Find out why 21,39 is at the heart of Jeddah’s art scene

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A close up of a piece by artist Nojoud Al-Sudairi.
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A section of Filwa Nazer’s “The Anatomy of Winning” (2018).
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Ahaad Alamoudi’s “Those Who Do Not Know Of Falcons Grill Them” (2018).
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Moath Alofi’s “Mihlaiel” (2018).
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An untitled piece by artist Ayman Yossri Daydaban.
Updated 10 February 2018
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Find out why 21,39 is at the heart of Jeddah’s art scene

JEDDAH: This week saw the opening of the most-anticipated art exhibition in town. Jeddah’s bustling art scene was in full swing as annual contemporary art fair 21,39, organized by the Saudi Art Council (SAC) under the patronage of Princess Jawaher bint Majid Abdulaziz Al-Saud, returned for its fifth edition, this time under the theme “Refusing to Be Still.”
The exhibition is being held in multiple locations throughout Jeddah — including SAC’s headquarters, Rubat Al-Khunji in Al-Balad, and the old PepsiCo. factory, which has never before been open to the public — and will run until May 5. It features more than 30 artists, both local and international, and stages numerous artworks in different mediums including sculpture, painting, audio-visual installations and more. It will also feature book launches, a chess competition, workshops and fun family events.
The theme revolves around artists’ desire to continually evolve and spark dialogue. The SAC’s website says the exhibition reveals “the creative energy that characterizes contemporary production in Saudi Arabia and its growing significance in the 21st century.”
Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, assistant curator at the Tate Modern in London, was invited to curate the exhibit and has brought together an array of new artists, Saudi and international, who have created a heady mix of interpretations of the theme, with many interesting angles.
“‘Refusing to Be Still’ presents the creative energies that are active within the local context,” he told Arab News. “I wanted to use the intensity of internationalization to advance a dialogue with other artists from around the world whose work deals with similar concerns about human issues.”
Oikonomopoulos added that the artists have “surpassed” his expectations.
“Working with the artists closely, and commissioning their works, was important because it was also sort of creating a dialogue between us,” he said. “The works are dynamic and it’s necessary as a curator to support the artists to the maximum. Like an evolving reality, artistic practices are constantly transforming, refusing to stand still and become permanent.”
Veteran artist Ayman Yossri Dayban’s latest sculptural installation based on 1960’s Egyptian cinema posters. He has created a complex space based on the posters but defined by the areas he has cut out. A light emanating from inside those cut-out areas of the four-sided sculpture is intended to engage passersby as the shadows from the sculpture fill the entire space, amplifying the sense of theatricality and intensity.
Elsewhere, Madinah-based photographer and explorer Moath Alofi stages a video installation entitled “Mihlaiel,” which tells the story of lost heritage through scenes from five different locations around the magnificent lava tube volcanoes of Khaybar.
“I’m chasing a mystery, chasing enigmas, chasing regions unknown to most people,” Alofi told Arab News. “I wanted to expose and give recognition to the area by shedding light on its beauty. In a way, I wanted to show how we can all relate to these historical civilizations.”
His video is shot from above with corresponding extracts from the ground as the explorer walks around the abandoned structures of a historical fortress. Another part of the video shows the ancient structures of the Arabian desert kites, an ancient hunting technique dating back 6,000 to 9,000 years.
The dazzling aerial views of the lava tubes are surely the best images of them yet captured on film. Alofi’s short video brings history into the present.
First-time participant Hatem Ahmed’s paintings, meanwhile, interpret the theme by examining the way in which meanings of ‘life lessons’ from the past have shifted today.
“My paintings speak of different ideologies that were used in the past and were supposed to teach the viewer a life lesson,” he said. “We’ve taken these lessons from the past and twisted them in a way that speaks to your subconscious in the now.”
Ayman Zedani’s 54 concrete cubes are based on the World Heritage Site map of Jeddah.  The map is thus transformed into the 54 cubes by highlighting buildings in the city and embedding them in the cubes in the form of negative space, signifying the duality of the absence and presence of the site.
“Bab, is a site-specific installation that focuses on difficult issues related to preserving the old city of Jeddah.  Despite all the efforts to rescue it, it still struggles,” Zedani told Arab News.  “Preserving the city is a very delicate task, any attempts to intervene on its behalf must tackle both its complexity and vibrancy.”
Another 21,39 debutant, Saleh Sefari, has created a 15-hour video feed of a campsite staged on a construction site in Jeddah. The video, soundtracked by recordings of city life, displays a full day and alludes to the impossibility of depicting reality without resorting to fiction. What lies beyond the borders of the framed reality casts doubt on the authenticity of what we see and experience.
“The concept derived from a conversation I had with Vassilis,” Sefari explained. “It revolved around how our grasp of reality is inherently flawed by our own personal biases and beliefs. It not only revolves around movement, but the continuity of movement. My work revolves around questioning our most fundamental truths, an ever changing, constant, eternal battle between reality and our perspective of it. I’m extremely excited to showcase my work.”
Oikonomopoulos believes the fifth edition of 21,39 explores the multi-faceted practices that characterize the continuously active contemporary art movement in Saudi Arabia. Art lovers should not miss it.


