Voices from Jeddah
Discussion of the Saudi Art Scene today
The following discussions were held mid December 2011 in Jeddah. The participants included Ayman Yossri Daydban, other artists, collectors and other people strongly involved in the art scene. The Athr Gallery convened three meetings, in the gallery and in the artist’s studio, which were moderated by the author. Besides, the author held many one-on-one conversations during his research visit. The transcripts of the meetings and the notes taken by the author were edited and rearranged according to the themes touched upon.
Artists are indicated by ‘A’, while ‘G’ stands for all the other guests. The sections between [brackets] have been added by the author for clarification.
1 – Regional Context
Ayman: A renaissance is happening in the region. The revolutions taking place are not simply political; I believe they are revolutions of expression. Art is a means of expression that isn’t governed by the constraints imposed on our traditional ways of self-expression.
G: Art is for us a new method of communication for depicting reality across cultural boundaries. It can be used to counter the stereotypical image of Saudi Arabia and the Muslim world in general that is generated by the global media. This was the only source of information available to people around the world. But now we also have art.
G: I think the timing for the emergence of the Saudi art scene couldn’t have been more perfect: the spotlight is right on us. Many people wonder what is happening in this country.
A: People abroad would not believe that someone like me exists [a female Saudi movie director], or that there are other, internationally successful, artists in Saudi Arabia. In the West, there is only one image of the Saudi: as the terrorist.
G: There is a difference between the art we see emerging in Saudi Arabia now and that made by Middle Eastern artists living in the West. The latter mainly address a Western audience, sometimes reproducing stereotypes, while artists here express the Saudi environment. What’s interesting is to see that you now see local Middle Eastern artists such as Ayman [Yossri Daydban] on the international art scene.
G: These Saudi artists don’t offer the West what it wants to see.
G: Most Saudi artists do not have a classical art education. They are creative people trying to express themselves, to express an idea or a feeling through a novel medium, and they discovered that the best medium for this is art. That makes the Saudi art scene conceptually very strong, because the artists are trying to invent a new language for expressing themselves, despite all the constraints.
G: Saudi Arabia is not a colonized country that was influenced by the colonizing country’s art. That gives Saudi art its genuine nature.
G: And Saudi culture is one. Other Arab cultures are a melting pot. I can see this in Lebanese culture for example. This makes Saudi art unique.
G: For ages, Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus were the leading cities of the Arab art world, but now this position seems to be shifting to the Gulf.
G: What is happening in the Gulf art world is very interesting. It’s moving at a fast forward pace, but it’s not based on strong fundamentals – at least the contemporary art scenes in some cities of the region. There you find interesting initiatives for supporting the arts and a lot of galleries, but very few good local artists. The question is whether it’s possible to build an art scene top-down.
G: But now Abu Dhabi has the Louvre and the Guggenheim, instead of only having a Ferrari world. This gives credibility to artists and art generally; it recognizes their social role. OK, you cannot buy culture; you cannot create culture with money. But you can build institutions that become platforms for artists to express themselves and experiment. Artists, not only in the Gulf but in the whole Arab world, need these platforms. Where else do you find them?
G: The Gulf countries have created a market for countries in the region where the local artistic scene has been developed bottom-up; they complement each other.
G: Without the development of the art market in the Gulf, the Saudi art scene would not have developed, at least not in the way it is doing now.
G: Within the Gulf Region, there are two or three areas where culture has developed steadily throughout the ages. The Hijaz, Asir, and probably Yemen: in short, the West coast of the Arabian Peninsula. [This is admittedly a biased local view. You could add, for example, Bahrain and Muscat to this list]
A: Jeddah and Mecca have been cosmopolitan cities since the beginning of the Islamic age, because of the Hajj. If you look at the population of these two cities, you see many Saudis with ancestors from all over the Islamic world: from Sudan to Turkmenistan. This has made the people of the Hijaz relatively receptive and creative.
A: There is also a Sufi tradition in the Hijaz and the Asir, which makes people here more open to art than in other parts of the country.
G: The people of the Nejd and Riyadh have a solid cultural tradition too.
G: That is a tribal culture. They have no tradition in visual arts. You can see the difference between the art scenes in Riyadh and Jeddah: Jeddah is more visual arts-based.
G: And Riyadh has a more intellectual and literate scene.
