

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