Stepping Stones

The Saudi scene takes the world stage

At-Turaif in Al-Diriyah, northwest of Riyadh. Photo: © Diriyah Gate Development Authority.

“THE PRAYING MANTIS is eating my bees,” Moza Almatrooshi wails as we watch in horrified fascination. A second ago, the mantis seemed to be asleep; now, it holds its fuzzy victim daintily in its forelegs, taking thoughtful little nibbles as if savoring an amuse-bouche. The bee is part of the artist’s work in “Staple: What’s on your plate?,” the remarkable inaugural show at Hayy Jameel, a mammoth new art center in Jeddah. Dealing with food politics and sustainability, standouts include an austere ode to the migratory hilsa fish from Pratchaya Phinthong, chocolate sculptures from the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC), miniatures of indentured “coolie” women in South Africa from Sancintya Mohini Simpson, and Franziska Pierwoss’s pithy conspectus of Lebanese grocery prices, part of the accompanying film program.

“Staple,” curated by Rahul Gudipudi and Dani Burrows, has the curious quality of feeling both raw and long-simmered. The same might be said of the waiwai-designed Hayy Jameel, an institution seven years in the making. Though deliberate in its pedagogy and approach to community, its offerings manage to feel sweetly earnest. When Saudi Arabia’s thirty-five-year movie theater ban was lifted in 2017, the understated—municipal, even—building’s planned auditorium was turned into a cinematheque, while the opening of a nearby music venue scuppered plans for a concert hall. At the glitzy, cameras-strictly-verboten reception at Art Jameel chairman Fady Jameel’s Buddha-filled beach house, it felt like Riyadh’s whole art scene was present, and indeed, many attendees had flown in just for the night.

The day before, I went on my own sampling tour of Jeddah, which has in recent decades functioned as the kingdom’s cultural hub, thanks in large part to the private patron-led Saudi Art Council. The usually solid Athr and Hafez galleries had on a trio of calligraphy exhibitions and a snoozy eco-future affair that felt like a Dubai Expo pavilion. More absorbing were the Jeddah edition of the roving Argentinian BIENALSUR and the exhibition “Saudi Modern,” respectively held in a sumptuous former palace and a lovingly preserved 1950s house. The latter, which saw contemporary artists responding to the early decades of Jeddawi modernism, was curated by Bricklab, the local architectural practice behind the Hayy Cinema and the spaces for the ongoing Diriyah Biennale.

This is Jeddah: balmy, cosmopolitan, and an utterly charming—if rather sleepy—foil to the more-is-more-is-more hustle of Riyadh. Bricklab architect Abdulrahman Gazzaz told me how Jeddah has long been sidelined in terms of urban infrastructure. The same feels true today of its art world. From the opening of the MBS-supported Misk Art Institute in 2017, to the Ministry of Culture’s founding a year later in Riyadh, to the ongoing realization of the crown prince’s Vision 2030 plan, the government is pumping cultural resources into the nation’s capital. Much of it comes under the aegis of Riyadh Art, which aims to turn the city into a “gallery without walls.” Vision 2030 will soon touch Jeddah too: Entire neighborhoods are currently being razed, with an estimated 200,000 people displaced for the “Jeddah Central” development project, which will be anchored by a major museum, opera house, oceanarium, and sports stadium. Nonetheless, there is an ambient feeling that, as Riyadh is being positioned as the future, Jeddah may soon be relegated to the realm of tradition. The Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale, for instance, is set in Riyadh, while its Islamic art editions, happening during alternate years, will take place in Jeddah.

Visitors to the first Diriyah Biennale view Xu Bing’s Background story - Streams and Mountains Without End, 2014. Photo: Canvas and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.