G: The cultural background of the Saudi West coast is essential for the development of its artistic scene. There is no such fertile soil in the Center and East of Saudi Arabia. What can you tap into over there? From what can you create? You can’t fast-track all that and just develop something and call it “contemporary” without going through certain phases. It just has to take more time. This is also true for other countries in the region.
A: There is not much to inspire an artist in Jeddah, either in terms of aesthetics or of social situations. Maybe this is because the urban explosion of Jeddah – and other Saudi cities – coincided with a regressive, anti-art period in the 1980s and 90s.
G: The sculpture park along the Corniche [with works by Moore, Miró, Cesar and other international artists] may have been an element of inspiration for local artists.
A: I used to play there, we would climb on the sculptures. But we didn’t think of them as ‘art’. We would go there because it was one of the few public spaces in the city. I don’t know if it inspired me. Maybe at an unconscious level.
G: There was no information about those sculptures, nor about the artists: not even their names. They only stood there to beautify the city, not to give the public an art education.
3 – Current Dynamics
G: The 1970s were essential for the development of the Saudi art scene. It was our first contact with the rest of the world.
A: There was even an art college in Riyadh then, you could become a professional artist. I was lucky enough to attend it. Then, from the early 1980s onward, we went through two decades where society was isolated. Whereas the essence of art is to develop your own voice. Even throughout that period, art did not disappear. It just isolated itself in different cells.
G: Those that continued practicing arts, like Ayman [Yossri Daydban], were brave.
G: From the late 1990s, Saudi Arabia was hit by the communication revolution. Internet and satellite television opened up the country. Nowadays, whatever is happening abroad is retransmitted here.
A: Global consumer society invaded our private lives through TV and internet, the malls, the fast-food chains etc. Just like the rest of Saudi society, I welcomed this change because it provided a relief from the strict society in which we grew up, cut off from the rest of the world. But now I wonder if we’re not the victim of an imposed ideology like before, only it’s not Saudi, it’s global.
G: At least art is accepted as part of the global consumer society. When I drive down the streets I see more and more art galleries. I stop to look what’s happening inside. I pretend I want to buy something and then the people running these places, often artists themselves, start talking to me with love about the art they display. People are more conscious about art now, they cherish the idea of being an artist.
G: Even the national and local TV stations have started discussing art, inviting artists to speak about their work.
G: One of the reasons we appreciate art is because it is light, it is fresh, it is an escape from the pressure of our society. The art community today is very small, but at least it is there.
G: There is room for growth. The Saudi art scene is an open field; you can shape it in whatever way you want to; this sense of promise or opportunity drives many people.
G: A more general thirst for culture exists in our society. There was a conference for architectural heritage in the Red Sea Mall. Traditional craftsmen from different parts of the country were invited to build their houses in the traditional style – inside the mall – and there was a photographic exhibition. It was a great success.
G: The malls have become the main public space for most people. They are the places with most foot traffic, where people can meet freely.
4 – Social Determinants
G: Saudis are brought up to perceive things in a determined way. There is no freedom of interpretation. Take this glass for example: abroad it could be anything, you could put rocks in it to make it into a musical instrument. Here the perception is very limited: it is only a glass. This limits the receptivity of people to abstract art. Take Ayman’s recent flags: here most people will see them as old metal, and that belongs in a junkyard. They will not search for its different meanings.
A: The strong egalitarianism in our society may also have a downside. It discourages individualism, while the strong need for individual creative expression is the basis of art.
G: Religion comes into play as soon as you start drawing or making something. Are you idolizing it or trying to prolong its life: what are you trying to do? So the question goes back to what art is, and what it is supposed to be.
G: In other Arab countries people are surrounded by art, and have learnt how to relate to it. But not here.
G: Social conservatism also plays a role. There are people who will not want the artist to even hint at anything that is against their sense of how matters ought to be portrayed.
A: These people receive a lot of popular support. Twitter gives a good indication. A conservative sheikh may have up to 400.000 followers, but the liberal opinion-makers will have a few thousand at most.
A: In our schoolbooks, a line would be drawn across the neck of human figures, to indicate that their soul had departed and that they were not representations of living beings. I think that’s where the expression ‘red lines’ came from.
A: In school, we were not even allowed to draw a face or a human figure; now that has changed, but not completely.
