Zahrah Al-Ghamdi finds the beauty in sadness

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Saudi Arabian land artist Zahrah Al-Ghamdi. (Abdullah Alsheri)
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'After Illusion' consists of tens of thousands of leather spheres, each one hand-crafted. (Supplied)
Updated 22 May 2019
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Zahrah Al-Ghamdi finds the beauty in sadness

  • This month saw perhaps the most significant accomplishment of Al-Ghamdi’s career to date
  • Zahrah Al-Ghamdi discusses her love of land art and organic materials

VENICE: The Al-Baha-born, Jeddah-based land artist and arts professor Zahrah Al-Ghamdi has an unwavering passion for creating arresting, large-scale installations composed of natural materials — sand, clay, rocks, leather and the like. Explaining her love of shaping these organic substances, Al-Ghamdi once said: “It’s important for me to smell the sand and feel it with my own hands, because those senses of touch and smell allow my work a synergy, and if I don’t get that synergy, I can’t work.”

This month saw perhaps the most significant accomplishment of Al-Ghamdi’s career to date. The artist was chosen to inaugurate Saudi Arabia’s pavilion at the 2019 edition of the Venice Biennale —the art world’s largest public event and oldest contemporary art show — through an immersive solo exhibition entitled “After Illusion.”

Al-Ghamdi was jointly selected to represent the Kingdom by the recently developed Saudi Ministry of Culture and the Misk Art Institute, a homegrown arts foundation that aims to strengthen artistic activity within the Kingdom.

“To be honest, when I used to read about the Venice Biennale and its unique concept, I felt so far away from that world — it was like a dream,” Al Ghamdi tells Arab News. “In recent years, I’ve worked really hard and always hoped to achieve more through each work I would present. So when I received the call from the Misk Art Institute to participate at the biennale, it was like a dream I never thought I’d dream. I was elated but simultaneously felt a great deal of responsibility, as I am not representing (just) myself, but my country and all its artists.”  

Through her debut participation at the biennale, which is open to the public until November 24, Al-Ghamdi joins a canon of female artists putting on solo exhibitions and taking the lead in representing their countries to the world, including Larissa Sansour for Denmark, Laure Prouvost for France, Cathy Wilkes for Great Britain, Nujoom Al-Ghanem for the UAE and Naiza Khan for Pakistan.

In a dimly lit, almost celestial setting, “After Illusion” takes the viewer through a thoughtfully designed constellation of 52,000 manually manipulated leather spheres — or ‘creatures’ as Al-Ghamdi likes to call them — cascading down white drop curtains, while others are scattered on the ground. Adding intimacy to the overall experience, an audio recording of Al-Ghamdi working in her atelier plays within the pavilion’s interior.

As with most of Al-Ghamdi’s works, the exhibition not only reflects an element of Saudi Arabia’s history and evolving identity, but also the artist’s own history, acting as an expressive form of self-portrait.

“One of the things that I liked about Al-Ghamdi’s work is that she makes her work by hand,” says pavilion curator and fellow Saudi artist Eiman Elgibreen. “This is something we are missing lately in the art scene — everyone is doing manufactured, plastic-y things. I was always interested (in the fact) that she works with something very traditional but transforms it into something really contemporary and new. The leather material used here reminds her of her grandfather herding, but now no one herds. And so she took the leather and transformed it, which I thought would go very well with our concept. Just imagine these creatures having a new life and then trying to settle in Venice, reassuring people that it’s not wrong to transform and change, because eventually you’ll reach a new reality that way.”

Al-Ghamdi, too, has undergone transformation in her life and career, evolving her artistic vision by exploring themes of memory and loss, exhibiting works in Dubai’s AlSerkal Avenue and London’s British Museum, among others, and participating in international residency programs and symposiums. It was Al-Ghamdi’s father — a teacher who enjoyed drawing — who first noticed her artistic abilities and encouraged her to pursue the arts.

After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Islamic Arts from Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz University, Al-Ghamdi traveled to England, where she gained Master’s and PhD degrees in Design and Visual Art. It was during her studies abroad that Al-Ghamdi’s artistic knowledge greatly expanded, and land art was her greatest influence.

Land art — which, in its modern sense, gained momentum during the 1970s — was practiced by pioneering Western artists including Robert Smithson, Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long, and Walter De Maria. Resisting the commercialism of the art world and the confines of the gallery space, they turned instead to vast landscape settings for artistic expression — passionately sculpting into the ground or building massive installations using natural materials.

One of Al-Ghamdi's earlier works, 'What Lies Behind The Sun,' was constructed from thorns. (Supplied)

“In Saudi Arabia, the field of research was weak for me. But when I traveled abroad, I was introduced to a whole other world through the Internet and exhibitions,” Al-Ghamdi explains. “I was deeply influenced by land artists Smithson, Goldsworthy, and Long, and I was taken by their ability to use raw materials to express their feelings and attract the attention of viewers. They helped me see ‘nothing’ as something important, and that I could use raw materials to send a message. For instance, in a previous work I made, I placed tough thorns that were found in southern Saudi Arabia in a large circular shape. The thorns may indeed emit stories of pain, (but also), on the contrary, the notion of power and stability.”