As the gravitational center of the scene shifts, artists are following suit. There’s a palpable sense of excitement in the capital. “Everyone’s moving here,” enthuses artist Rashed Al Shashai, a new transplant. “I feel very protective of Jeddah,” artist Filwa Nazer says. I arrive in Riyadh in time for the closing of the Tuwaiq International Sculpture Symposium, where twenty sculptors have spent three weeks chipping away in the new converted warehouse—what else—arts district of JAX. Upon completion, the monumental sculptures are whisked away to be installed at roundabouts around Riyadh—the public art equivalent of a direct-to-DVD movie. Art also blooms on the under-construction metro system, on the undersides of bridges, and in gardens and squares around the sprawling city—a scaled-up version of Jeddah’s own 1970s-era public sculpture program, which brought works by Henry Moore, Joan Miró, and Alexander Calder to town. The Saudi Arabian Museum of Contemporary Art (SAMoCA) is set to open late in 2022, also in JAX.

It’s not all statecraft, though: I attend a number of openings from Very Public, an itinerant, artist-run series of popups that recalls the Saudi art scene’s scrappier underground days, including a delightful pillow fort in an apartment show. I also stop by the Ahmed Mater retrospective at the brand new Lakum gallery; a shoring-up of the currently bloodless commercial scene seems inevitable. And amid it all, a visit to the artist-run Gharem Studio, which I love for the rigorous conversation and generosity of its residents, feels like an anchor in the maelstrom.

Artist Moza Almatrooshi.

Onto the main event: the Diriyah Biennale, curated by UCCA’s Philip Tinari to emphasize parallels between 1980s China and 2020s KSA, both societies undergoing rapid-fire socioeconomic transformation. The exhibition takes its title, “Feeling the Stones,” from a CCP phrase “crossing the river by feeling the stones,” which became popular during China’s economic reform in the 1980s to advocate a steady approach to economic growth—an adage that I suspect falls on unsympathetic ears. The comparison feels forced, but it’s a terribly good show all the same. I want to call it groundbreaking—on par with “All the World’s Futures” or “Magiciens de la Terre,” the latter much referenced by Tinari—but it isn’t. What it does feel like is an adroit, and intriguingly post-Western, exchange of soft power, a firm handshake prompted not by ideological solidarity or “South-South” cooperation, but rather by geopolitical powerbroking and international markets.

Split into six parts and immaculately installed in as many JAX warehouses, the first gallery most overtly compares the two countries, with an emphasis on (mostly Saudi and Chinese) contemporary artists working during periods of watershed change. It includes a reprise of Richard Long’s controversial Red Earth Circle, 1989, alongside works about cultural diplomacy and mediation from Zheng Yuan, Ahmed Mater, and Maha Malluh. A sharp juxtaposition of Superstudio prints and an installation of Murano glass lenses and steel from Mamafotogramma and Bricklab, providing liquid, warped views onto the valley outside, seems to warn against the dangers of unfettered development. So do Ibrahim El Dessouki’s paintings of gated community ennui, which bespeak both the effects of neoliberalization in Egypt and Saudi’s own “compound culture.” There are also what jarringly feel like two sponsored subsections with presentations from Jeddah’s Mansouria Foundation and the Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute, although the latter does feature some astonishing paintings from the undersung Ugandan artist Peter Mulindwa pleasingly hung alongside Mohamed Melehi’s Poppy waves.

Saudi artists provided many of the biennial’s standouts, including Dana Awartani’s stunning clay tile invocation of the Grand Mosque of Aleppo’s floor, baked from earth taken from around KSA, and Marwah Al Mugait’s performance blending Palestinian, South African, and Khaleeji vocal traditions. Zahrah Al Ghamdi’s Birth of a Place raises a jagged, extruded-looking skyline from tent canvas and mud, inspired by the mudbrick remains of Ad-Diriyah—the cradle of the Saudi royal family and now one of Vision 2030’s gigaprojects. Spare installations from Han Mengyun and Wolfgang Laib provide a serene finish in a final section devoted to spirituality. I was particularly moved by a Lei Lei and Chai Mi film about globalization, labor, and longing, featuring 1990s home videos that Chai’s father shot while working in Dubai.

