Rund Alarabi, Mahjoub Sharif, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 2 minutes 24 seconds. From “Durational Portrait: A Brief Overview of Video Art in Saudi Arabia.”

Rund Alarabi, Mahjoub Sharif, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 2 minutes 24 seconds. From “Durational Portrait: A Brief Overview of Video Art in Saudi Arabia.”

“Durational Portrait: A Brief Overview of Video Art in Saudi Arabia”

“Durational Portrait: A Brief Overview of Video Art in Saudi Arabia,” curated by Tara Aldughaither and Afia Bin Taleb, brought together work by forty-eight artists from the late 1990s to the present, with sections labeled “Beginnings,” “Identity,” “Connection,” and, for the most current work, “Recovery.” Though it didn’t claim to be exhaustive, it was an outstanding exhibition, one of the first to essay a proper historical survey of an important medium in Saudi art.

The works reflected global political events as well as internal changes in the kingdom. Some of the works in the “Identity” section underlined the political responses to the anti-Muslim and anti-Saudi sentiment that proliferated after September 11, 2001. The reaction to the Arab Spring (in works in the “Connection” segment) was also striking: The region’s calls for democratic reform reverberated within the kingdom, coming just as YouTube and other forms of social media were widely introduced. This part of the show was about video in a newer sense of the word, demonstrating the particular importance of online connectivity to the homebound Saudi public, who face strict censorship of public expression and restrictive social codes. Smartphone-captured content, animations (not included here), and recorded social experiments were all uploaded as online consumption stood in for conventional exhibitions. Many of the works seemed to question the border between public and private, whether by recording actions outside the home pertaining to personal identity and relationships or by publicly exhibiting private events. For Shadeed Aleltesaq, 2015, Arwa Al Neami used a GoPro to document her quest for a pair of skinny jeans in a mall, showing her hand emerging from behind her embroidered abaya as she chooses and judges the items on the racks. Several started diary projects, among them Mohammad Alfaraj and Anhar Salem, who regularly posted work on social-media platforms. Examples exhibited here—such as Salem’s Dust, 2016, which shows two friends sharing headphones and dancing to a song on an iPhone—continue the venerable diary-film tradition of joy in small moments. Balqis Alrashed recorded herself twirling a Hula-Hoop in her abaya and niqab; it reached more than four million views on Instagram and here was exhibited via QR code as First Instagram Post, 2014.

Many of the works from the mid-2010s were scrappily produced, but production values climb as the local art infrastructure progresses. Fatima AlBanawi acts out anonymous stories that she has gathered in her ongoing “The Other Story Project,” 2015–, behaving almost as a medium for a broader consciousness in the stylized A Blink of an Eye, 2017. Though billed as focusing on “time,” most of the works in the “Recovery” section return to the question of Saudi identity, addressing the ways it has changed both at home—for instance, due to migration into the country—and abroad, as Saudis travel in different places. Sultan Bin Fahad’s video Labor I, 2020, theatricalizes the preparations of palace staff—who would be non-Saudi—for a royal banquet. Qatar-born Rund Alarabi, who is of Sudanese descent and was raised in Khartoum, contributed the beautiful work Mahjoub Sharif, 2019, which simulates three screens open on a computer. One shows the Sudanese poet of the video’s title reciting one of his poems, another shows its handwritten words, and the third presents posters in the Sudanese protest movement. The work pays tribute to the Sudanese people’s harnessing of social media—but also, undergirded by the incantatory rhythm of Sharif’s recitation, gives a heartbreaking sense of the uphill battle for calm in the country.