Meet Ahmed Mater, the man transforming Saudi Arabia into an art haven

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Changing Positions, by Victor Vasarely. A vivid colorful sculpture is a play on various colors, and assembled in an infinite number of variations.
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Mater searched thoroughly to find original sketches of the sculptures. Here we have a sketch by Julio Lafuente for the Bicycle Roundabout, 1982.
Updated 18 March 2018

Meet Ahmed Mater, the man transforming Saudi Arabia into an art haven

RIYADH: Entering the Misk Institute is like visiting wonderland. New visitors can only marvel at the artwork that covers walls, ceilings and even staircases.
This creative hub is not afraid of color and has an energetic vibe. Ambitious young people work here and their energy is palpable.
The entrance hall declares “Our ambitions reach the sky,” quoting the words of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose portrait hangs alongside his words.
Color is a trademark of Misk Institute Director Ahmed Mater. Born in Tabuk in 1979 and raised in the city of Abha in the south of the Kingdom, Mater’s love of art came early. “I love color, I grew up around it,” he said.
He is referring to Al-Qatt Al-Asiri, the multi-colored wall decorations deeply rooted in the south of the Kingdom.
This ancient art form, exclusively practiced by women, has been declared part of the cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO.
Mater’s own works give an unparalleled perspective on modern-day Saudi Arabia. He has regularly exhibited around the Kingdom, and in numerous international institutions such as New York’s Guggenheim and Brooklyn museums, Washington’s The Smithsonian, and in Lebanon, Bahrain, Denmark, France and many more. He is seen worldwide as the unofficial historian of Saudi socio-political life.
The Eye, by Cesar Baldaccini. A 500 cm Bronze statue, is one of three of Baldaccini’s sculptures (The Thumb and The Fist) that are in Jeddah. The traditional conceptions are based on parts of the human body.
Before becoming an artist, he was a medical physician. But far from it being a change in direction, Mater said both are “intertwined and go hand in hand.”
His “Illuminations” project showed his fascination for merging science and art. He created a fusion of x-rays and traditional Islamic arts using discarded hospital images and paints on paper prepared with tea and pomegranate to achieve a luminous effect.
He has attracted attention for his ground breaking displays. His work encompasses photography, video, installation, paintings and calligraphy, his style changing from project to project.
As director of the Misk Institute, he has had the full support of the crown prince. Mater said: “This is Saudi Arabia’s Renaissance age, and our crown prince is the Medici.”
Referring to his famous photograph “Magnetism” (2011), Mater said: “Anyone who has been to Makkah and specifically visited the Ka’aba can feel the spiritual pull. That’s where the idea came from.”
Mater’s eyes light up as he leafs through the pages of his latest work “Sculptures of Jeddah.” It documents the restoration and relocation of 26 major works that had been forgotten.
“Jeddah is the bride of the sea, always known for its beauty and being a haven for artists,” he said.
He said in 1972, the newly appointed mayor of Jeddah at the time, Mohammed Said Farsi, initiated the Jeddah Beautification Project and purchased more than 400 sculptures, including works by international artists.
Working for more than a year to collect all these treasures and document them in an almost 300-page book, Mater is something of a historian, documenting magnificent sculptures that are Jeddah’s landmarks.
His book explored and revived the work of many renowned artists who have contributed to Jeddah’s famous landmarks.
“Pick a favorite,” I said. Mater’s eyes lit up and he said: “They are all special.” He leafs through the book and shows me works by Cesar Baldaccini, Henry Moore and many others.
“Many people are astonished that Jeddah has works of art by many of these famous sculptors,” he said.
There is a light in his eyes as he marvels at the sculptures, as if looking at them for the first time. The book records the extreme care taken to bring the sculptures back to life.
Speaking of other Saudi cities, Mater said: “In less than five years, Riyadh will be transformed into an artist’s retreat with many art works.”
He is striving to ensure this goal is achieved, while also inspiring many all over the world through his work.

Life lessons from inspirational women — Alexis

Music artist 'Alexis.' (Supplied)
Updated 19 February 2019

Life lessons from inspirational women — Alexis

  • UAE-based singer-songwriter, Alexis just released her album “This Is Me”
  • She talks tolerance, proving yourself, and the power of words

DUBAI: The UAE-based singer-songwriter, who just released her album “This Is Me,” talks tolerance, proving yourself, and the power of words

I’m very demanding of myself, which is a contradiction, because I’m so understanding and accepting of the weaknesses of other people, but I’m not that kind to myself. But I don’t mind laughing at myself either.


I’ve been guilty, earlier in my career, of trying to force situations. Sometimes pushing is good, but allowing things to happen in their own time is also a valuable skill. It’s not necessarily about the destination; it’s the journey. And if you can allow yourself to enjoy the journey, you’ll get there eventually — perhaps in a better condition.


My father encouraged me to be an individual thinker. He’s a man who has roots in a very conservative, male-driven culture, but he was raised by a woman who wasn’t afraid to break the mold. He advised me that because of what I look like, and being a woman, I would always need to be more than just adequately prepared: “If you’re required to know two things for a job, when you walk in there you need to know four or six things.”


I know it’s probably just something parents tell their kids to help them get through difficult situations, but I think that “Sticks and stones may break your bones but words can never hurt you” thing is such nonsense. Words can hurt. They can cause incredible damage. It’s important for us to realize the impact of what we say, how we say it, and to whom. Words have power.


I handled my own business from the very beginning, so I found myself at 18 going into meetings with executives who were in their 40s and 50s. And of course I was a child to them. So having them look beyond the physical thing and realize that I was very serious about my work and knew what I was talking about was a challenge. It’s easy to see me as a fashion horse. It’s harder to see that I’m a worker. Get past the window dressing and I’ve got quality merchandise. But I survived life with older brothers. I think I can tackle anything at this point.


Men and women are equally capable, but in different ways. It’s a bit of a generalization, but we have to accept that different people have different methodologies.