Saudi artists bring fresh perspective to London exhibition

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Updated 10 February 2016
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Saudi artists bring fresh perspective to London exhibition

People are sitting in a little room watching some films; for many of the viewers what they are seeing is quite a revelation. The highly creative short videos show a picture of the Gulf from a thought-provoking, fantastical and often very funny perspective. A message that shines through from a film called Pixels is how prejudice is universal and how doors can be slammed in the face of anyone whose appearance or views do not conform to mainstream norms. The films are enjoyable to watch because they hold up a mirror to the frailties and conceits of our shared humanity.
The makeshift cinema is in the Brunei Gallery, SOAS University of London. The films being screened are part of an exhibition called ‘In Search of Lost Time’ presented in association with the Brunei Gallery by the British Council and curated by Abed Al-Kadiri, Amal Khalaf and Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem. The exhibition is the culmination of four years of cultural exchange between artists in the UK and the Gulf.
The leading Saudi contemporary artist, Abdulnasser Gharem, founder of Gharem Studio, Riyadh, curated the Gharem Studio Installation for the exhibition.
Arab News caught up with Gharem at the private preview. He spoke about his pleasure in working with talented young artists at his Studio and the vision behind his own work.
“My inspiration comes from my daily life — what is happening around me. That includes the wars in the region and the ideologies promoted by people who are just repeating what they learn without thinking. Some of these people have become like ‘Guards of the Idea’ — they are just guarding the idea. They are killing creativity and avoiding any new speech or any new ideas. I think art is the only way you can spread new ideas from a humanitarian perspective,” he said.
With regard to the collaboration with the British Council he commented: “One of the missions of the British Council is to promote culture, and it is an honor to work with this organization.”
Gharem is passionate about developing young, upcoming talent and hopes one day to set up a foundation in Saudi Arabia.
“They (the artists) are smart and have a passion for what they do. It is my dream to create a foundation and become a model for others across Saudi Arabia. Now, for an artist to create his own studio is a new thing. Usually, in the past, the artist was self-sufficient. I am enjoying my studio working with these young, smart kids — exchanging ideas. I am learning from them also.”
He is generous with his time and resources and sees it as important to support the next generation of artists.
“My Ghrarem Studio in Riyadh is non-profit. Not everything should be for profit; you need to donate at least some of your time and some of your efforts to others. I put the artists together so they can produce ideas together — we don’t know who the ideas belong to because there are a lot of people working on the ideas. They work collaboratively,” he explained.
Present at the exhibition showing his work ‘Paradise has many gates’ was Ajlan Gharem. He built an art installation in the shape of a mosque in the desert outside Riyadh and told a story through film and photographs. He said that he wanted to show how in a fast changing society a gulf has developed between the older generations who follow certain traditions and beliefs unquestioningly and the younger generations, who with their exposure to so much new information and knowledge, want to sift through, examine and evaluate ideas and beliefs.
“As the younger generation, when we look at the older generation — they had more beliefs than knowledge. Today, we young people have more knowledge than beliefs. We are still looking for our beliefs. We are stuck in the traditional mentality whereby you have to believe in everything without searching. It is totally different now — with the Internet everything is available. So that is what is in my mind — we are in a cage but we can see out. You need beliefs, but if you want to build a new future you have to build a new past. You have to search the past and then build a new future,” he said.
Director of SOAS, Baroness Amos, spoke to Arab News about her perspective on the exhibition. “This exhibition is really multi-media — a lot of different artists from different parts of the Gulf region have contributed. It is about finding a way of bringing together a whole range of talent and messages from different voices about what is going on in the region.
