Saudi art show spotlights young artists to watch in 2018

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Rund Al-Arabi’s ‘From Bab Sherif to Omdurman’ 2017 photography collage. (Photo courtesy: ATHR)
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Rund Al-Arabi's Time-Stamped, 2017.
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Sahrish Ali's Cocoons, 2017.
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Badr Ali's Firmbulvetr, 2016.
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Amr Alngmah, Digital Spirituality, 2016.
Updated 24 December 2017

Saudi art show spotlights young artists to watch in 2018

JEDDAH: As Saudi Arabia rounds up a year of creative firsts, from concerts to Comic Con events, it seems that 2017 has been one for the books.
This is equally evident in the world of art, with the Kingdom playing host to a year full of art shows and exhibits. The art scene is fast-paced, bizarre and exciting and is always changing, with new artists emerging and established talents experimenting with their craft.
Rounding out the year, ATHR gallery’s Young Saudi Artist “Pulse” exhibit is set to run until Jan. 5 and is a biannual event in its fifth edition.
This year’s rather chaotic exhibit was based on the concept of “Time: Past, present and future” and showcased the works of 25 new artists, some of which were showcasing their art for the first time in their careers. The work ranged from awe-inspiring to disappointing, but it was refreshing to see such a wealth of new artists all exhibiting in one place.
Some pieces were truly bizarre, some were fun and cartoonish and others brought back a sense of nostalgia that would melt even the hardest art critic’s heart.
“There are so much amazing talents out there and as a photographer, I am focused on checking out the little people (new artists) — those who aren’t out there yet. I do this because I can see there are so many extremely talented people very deserving of the attention simply because they want to make art,” documentary photographer Iman Al-Dabbagh told Arab News.
One attention-grabbing artist was Obada Al-Jefri’s with a piece called “Trash Bags,” a series of three watercolor paintings and a sculpture of a cat in a trash bag made entirely of felt. The concept was unique, unnerving and intriguing.
“I came back from the US recently only to see that the stray cats’ infestation in my city has grown to a level where people are disgusted yet unmoved by their constant presence. They weren’t given any type of care or attention. They’re commonly viewed as garbage dwellers and invaders when we forget that they’re creatures that need to be taken care of just like any other domestic animal,” Al-Jefri told Arab News. “I want to bring attention to their plight and the importance of their being. Each painting is a lifelike representation of compassion and a challenge to the social construct that is a street cat, I wanted to shock a viewer to reconsider their stance toward them. There’s a balance of admiration and disgust that works, it speaks to you.”
Rex Chouk’s paintings — a contemporary commentary of the Saudi system — feature classical cartoon characters, such as Bugs Bunny running after Daffy Duck, integrated with slang or an icon from a global pop culture, car drifting for example, on a large canvas. His work brought out the child within.
Photographer and collagist Rund Al-Arabi’s “Circa now” of well-preserved photographs of family members also evoked a sense of nostalgia, much like Chouk’s work. According to Rund, “you control passing these memories on to the next generation.” She artfully placed one image on top of another, creating a fascinating collage.
“I dug up old photographs of my family and collected them accordingly. One is from Bab Shareef in Jeddah while another is in Um Durman, Sudan, another is in Canada while the other in Japan. I took months to mash each one and connect them, they’re an extension of each other. As I was looking at each picture, I felt that each one is connected to another and I could see a story form in front of me,” she told Arab News.
The year is coming to an end, but this art show goes on until Jan. 5 and serves as a reminder that there is always new, innovative Saudi Arabia-based talent waiting to burst onto the scene.

‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).
Updated 19 April 2018

‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

  • Syrian artists-in-exile discuss their absence from their homeland and its impact on their work
  • For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief

DUBAI: “Being away from Syria is difficult,” young poet Maysan Nasser said. “Seven years later, it still feels like a phantom limb. It feels like the echo of white noise that is reverberating louder by the day.”

Nasser, a Beirut Poetry Slam champion, was talking separation: The idea that the loss of Syria is like an amputation. After seven years, she is still looking for answers to questions of home and belonging.

The first time I saw Nasser perform was last year during Zena El Khalil’s ‘Sacred Catastrophe: Healing Lebanon,’ a “40-day intervention” designed to permanently kick open the doors of Beit Beirut, a museum to the memory of the city in Sodeco. Her performance was raw and emotive.

The second time was in the basement of Riwaq Beirut, a coffee shop, cultural center and bar all rolled into one. She was addressing a small but appreciative young crowd and looked nervous. It was just a few weeks after she had launched the open-mic night ‘Sidewalk Beirut’ and the anxiety and jitters remained. In reality they shouldn’t. The crowd loves her.