G: Art education was not available when I grew up here; even now, I cannot find a class to take, maybe they are more available to women than to men.
G: But there is a demand for it. When I started taking art classes in Jeddah ten years ago, women would come all the way from Mecca or Ta’if. I believe that frustration fired these girls. They came to art because they needed a place to express their dreams.
G: Nowadays some private universities have classes such as art appreciation or art history.
A: What’s needed is visual education in all fields, not only in art. Children should be taught how to look critically, discern and think for themselves. We should start with museums of science, history and anthropology, not with contemporary art. This will provide the references and the basis for truly understanding art.
G: Visual education should include an appreciation of our cultural heritage. You cannot understand the present without understanding the past.
G: For some reason, even calligraphy or geometric art are not taught in our schools, although they are part of our culture.
6 – Red Lines
G: We now have more freedom of expression then we used to. This encourages artistic creation.
G: The art scene is still limited to a relatively small group. We don’t know what would happen if the masses would gain access to this art scene.
G: Let’s face it, there is still a lot of censorship in our society
G: But there’s no turning back the wheel now. The red lines of yesteryear have been passed. Where would the new red lines be drawn?
G: The seed has been planted. Some steps may be taken back, but you cannot turn the whole clock back… just delay further development.
G: For now, the censorship is becoming more and more lenient. The government is becoming more flexible.
G: The artists can learn to leap over the barriers limiting their artistic expression, instead of being blocked by them.
G: I feel that the red lines imposed by society are part of the strength of Saudi art. Living somewhere with restrictions can challenge an artist in a very positive sense. It forces him to be extra clever and creative in the execution of his ideas, and, above all, subtle. The result is almost a kind of refinement rather than works that are loud and explosive. Smaller steps are always better than giant leaps, because they go unnoticed. Giant leaps cause giant backlashes, which can be counterproductive. The smaller steps are the ones that are here to stay.
A: As an artist, you try to provoke people in a delicate manner. You want to wake them up, but not turn them away from you.
A: From my experience in the art scene, I notice that censorship usually doesn’t have this positive impact. Most artists do not dare reveal the truth of their thoughts. Even when we heard that we artists should freely express ourselves, an internal censor was turned on because we thought that this was a trap. The artist had lost his capacity for expressing himself freely. Only artists who dare express their opinions find creative ways of dealing with the red lines in our society.
7 – The Shabab (youth)
G: Sixty percent of the population is under thirty; this generation lives differently from the way we lived; they are developing their own values.
G: The new generation has to figure out a way of dealing with the world that we, the older generation, have constructed. And not only in Saudi Arabia. This is a challenge for the young all over the world. The new generation is discovering its own voice, and is finding out that it is a communications tool that can impact reality – not only virtual reality.
A: The new generation of artists has matured during a very suitable period, historically, because it coincided with the opening up of the country by King Abdullah. We – I consider myself member of the older generation – fought the young artists at the beginning, we used to deal with them condescendingly. But they went their own way, and started developing new art forms in a cultural, real and deeply felt manner. Then we started learning from them – at least I did.
G: The ambitiousness of many of the young artists and their ability to absorb are astonishing.
G: Exposure to TV, color, vibrancy and movement has changed the new generation’s aesthetic values.
G: The new generation of artists is experimenting with new media and novel shapes and forms. We are going to see a kind of art we haven’t seen before.
G : New media are really big, especially photography. There seem to be hundreds of photographers showing their work in the malls. Recently, I was a panel member on a jury for a photographic competition. We received more than 400 entries!
8 – Shortcomings
G : We need more exhibition space, places to see art. Jeddah, a city of nearly four million people, does not have any exhibition halls, no contemporary art museums, and only one good gallery: Athr. This is the only place one can go to if one wants to see good contemporary art.
G: The artist can only play a social role if his work is accessible to the masses. He needs a platform. Today some platforms are emerging, for example, the international tour of Edge of Arabia and the virtual museum BASMOCA [Edge of Arabia is a traveling exhibition of contemporary Saudi art. Following its launch in London in 2008 it has traveled to Riyadh, Berlin, Istanbul, Dubai and Venice (during the Venice Biennial). Edge of Arabia Jeddah, its next appearance, will open on 19 Jan 2012, one day before the solo show of Ayman Yossri Daydban in Athr Gallery. For Basmoca see below].