“We are a university with a particular specialism in the Middle East, Africa and Asia that prides itself on being global. We are thinking about the issues that are currently facing the world; our students come to SOAS because they want to challenge conventional thinking — they want to change the world,” she said.
Sean Williams, Director of Operations for the Arts in the UK, British Council, explained that the exhibition is the culmination of several years of collaborative art projects and programs throughout the Gulf region.
He observed: “We see so much negative press about the Arab world and Islam but the day to day experience is not about that; one of the safe spaces and areas where people feel more comfortable about having a conversation where they feel more open is in the cultural area. Hopefully, we can challenge some of the stereotypical views that many people have about the Arab world and particularly the Gulf and Saudi Arabia.”
The artworks in the exhibition cover a time span from the 60s to the present day. The earliest work on show is Sami Mohammad’s 1966 bronze sculpture ‘Water Carrier’. The sculpture of a pregnant woman with her face covered by a niqab and her body with an abaya addresses a period in Kuwait’s history before the discovery of oil. While it represents the suffering women went through while their husbands were away at sea, the figure of the expectant woman also anticipates change.
Raja’a Khalid’s Fortune/Golf, Desert Golf I, III, IV, a series of found images, examines the introduction of golf in the Middle East. A description from the back of a press photograph of a desert golf course reads: ‘These desert divot diggers are playing on a golf course built by the Arabian American Oil Co. for its employees. The players use red balls which stand out against the blankness of the sand fairways and the blackness of the greens. There is no roll on the sand.’
Lantian Xie, an artist based in Dubai, explores through his video installation the complex relationship that some non-UAE nationals have with their adopted country where they are not citizens and have the feeling of being guests beholden to their host. The video is an excerpt taken from the film ‘Days of being Wild’ by Hong Kong filmmaker, Wong Kar Wai. The soundtrack is the Hardees/KFC home-delivery hotline holding music. We see a young man dancing alone in his apartment and get a glimpse of the private loneliness and vulnerability of people who are somehow culturally lost.
Curator Amal Khalaf spoke about the way new media is changing the way young people view art. With reference to the innovative short films being shown she said: “The cinema in this exhibition deserves its own space. Humor is so important, especially in the Gulf, because we are in a space where we not only have restrictions from the government but in society there are many taboos of what we can say and what we cannot say. The younger generation is able to cut through those taboos. They communicate not in exhibition spaces but through YouTube and on phones. My Dad, who is 65, watches the videos; videos produced by 19-year-olds in Saudi.”
“Look at the power that this kind of art form has; it doesn’t need the walls of a gallery — it doesn’t need to come to London to be important. It’s global and it really reaches people. There is something about these videos that I can just see on my Instagram that is challenging everything about how you make images and how you make social commentary today in the region. “
Speaking of the theme for the exhibition which is based on the idea of speed and movement and time and how different people in the Gulf deal with this movement, she observed: “How do you describe a place that has transformed so quickly in just a few decades? I was born in the 80s and the place I come from, Bahrain, is almost unrecognizable — culturally and in so many ways.
“The title for the exhibition comes from volumes by Marcel Proust which talk philosophically about the idea of nostalgia. But we wanted to step away from this idea of nostalgia which is so often characterized by descriptions of the Gulf from the pre-oil era to hyper contemporary cities of glass in the desert. We want to bring to London works that interrogate this movement through time in a different way.”
In Search of Lost Time, Brunei Gallery, SOAS University of London runs from Jan. 21 to March 19, 2016.