“In this enforced distance from Syria, such communities have become my anchors,” she admitted. Yet her work, although deeply personal — sometimes painfully so — never directly discusses Syria or her home city of Damascus.

“I believe the distance of separation was the birth of my work,” she said. “It was in this distance that I was able to reconsider who I am, what my relationship to my family is like, what my relationship to my body is. I believe my poems to be attempts at understanding myself and my surroundings, but also my past.

“So when I speak about my mother and my relationship to her, I am also considering my mother’s past and the traditions she has internalized and passed on to me, which inevitably cast light on a time and place in Syria, and which inevitably expose my own connections and roots — or lack of, at times. This separation, in a sense, has coincided with a coming of age.”

At the same time as Nasser was hosting her early edition of Sidewalk Beirut, a mile or so away at The Colony in Karantina Zeid Hamdan, a pioneer of Lebanon’s underground music scene, was preparing to perform at Sofar Sounds. The venue —hidden up three flights of stairs in the Dagher Building — was little more than two empty rooms and an adjacent terrace. With him were the Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).

Hamdan has been performing with the trio since they left Damascus in 2011. Theirs is an energetic, sometimes harsh, alternative-rock sound, although that is changing. Their soon-to-be-released new album, “Human Reverie,” is as much about electronica as it is guitars and vocals.

“This pressure we’re living is kind of unique,” said Tarek Khuluki, the band’s guitarist and sometime vocalist. “You see people who are nagging about it or who are trying to use this pressure as a tool to escape the reality we’re living in, which can lead to unbalanced results. At the same time, you see people who are making the best they can with the little amount of nothing that they have. All they want is to see their ideas manifest themselves in art or in any other shape. 

“Psychologically, we’ve learned not to think too much and not to play the role of victims, but to focus on our own language, which is music.”

It’s hard to discern whether the war in Syria has had a direct impact on Tanjaret Daghet’s work, or whether the wider woes of the Arab world are partially responsible for their sound and lyrics. They sing of political oppression and societal pressure, the absence of feeling and the loss of voice.

“We do not live the state of war in the real sense of the word,” says Khaled Omran, the band’s lead singer and bassist. “What we’re living is a kind of internal war, which has arisen from our instincts as humans. It’s our right to express ourselves through art and music because it’s more humanistic, and this has allowed us to meet several artists and to exchange expertise. Who knows, maybe if we had stayed in Syria, none of that would have happened.” 

Outside of Beirut, up in the mountains of Aley, a series of old Ottoman stables have been converted into a residence for Syrian artists. Since it was first opened by Raghad Mardini in May 2012, Art Residence Aley has hosted numerous artists, including Iman Hasbani and Anas Homsi. Both now live in Berlin. Beirut, for some, is only transitory. 

“It has given me a wider vision of the world,” says the artist and film director Hazem Alhamwi of his own exile in Berlin. “Maybe it’s more painful, but it’s more real. It is training for how to change pain into creative energy. Since 2014 I have been painting a collection I call ‘Homeland in the Imagination’. It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination.”

Alhamwi is best known for “From My Syrian Room,” a documentary in which, through art and conversation, he attempts to understand how Syrians have learned to live with the distress and anxiety caused by war. It was while editing the film in France in 2013 that he realized he could not return to Syria, he said.

“I feel tired,” he told Arab News. “I feel as if I have one leg here — where I have to integrate, and want to — and the other leg in Syria, where I cannot stop being interested in what is happening. My family, my friends and my memories are still there. On the other hand, I feel like I am discovering another kind of violence, moving from living under a military dictatorship to the dictatorship of money. It’s a smooth violence written on smooth paper and put into a clean envelope. I feel myself in the stomach of the capitalist machine.”

For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief; a way to portray an overwhelming sense of loss. For others, those expressions are more subtle.

“We watch so many lies on TV, that it looks like art could be the only honest witness to modern times,” said Alhamwi, whose next film, produced by Zeina Zahreddine and Florian Schewe, will examine issues of identity. “Even many people’s facial expressions are not real. But good art is not only a mirror of the artist, but also of the spirit of the time they live in; or it’s at least the result of this reaction (of) the artist (to) the era.

“Art always tries to get people to pay more attention and not to repeat the same mistakes, but to learn from them instead. In wars, where the feelings of people are ignored and all the focus is on weapons, killing, fire and iron, art protects people’s real memory, away from any agenda or propaganda. It is this complicated memory that reflects the events, the emotions and the point of view of the artist. That is why art is needed in war as a special documentation. To tell the stories of people who didn’t get involved, because of position or fate,” he continued. “Art is a way for artists to survive in a world controlled by violence.”