Middle Eastern art exhibition celebrates life and work of Kahlil Gibran

Updated 16 August 2018
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Middle Eastern art exhibition celebrates life and work of Kahlil Gibran

LONDON: What is it about the work of the famed Lebanese poet, writer and artist Kahlil Gibran that touches the hearts of so many people across the world today, decades on from his death in 1931? An exhibition of art inspired by his writings held this month at Sotheby’s in London provided an opportunity to consider that question
“Kahlil Gibran: A Guide for our Times” was organized by the peace building movement, Caravan, and co-curated by Janet Rady and Marion Fromlet Baecker. It featured work by 38 artists from across the Middle East. The vision for the exhibition grew out of a recent book on Gibran titled “In Search of a Prophet: A Spiritual Journey with Kahlil Gibran” by the Rev. Canon Paul-Gordon Chandler, Caravan’s founding president.
Chandler is committed to breaking down cultural, racial and religious barriers. Through the Caravan initiative he has hosted numerous exhibitions using art to build bridges between the Middle East and the West. He sees the message contained in Gibran’s 1923 book “The Prophet” as profoundly relevant today.
Speaking to Arab News at the packed-out event, he said: “All the artists in this exhibition are trying to express how they have been inspired, challenged and encouraged by Gibran’s themes of peace, love and harmony for all of humanity. The thread running through all the work is the unique role that Gibran plays in reminding us that we are one family.
“The idea of the Caravan movement is that we are all journeying together, regardless of background, tradition or religion,” he continued. “The arts have a unique role in peace-building between the Middle East and the West.”
Lebanese-Syrian artist Rana Chalabi, who was raised in Lebanon, said she first read “The Prophet” at school, but made a point of re-reading it several times before starting work on her contribution to the piece, “On Giving.”
Her painting shows a throng of people gazing upwards at a transcendent figure — the Prophet — who seems to shimmer above the multitude in hues of gold.
“To me, Gibran’s Prophet represents an enlightened mystic,” she explained. “He was so ahead of his time and such a spiritual person.”
For Chalabi, Gibran’s work continues to resonate. “The wisdom of Gibran is very much needed today,” she said. “He could explain his ideas in a simple way to people. In his day he was misunderstood and branded a heretic by those who missed the essence of what he was saying and took his teachings at a very superficial level.”
Chalabi was clearly pleased to have been invited to submit work to Caravan’s exhibition.
“I believe in what Rev. Chandler is trying to do,” she said. “We have to bridge the differences in the world and try to understand each other’s religions, cultures and perspectives.”
Bahraini artist Lulwa Al-Khalifa showed a striking painting of a woman, titled
“Blind Faith.” The starkly expressive figure looks perplexed and stares out from the painting with an abstract and tense expression.
Al-Khalifa said: “There are a lot of emotions I wanted to convey through this work. I was exploring the concept of faith and how sometimes people have to abandon some of the ideas that give them their own sense of identity and take a leap of faith. I consider the question ‘How much of you are you prepared to surrender for your faith?’ Faith is surrender with cause but without proof. Sometimes people have to face ambivalence, fear and anxiety on this journey.”
Al-Khalifa also stressed how relevant Gibran outlook remains today.
“I love how Gibran explored many aspects of many themes. His thought process is very fresh and modern — even today,” she said. “It is not rigid, but very hopeful and expresses love and acceptance.
“I really believe that all people are united as human beings. But we try so hard to separate from each other, even though in reality we all have the same concerns and loves and hates. We should come together,” she continued.
Lebanese artist Christine Saleh Jamil echoed Al-Khalifa’s sentiments. “Gibran means so much to me. Reading his book ‘The Prophet’ taught me a lot about life, how to live peacefully and accept things in a harmonious way,” she said. “His message is very important today.”
Jamil created “The Wanderer,” a captivating image of Gibran as a child, for the exhibition. Her work, she said, was based on a photograph and inspired by Chandler’s book, which, she said, “took me back to my childhood in Beirut.”
“That’s why I chose to represent Gibran as a child and in this image you see his face set among birch trees, as he loved nature,” she explained.
Lebanon’s ambassador to the UK, Rami Mortada — a special guest at the event — spoke to Arab News about Gibran’s legacy.
“The interest shown here tonight and the big turnout is an indication of how the message he stands for is relevant, badly needed and timely in our world today,” Mortada said. “It is a message of harmony and peace, of removing barriers between nations and cultures, and of interfaith dialogue. This is what Gibran encapsulated. If I had to sum up his work up in one word, I would say (it is) inspirational.”
Another ambassador, Dr. Alisher Shaykhov from Uzbekistan, stressed that Gibran’s work is of truly global significance.
“Gibran’s fame extends far beyond the Middle East. He is a person who has succeeded in transferring the spirit of the Islamic people in a harmonious way,” he observed. “One of his most important messages is that of the unifying elements, rather than the differences, between religions. He has a gift of being able to express the feelings of the people. The artists here, imbued with his spirit, have transferred his message through their artworks in their own personal way.”
Art enthusiast Mira Takla said she had attended a number of ‘Caravan’ art events and always found their message very persuasive.
“As far as I am concerned these events do more for interracial understanding and comprehension and tolerance of different cultures than many other such initiatives,” she said.
Another guest. Anthony Wynn, gave a good example of Gibran’s cross-cultural appeal, pointing out that he had often heard Gibran quoted at weddings in the UK — particularly a verse from “On Marriage” from “The Prophet”:
“Love one another, but make not a bond of love/Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls/Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup/Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf/Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone/Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.”