G: There needs to be a space where artists can interact with each other, where they can discuss their work and comment on each other. The nucleus of an art community.
A: The most important thing for me as an artist is to have a safe place; to have support, your studio, your temple, your shrine where you continue to create, no matter whether people see it or not.
G: Artists need exposure, they need to be pushed.
G: What is most sorely missing is good art criticism.
G: What we really need in this country is a non-profit sector. You don’t have grants for artists or residency programs here; we look for them in Europe. We need a non-profit art movement, whether supported by the government or the private sector or both.
G: There is al Mansouria Foundation, established by Princess Jawaher and Mona Khazindar, who is now the director of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. It has a good collection of modern and contemporary Saudi art. It is a non-profit organization that offers residencies in Paris. This is an example that needs to be followed.
G: We also need to open communication channels for the art world. I feel there is a lack of communication between the artists and within the art scene. One of us mentioned an exhibition in the Red Sea Mall. I hadn’t heard about it and wonder where I could have found out about it.
9 – Policy
G: The government could offer opportunities for art education, and provide platforms that facilitate artistic expression and discussion. Provide an art infrastructure. Beyond that, I recommend that the government does not get involved.
G: We must keep in mind that Saudi Arabia is a very young country. We are less than 100 years old. There was nothing. A total desert. We needed to create schools, universities, roads… we had other priorities.
G: The government has no rules and regulations to deal with art. Specific policies should be developed to deal with the art sector.
A: The government should support art in general by acknowledging its impact on the general social climate. It should create opportunities and spaces for artists and allow the emergence of organizations that support the arts.
G: At a policy level, the government could encourage private-sector initiatives. Like providing tax cuts and other incentives for stimulating private-sector investments in the public art sphere. Because there are many ideas and solutions for developing the art scene in the private sector.
G: In many places in the world, there are old warehouses that have been converted into studio and exhibition spaces where artists and their visitors can meet, exchange ideas and comment on each other.
G: There was an initiative in the old town to create an artists’ space. I don’t know if it’s going to happen. This would be the kind of government action that we need.
A: There was a place like that, the Al Miftaha arts village near Abha, which was sponsored by King Faisal. It was a great place where some of the most famous Saudi artists today matured. But now it is about to close for lack of funding.
G: One of the issues dogging the development of an art scene in this country is bad management. Many good initiatives did not receive proper follow-up because of shortcomings in the management.
G: One project in the old town that led to an exhibition of twenty painters, for example only occurred once, after that nothing happened. We do not have any recurring events that we can look forward to.
G: The Saudi Pavilion at the Venice Biennale was a great exhibition, but there are no plans to show it in Saudi Arabia. Where could that happen anyway? We have no exhibition spaces.
10 – Private sector
G: Our parents’ generation would buy antiques, we buy art.
G: Just collecting and sharing the collection is already a big step. More and more people are doing that. This is in large part thanks to Athr Gallery. It has changed the geography of art in Jeddah because it presents art in a proper way. Everyone wants to be part of that because it is something to be proud of. Before, collecting was different, it was private. Now it has become a more open scene. The situation is becoming more relaxed, we buy art, our friends buy art, we discuss it. It is becoming a language.
G: One still doesn’t show the more controversial artworks in the public spaces of the house, though.
G: We also play a role for artists: we act as critics and give them advice. Since many of us travel a lot, visit art fairs and speak to other artists and gallery owners, we have an access to the art world that they can use.
G: I started the BASMOCA virtual museum as a private initiative. It follows a new approach to breaking barriers by using technology. It can be visited online. This was a way of responding to people who criticize the building of museum structures that do not attract enough visitors. It was also an initiative for representing our country – in second life. This was a small initiative to show locals and international people that we have a cultural vision, even though we face many challenges. To show that there is nothing wrong with visiting a museum. I am trying to provide a public service with private means.
G: In Athr Gallery, we have educational programs and exhibitions. Besides the real art lovers, we have newcomers who want to learn, and incidental visitors interested in discovering what art is about. Some of them get hooked. Even if they came only once it counts for us, because this is what we are trying to give to society. We hope that other art spaces will emerge for introducing art to a broader public. Not only by displaying artworks in big rooms, but by providing a place to work and develop in, a place you want to be part of.