US show of Saudi art aims to test perceptions

In this undated photo provided by Arab American National Museum, "Digital Spirituality" by Saudi Arabian artist Amr Alngmah is seen. The piece depicts the cube-shaped Kaaba in the Saudi Arabian city of Makkah, Islam's most sacred site in the middle of a circuit board. (Courtesy of Arab American National Museum via AP)
Updated 16 June 2017

US show of Saudi art aims to test perceptions

DETROIT: A US exhibition featuring the works of roughly 40 Saudi artists aims to share their expressions, foster conversations and challenge conceptions of life in the Islamic nation.
“Epicenter X: Saudi Contemporary Art” opens July 8 and runs for about three months at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
It will feature photographic and video installations as well as murals exploring themes of urbanization, globalization, religion and the impact of US culture on Saudi society.
It is among the first and largest US shows featuring a group of contemporary Saudi artists, some of whom have had their work exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and elsewhere.
It is also a big score for the Smithsonian-affiliated Arab museum in a Detroit suburb that can lay claim to being the capital of Arab America.
“I think there’s a lot changing in Saudi Arabia right now,” museum Director Devon Akmon said. “What I find really interesting is obviously the role of the artist in society, regardless of where they are. They are chroniclers of our time — they bear witness, they reflect, they speak about contemporary issues. That’s exactly what many of the artists in this show are doing.”
Themes explored in the exhibit include the role of urbanization and changing landscapes in cities and the impact of religion on society. Akmon said many Americans are neither “attuned to” those issues in Saudi Arabia nor aware that artists are “giving voice to these discussions.”
Akmon said he and his colleagues worked closely on the exhibit with the Saudi Arabia-based King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, known as Ithra.
The museum also expressed its desire to display a wide array of artwork representing a diversity of artists, including women.
Among the pieces that will be on display is “Digital Spirituality” by Amr Alngmah. Akmon calls it a commentary on “how technology is becoming a religion in our lives.”
Another artist involved in the exhibition is Ayman Yossri Daydban, who also is the museum’s current artist in residence. He will have three photographic works in the exhibit and will be staging two solo shows. Daydban, whose last name means “watchman” in Arabic, has been encouraged to use the museum’s exhibits and archives and surrounding communities as his “studio,” as he creates or collaborates on numerous multimedia projects.
“I have had many residencies, including in Dubai, Berlin and Paris,” Daydban said with the help of an interpreter. “This is the first time when I feel like I becoming younger, and I find it very refreshing. This residency makes me feel brave to ask questions.”
Akmon said his visit to the Kingdom opened his eyes to the burgeoning, expressive art scene in Jeddah featuring men and women. He hopes that visitors to the exhibit experience that as well.
“It was essentially discovery — getting an introduction to some of the ideas of the Saudi people that was unfiltered, so to speak,” he said. “That’s exactly what people will see when they come to the gallery — a range of ideas and philosophies emerging.”


Biggest swimming pool in Russia’s Muslim south bans women, causing outcry

Updated 22 January 2020

Biggest swimming pool in Russia’s Muslim south bans women, causing outcry

MOSCOW: The biggest swimming pool in Russia’s Muslim-majority North Caucasus region has banned women, prompting anger from rights activists and others who have accused the sports complex of discrimination.
The Anzhi Arena spa-complex near Makhachkala, the capital of the internal Russian republic of Dagestan, announced its policy change on the Instagram social media platform on Monday.
“From Jan. 20 onwards attendance of the pool is open only to men,” it said.
The decision has sparked heated debate among residents of the mountainous region, where traditional social values and conservative interpretations of Islam often put it at odds with large parts of European Russia where more liberal values prevail.
The swimming pool said its decision to deny entry to women, who were previously only admitted on Fridays for women-only sessions, was financially motivated.
“Unfortunately, there were hardly any visitors during women’s days,” the RIA news agency cited the spa complex as saying on its Instagram page, which has now been set to private.
“Specifically because of this, after a thorough analysis and evaluation, the difficult decision was made that keeping days for women open in our pool was not viable.”
It is common in the North Caucasus region to find sports facilities offering men and women access on separate days of the week. But a complete ban on women using the pool goes against the Russian constitution, activists said.
Fatima Abdulkhalimova, 31, said she could no longer use the pool despite working there as an instructor.
“I do demonstrations, show people the correct technique, and now I’m not allowed to enter the water,” Abdulkhalimova, a former professional swimmer, said.
“I think it’s to do with religion, I believe it is because a lot of religious guys come here,” she said.
Access to the pool had initially been permitted for both men and women, she said, before being restricted to Fridays only for women.
If having women-only days was not financially viable, then why not simply return to the earlier, mixed-gender system, Abdulkhalimova questioned.
Three women from Dagestan have now filed a complaint to the regional Prosecutor’s Office accusing the sports complex of unconstitutional gender-based discrimination, a copy of the document, shared by Olga Gnezdilova, a lawyer with the Rights Initiative Project, showed.
One of the complainants is Svetlana Anokhina, editor of a local online media platform focused on women’s rights. She said the practice of separating public spaces by gender was on the rise.
“I have a daughter here and she has three daughters too. I’m angry because... I’m afraid for them. I don’t want them to live in a special ghetto for women,” Anokhina, who is based in Makhachkala, said.
One woman, who said she frequently used the pool, said she had been refused a membership pass last month.
Commenting on a post on Instagram she wrote that the pool’s administrators had told her she couldn’t buy a pass because there was not enough locker room space for men.