The penultimate section, titled “Brave New Worlds” and tasked with imagining the future “in the face of untenable patterns of consumption, acceleration, and climate change,” is the show’s strongest, as clear as a fist. Here, Ayman Zedani’s sound-and-salt installation about the songs of the Arabian humpback whale sits alongside a multiscreen dance performance by Sarah Brahim, which moves from the simple act of breathing to riotous, full-bodied joy, and Andro Wekua’s apocalyptic video with unforgettable imagery of a palm tree on fire, its spine burning up in a segmented way, like how I imagine a chiropractic adjustment might feel. In Simon Denny’s video installation about Shenzhen manufacturing, a man says, “What does speed kill? It kills your competition because you’re moving faster than them.” If I were Jeddah—or the Sharjah Biennial, for that matter—I would be very nervous.

Artist Sarah Abu Abdallah, artists and Very Public curators Alaa Tarabzouni and Fahad bin Naif.

UCCA curator Luan Shixuan  UCCA director and Diriyah Biennale curator Philip Tinari, artist Miguel Angel Payano Jr., artist Timur Si-Qin, critic and curator Adriana Blidaru.

Hamburger Bahnhof director and Lyon Biennale curator Till Fellrath, artist Dana Awartani, Art Jameel curator Rahul Gudipudi.

Misk Art Institute strategist Nawaf Alharbi and CEO Reem AlSultan.

National Pavilion UAE coordinating director Laila Binbrek, Institute of Emerging Art director Jolaine Frizzell.

Zahra Abu Abdallah, artist Ghada Al Hassan, Art Jameel director Antonia Carver, artist Sara Abu Abdallah, Ministry of Culture activation director Abdulaziz Alajaji, and director of programming Hala Alhedeithy.

Architects and Diriyah Biennale exhibition designers Kulapat Yantrasast and Brian Butterfield of wHY, UCCA director and Diriyah Biennale curator Philip Tinari, arts patron and strategist Alia Al-Senussi. All photos unless noted: Rahel Aima.

Artist Wolfgang Laib.

UCCA director and Ad-Diriyah Biennale curator Philip Tinari with artist Manal Al Dowayan.

Dealer Frances Stafford, Noor Riyadh executive director Miguel Blanco-Carrasco, artist Sarah Brahim.

Praying mantis, Hayy Jameel.

Maha Malluh, Food for Thought “WORLD MAP”, 2021. Photo: Canvas and Diriyah Biennale Foundation.

Khatt Foundation director Huda AbiFarès, British Museum curator Venetia Porter, art historian Nada Shabout.

Artist Filwa Nazer.

Dealer Frances Stafford, critic Nadine Khalil, critic and curator Adriana Blidaru, artist Timur Si-Qin, artist Richard Long, V&A curator Rachel Dedman.

Critic Nadine Khalil and artist-curator Meshal Al-Obaidallah.

Artist-curator Lulwah Al-Homoud, Cultural Foundation, Abu Dhabi director and Desert X Alula curator Reem Fadda, Desert X Alula curator Raneem Farsi.

Artissima director Ilaria Bonacossa, La Galleria Nazionale, Rome director Cristiana Collu, 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa director Yuko Hasegawa, Uffizi director Eike Schmidt.

Artist Ahmed Mater.

Artist and urbanist Zainab Alireza, architects and curators Turki and Abdulrahman Gazzaz of Bricklab, artist Lina Gazzaz.

Ikon Gallery director Jonathan Watkins, dealer Michael Hue-Williams, arts patron and strategist Alia Al-Senussi, art travel specialist Arthur Duncan, Delfina Foundation director Aaron Cezar, Artissima director Ilaria Bonacossa.

Architect Ali Karimi, curator and producer Raneen Bukhari, artist Jude Al-Keraishan, critic and curator Ruba Al-Sweel, artist Nasser Almulhim, curator Tara Aldughaither, artists Tamara Kalo, Fahad bin Naif and Alaa Tarabzouni.