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

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.

Saudi Venice Biennale debut follows Cannes

Updated 25 May 2018

Saudi Venice Biennale debut follows Cannes

  • The Saudi pavilion illustrated the evolution underway as the country embraces a new era of change, powered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for the future
  • Communication is the overriding aim for the creators behind the Saudi pavilion

VENICE: In its debut appearance at Italy’s leading architecture fair on Thursday, Saudi Arabia unveiled a sweeping exhibition exploring the country’s progress over the past five decades. 

Holding its own among the 65 national pavilions at the 16th Venice Biennale’s International Architecture Exhibition, the Saudi pavilion illustrated the evolution underway as the country embraces a new era of change, powered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for the future.

It is the first time the Kingdom has had a presence at the Venice event, which is considered one of the leading forums for international architecture and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the globe to the city.

At the heart of the display in the Venetian Arsenal — the historic shipyards that house some of the most prominent pavilions at the fair — a set of screens on opposite walls flash clips of Saudi cities showing people wandering along the Jeddah Corniche or drinking coffee at a Bujairy Park cafe in Riyadh.

The reels illustrate the way urban sprawl has unfolded across the Kingdom, where rapid urbanization resulting in settlement-driven growth has skipped over spaces in Saudi cities, leaving vast lots vacant between buildings.

With more than 40 percent of urban land unused, communities are dispersed, creating a sense of fragmentation between neighborhoods connected only by cars.

“The vacant lot is a highly prevalent typology in Saudi cities: anyone passing through them will notice the empty tracts of land everywhere,” said architect Turki Gazzaz, who co-created the pavilion space – which is named “Spaces in Between” — with his brother Abdulrahman Gazzaz.

The duo, who founded Jeddah-based architectural studio Bricklab, beat 70 other entries to secure the commission to create the Kingdom’s first biennale pavilion, which shows the role design can play in restoring the social and structural fabric of Saudi cities.

While outlets for creative expression have previously been limited in the Kingdom, attitudes toward design-led solutions are becoming increasingly favorable. 

“People are becoming more conscious about these critical issues that exist within our urban fabric … this is beginning to spill out into our society and affect it in a positive way,” Abdulrahman said.

Recent reforms rolled out under Vision 2030 have created a channel for creativity to fuel the country’s growth as it looks beyond the oil sector — a turning point highlighted by the pavilion’s use of resin, which is a byproduct of the petrochemical industry.

This has been mixed with sand — a material that both symbolizes Saudi Arabia and links it to the rest of the world — for the giant curved screens that frame the exhibition.

Inside, projections show digital maps of the Kingdom’s main cities, beginning with aerial perspectives that convey their fragmented growth before moving down to street-level snapshots of everyday life in the city.

These pictures have been drawn from social media and most are taken from cars, the dual axis of urban life for city-dwelling Saudis.

Below, old mobile phones, a walkie-talkie and broken motherboards are showcased beneath a glass panel of fragmented electronics to “create a conversation about consumer culture” and comment on the “virtual public space” that people increasingly congregate in at the expense of public places, said Abdulrahman.

Speaking to Arab News at the launch of the Saudi pavilion in Venice on Thursday, Dhay Al-Dhawyan, project manager at the Ministry of Municipality and Rural Affairs, described the need to “humanize” Saudi cities, something Vision 2030, and the more immediate targets for 2020, are moving toward.

“We want to bring back city centers, walkability, accessibility, connectivity and rework the visual aspects of our cities to make them more lively and functional,” he said.

The overall theme at this year’s biennale is “Freespace,” selected by the Irish curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara to encourage architects to explore how “a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity” can contribute to the urban environment.

Tapping into this ethos, the Saudi pavilion curators have compiled a display that blurs the boundaries between development and desert, city border and boundless expanse.

In demographic terms, Saudi cities have always been diverse, but in many cases they lack the infrastructure to encourage interaction, said Jawaher Al-Sudairy, one of the exhibition curators and director of Nahda Center for Research as well as senior program manager at Harvard Kennedy School.

“There are public spaces, but they are under-utilized, so that’s where the conversation should be.”

Communication is the overriding aim for the creators behind the Saudi pavilion, which invites visitors to explore the evolution taking place in Saudi Arabia’s skyline and engage with the social shift underway as the Kingdom steps on to the world stage.

“We’re tackling a global issue here; this is not unique to Saudi Arabia,” said Dr. Sumayah Al-Solaiman, the other half of the female curatorial team at the exhibition.

In keeping with the spirit of the biennale, literature distributed at the Saudi pavilion errs on the side of the aloof and arty, but the experience created by the exhibition is firmly grounded and accessible.

The teams want visitors to identify with the issues raised, which have a global resonance in an era defined by rapid urban growth. “We’re more similar with other nations than we are different … and this is a great way to have a conversation that is not necessarily bound by national boundaries,” said Al-Solaiman, dean of the College of Design at Imam Abdulrahman bin Faisal University.

“The Venice Biennale is an excellent platform to start a conversation around architecture and how were designing and building, and we want to have this discussion with other architects around the world.”

“Our participation in the International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia is an unprecedented moment for Saudi Arabia’s creative community. It’s an opportunity to bring pioneering Saudi thought to an international platform through our creative vernacular,” said Ahmed Mater, executive director of the Misk Art Institute, which organized the Saudi pavilion.

“Coupled with the allocation of an incredible pavilion space, we are very excited about our presentation this year at the Biennale Architettura, but are also looking forward to future years and presentations and what they will draw on from our own community.”

For Al-Sudairy, one of the most interesting projects on the horizon is the Riyadh Metro, which she believes will change a lot more than mobility in the capital. “I can’t wait to see how it changes the way people move around … it’s going to transform the city physically and socially.”

The Metro is one of many large-scale projects underway in the Kingdom that aims to bring a sense of cohesion to the country’s urban environments and unite diverse communities.

The Saudi pavilion opens to the public on Saturday, May 26.


The Saudi pavilion exhibition ‘Spaces in Between,’ above and top. (Valeria Mariani)