Observing her experimental and thought-provoking oeuvre — from a carefully lined floor installation made of rubble to a layered gauze installation soaked in black paint — one may experience an unsettling sense of isolation, sadness, and vulnerability. A kind of destruction, almost.

“That is exactly how I want you to see my work. When I look at architecture, I do not necessarily see the beauty or happiness it exudes. My colleagues often ask me why I focus on the misery of architecture, but that’s what personally interests me — I need to see its truth. When I look at the old, abandoned buildings in the south of Saudi Arabia, they’re isolated and look unhappy to me, as they are surrounded by contradictory modern counterparts that do not attract me,” Al-Ghamdi says. “In my work, I am also trying to send a message to the viewer that the earth, which grants life and stability, suffers from the relentless actions of human beings through dryness, pollution, and war."


Mindfulness profits as meditation apps mature

Updated 17 June 2019
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Mindfulness profits as meditation apps mature

  • According to figures from Marketdata, the US mindfulness market as a whole including the dozens of apps on offer topped $1 billion in 2017, and should double that by 2022

PARIS: From the Zen capital of LA to the Champs Elysees comes the calming voice of a British Buddhist monk-turned entrepreneur, introducing American-style online mindfulness to the stressed-out French.

“Relax your muscles, breathe,” Andy Puddicombe, the bronzed co-founder of the app Headspace, intones by videoconference to a roomful of participants gathered on Paris’s chic shopping artery.

The Englishman and his French team are hoping to replicate the US success of Headspace with a French-language version, in a market where New Age philosophies from the “Anglo-Saxon” world are often viewed askance.

Its path has been helped by the success of French mindfulness app Petit Bambou, which launched in 2015 — five years after Headspace — and claims more than three million users in France for its free and paid platforms.

Both apps use guided meditations for an array of situations — from coping with bereavement to just getting through a difficult day at work — with support from online counsellors, funky animations and videos.

In France, as in the US, Britain and elsewhere, companies have been signing up to subscriptions for their employees.

“Meditation is not a miracle tool, rather a mental hygiene: what’s essential is regular practice.”

Benjamin Blasco, co-founder of Petit Bambou

Petit Bambou says it has secured “hundreds of licenses” from companies such as Deloitte and railways group SNCF, and that it has nothing to fear from Headspace, which along with rival Calm dominates the US market.

In a Paris studio, working on voice recordings for the app, Petit Bambou co-founder Benjamin Blasco said his company was in any case aiming for the long haul.

“We broke even three years ago. We will not sacrifice anything on the altar of marketing,” Blasco told AFP.

“We do not try at all costs to keep people in the app,” he said, but to solicit a two-way exchange and tailor therapy to the user’s needs.

“Meditation is not a miracle tool, rather a mental hygiene: what’s essential is regular practice,” Blasco said.

Investors are certainly buying in to the concept. Calm — which like Headspace was co-founded by a British emigre to California, Michael Acton Smith — raised $88 million from a fundraising round in February.

That gave it a valuation of $1bn, which Smith noted made Calm the first “mental health unicorn”.

“Unicorns” are start-up companies with a billion-plus valuation.

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The US mindfulness market is estimated to be worth $1 billion, and is expected to double that by 2022.

But like Headspace, Calm has its sights set further afield. In Britain it has enlisted actor and TV presenter Stephen Fry to record bedtime stories for use on a popular feature that helps users get to sleep.

“America is only 4.5 percent of the total global population, so there are a lot of other people that can enjoy the product and help the company grow,” Smith told CNBC after the investment round.

According to figures from Marketdata, the US mindfulness market as a whole including the dozens of apps on offer topped $1 billion in 2017, and should double that by 2022.

Helped by the growth in apps, a survey by the National Center for Health Statistics found 14 percent of Americans had meditated in 2017, a threefold increase in five years.

Headspace alone says it has 50 million users worldwide, and has raised $75 million from investors in total, despite marketing a product that preaches “digital detox”.

The paradox is not lost on Richard Pierson, the company’s other British co-founder.

“Although there is the irony that the phone is probably causing us a lot of our stress, our hope is that by using Headspace, you’ll be able to teach yourself the techniques that you need to learn in order to be able to use your phone in a more mindful way,” he said at the Paris launch.

Many of the techniques in mindfulness apps are rooted in Buddhism and have long been familiar to practitioners in Asia. But what, if any, science underpins the apps?

Boosters got new backing with a US scientific study released in late April that looked at the effects of an experimental mindfulness app aimed at smokers.

The app helped many participants cut their smoking or give up altogether, by helping to rewire impulses in the brain linked to addiction.

The world of mindfulness “has become a business, but there is an ethical dimension,” commented Dominique Steiler, a professor at the Grenoble Ecole de Management who specialises in the “well-being” economy.

Apps “are a good way to get started”, but users should be encouraged ultimately to sever the smartphone cord and meditate alone, he said.