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King Abdul Aziz Public Library showcases Arab, Islamic heritage

Updated 21 April 2019
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King Abdul Aziz Public Library showcases Arab, Islamic heritage

  • The library has 8,571 books and more than 5,000 manuscripts, documents, coins and rare maps
  • The library has an archive of photographs, one of the rarest collections in the world

RIYADH: King Abdulaziz Public Library provides a key index of Saudi culture, presenting the world with a rich legacy of cultural, historical and literary diversity.

On World Heritage Day, April 18, the library highlighted its efforts in preserving cultural heritage, which makes it one of the most important libraries in the Arab and Islamic world. It possesses a variety of heritage treasures in manuscripts, documents, rare books, coins and photographs. The library has 8,571 books and more than 5,000 manuscripts, documents, coins and rare maps.

The library has established a knowledge-based space to produce large collections of specialized books on the history of the Kingdom and in the Arab and Islamic worlds while continuing to use its knowledge system in line with Vision 2030 and the cultural strategy of the Ministry of Culture.

The library’s special holdings consist of manuscripts, rare books, rare documents, rare maps, rare photographs and coins. These form an integrated picture and are characterized by rare historical scenes that stimulate research.

The library established the Manuscripts Department in 1988 to contribute to the preservation of Arab and Islamic heritage and make it available to researchers and investigators. The department has more than (4,400) original manuscripts in addition to more than (700) photocopies and microfilms, including the charts of the Institute of History of Arabic and Islamic Sciences at the University of Frankfurt. More than 3,500 manuscripts have been indexed and filed in the computer system.

The library in Riyadh, the pioneer in publishing heritage, has digitized all of its manuscripts — more than two million of them — and stored them on CDs.

The library contains a collection of rare books of ancient and rare European editions, consisting of 78 books on the biography of the Prophet Muhammad. The collection also includes 113 translated books in ancient European languages of the Holy Qur’an, as well as 55 books on Qur’anic studies and 54 books on Islamic sources. This collection represents the beginnings of European interest in the Holy Qur’an and its studies. The library acquired a collection of Arabic editions printed in Europe in 1592-1593. These editions are part of the library’s interest in the original Arab and Islamic heritage. They include rare books such as The Canon of Medicine by Avicenna, Rhetoric Mysteries by Abd Al-Qahir Al-Jurjani, a commentary on the “Isagoge” by Abu l-Faraj at-Tayyib, The Perfect Guide to the Sciences of the Qur’an by Jalal Al-Din Al Suyuti, as well as 8,271 rare Arabic indexed books.

The library hosts a number of private collections, including that of the American orientalist George Rantz. This collection has many books, manuscripts, maps and rare documents, containing books in Arabic and 3,265 books in foreign languages. It also has the collection of Hamza Boubakeur, dean of the Islamic Institute and former imam of Paris Mosque. It is an integrated collection with 17,170 titles of 19,821 volumes of periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts, documents, newspaper clippings, rare books and books in Arabic, French, English, German and Russian. It includes books on scientific and religious sciences, and tourist literature that describes countries, their heritage, customs and traditions, and is linked to Saudi Arabia, the Arabian Gulf and the Islamic world.

The library has an archive of photographs, one of the rarest collections in the world, with a total of 5,564 single original photographs or collections in albums, taken by the most famous photographers of the East and the Arab world since the beginning of photography in 1740, as well as photographs taken by travelers, sea captains, military personnel, envoys, consuls and politicians who visited the region from the middle of the last century until the beginning of this century. This archive of photographs is one of the most unique in the world.

The library has 365 photographs of the two Holy Mosques with previously unpublished negatives. These photographs were taken by the Egyptian international photographer Ahmad Pasha Helmi, who was commissioned by King Farouk to photograph the two Holy Mosques during the visit of King Abdul Aziz to Makkah and Medina, in addition to a collection of albums depicting the Hijaz railway and other parts of the Kingdom.

Official and non-official documents are important scientific materials in the writing of history. Nations rely on collecting their documents, archiving them and making them available for study. The library in Riyadh has been keen to acquire rare documents and books, especially on the history of King Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the history of Saudi Arabia, and to allocate a special section for them. These documents include:

George Rantz records: in English, French and Arabic, covering the period from 1930 to 1960.
Documents of the Egyptian and Arab press on the visit of King Abdul Aziz to Egypt.
Documents of the American press about King Saud’s visit to the US.
Documents on oil agreements between the Kingdom and some American companies.
Documents of the British press regarding the war between the British forces and the forces of the Sultan of Muscat and Oman against the forces of the imam of Oman, and the effects of this war on the region and the position of the Saudi state and King Saud of this war.
Abdul Rahman Azzam’s collection of documents (in Arabic and English) covering the period from 1925 to 1960.
Correspondence reflecting the assistance provided by Saudi Arabia to the Mosque of Paris and Makkah pilgrims.
The British collection of documents on King Abdul Aziz Al Saud (English), covering the period from 1800 to 1953. These are photocopies of the original documents and constitute one of the most important sources of the history of the Arabian Peninsula.
Khair Al-Din Al-Zarkali’s collection of documents: (in Arabic) covering the period from 1920 to 1975.
The library also has 700 rare maps, especially of the Arabian Peninsula, dating from 1482. The library has acquired more than 7,600 rare gold, silver and bronze coins, dating back to different Islamic times.

World Heritage Day was proposed by the International Council of Monuments and Sites on April 18, 1982 and approved by UNESCO in 1983 with the aim of promoting awareness of the importance of cultural heritage and protecting it.