New York

View of “Ahmed Mater,” 2017. From left: Road to Mecca II, 2017; Road to Mecca I, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Dorado.

View of “Ahmed Mater,” 2017. From left: Road to Mecca II, 2017; Road to Mecca I, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Dorado.

Ahmed Mater

Brooklyn Museum

View of “Ahmed Mater,” 2017. From left: Road to Mecca II, 2017; Road to Mecca I, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Dorado.

One of the standout collateral exhibitions during Art Dubai 2017 was by Saudi physician-turned-artist Ahmed Mater, based on his extensive research on the recent development and expansion of the holy city of Mecca. Conducted over a decade and compiled in his book Desert of Pharan: Unofficial Histories Behind the Mass Expansion of Mecca (2016), this work provided the foundation for Mater to create a rich, visually annotated timeline that simultaneously tracked the city’s history alongside that of mankind’s ambition to build the sort of grand structures that eventually became skyscrapers. For “Mecca Journeys,” at the Brooklyn Museum, Mater continued to expand on this research to provide invaluable insight about and intimate access to a city otherwise off-limits to non-Muslims.

As the religious center of the Muslim world, Mecca is both a symbolic and a real city. Imagined as eternal, it exists outside time, seemingly cut off from history. In recent decades, the city’s rich past, including archaeological and architectural traces dating back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, has been quickly and ruthlessly erased to make room for an ever-expanding future vision. Ostensibly undertaken to better accommodate the millions who descend on the city during the annual pilgrimage of hajj, the growth seeks to ensure maximum revenue from high-end religious tourism throughout the rest of the year.

In a series of large-scale and highly detailed color photographs shot from a helicopter, Mater provides a bird’s-eye view of the surreal, neon-lit city of cranes and luxury skyscrapers, dominated by the imposing Makkah Royal Clock Tower, which dwarfs the dusty, urban sprawl surrounding it. The high vantage point captures the bewildering size and ambition of the transformation. Pilgrimage as big business is hardly a novel concept, as the historical coincidence of trade and pilgrimage routes demonstrates, but the scale and rate of what has been and is happening in Mecca is simply breathtaking. Room with a View, 2013, provides the viewer access to one of the luxury hotel rooms overlooking the gleaming Grand Mosque while Gas Station Leadlight, 2013, an image of a modest petrol pump garishly decorated in red lightbulbs, wryly acknowledges the ultimate motor of these changes.

Mater balances the sublime panoramas with similarly scaled shots taken at street level, revealing aspects of the everyday lived city: Stand in the Pathway and See, 2012, is a nighttime shot of a narrow winding alley silhouetted against the triumphant Clock Tower, while Neighborhood—Stairway, 2015, shows locals shopping at a humble vegetable market at the foot of a long set of worn-down stairs. Moments from the daily lives of some of these locals—children going to school, two old men sitting on an outdoor bench watching television, street vendors peddling their wares, migrant workers enjoying a moment’s rest—are captured in two groups of smaller photographs. Interspersed with familiar shots of pilgrims and religious sites, they present a richer, more complex portrait of the city. 

Mater uses short videos to further animate his photographs. In the wittily titled King Kong, 2013, we repeatedly encircle the Clock Tower like pilgrims around the Kaaba. Leaves Fall in All Seasons, 2013, a compilation of cell-phone footage shot by some of the thousands of migrant workers who built these structures, provides rare access to their otherwise invisible lives. Snippets include a portrait of a stoic foreman; some cheeky interviews with peers; workers protesting six months of unpaid wages; and shots of buildings being demolished, their unrelenting repetition underscoring the speed at and degree to which an older urban fabric has been leveled to make way for the new. The piece ends with jubilant footage of the placing of the gilded crescent atop the Clock Tower. As this final ornament rises up off the ground, it spins around to reveal a solitary worker, responsible for attaching it in place, precariously hanging off it—a simple shot that encapsulates the profound disjuncture between the scale of these structures and those who build them, symbolizing an imbalance that is not only physical. 

Murtaza Vali