How an art residency program is fueling the creative Saudi spirit

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Ahad Alamoudi is trying to push the boundaries of the historical representation of Saudi Arabia. (Supplied/The New Museum Website)
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Moath Alofi, artist and explorer, based in Madinah, Saudi Arabia. (Supplied/The New Museum Website)
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Ahaad Alamoudi, I was told ice wouldn’t melt in heat. (Supplied/The New Museum Website)
Updated 06 October 2019

How an art residency program is fueling the creative Saudi spirit

  • A Jeddah art gallery is sending six Saudi artists to five cities for inspiration and self-challenge
  • Program is part of Athr Gallery's effort to promote exchange between artists and local communities

JEDDAH: From New York to Paris and from Barcelona to Beirut, Saudi artists are being given a great opportunity to further their knowledge and experience, as well as explore new ideas. Jeddah’s Athr Gallery, a strong supporter of contemporary art, is sending established Saudi artists to cities around the world for inspiration and self-challenge.
The art-residency program, entitled “Out of Place,” began as an open invitation to all Saudi-based artists during Athr’s 10th-anniversary exhibition.
“The title refers to the notion of home and comfort zones, both of which get shaken when artists root themselves in a new city and environment for a residency program,” Alia Fattouh, director of Athr Gallery, told Arab News.
The program began in this autumn and will continue until  winter next year. The residencies’ duration varies between three and six months.
The main goal of an art-residency program is to inspire and broaden the horizons of those taking part, by allowing them to experience art and culture in different contexts.
It allows artists to interact with curators, critics and other artists via workshops, seminars, discussions, exhibitions and collaborations. These experiences help artists develop their practice, approach, production, aesthetic and conceptual framework.
Being embedded in a fully developed art scene is critical to the success of a residency experience.
“By being based in these cities — Paris, Berlin, Beirut, New York and Barcelona — the artists have the opportunity to sit down with different art professionals, learn how to present their work and receive constructive feedback about their practice,” said Fattouh.
During the residency, artists and art practitioners are encouraged to visit as many museums and independent spaces as possible, and to be exposed to art in all its forms, be it performance, theater or public art.
Fattouh says the successful residency applicants were picked by a gallery committee based on their portfolio, the depth and originality of their work, the intellectual capital behind their practice, and the execution of an idea. Then they were selected by the residency house in each location.
Athr is keen to increase the number of residencies in order to enhance the local art scene and highlight home-grown talent. “We’re looking into making it an annual program,” Fattouh said. “Stay tuned.” Athr’s mission is to “foster a thriving creative art scene in Saudi Arabia and to nurture artists.”
“The gallery has acted as a bridge between Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world, and is behind the launch of many artists’ careers,” she said.
“So the residencies are only an extension of this work in creating international awareness of Saudi art and vice versa.” Ahaad Alamoudi, a 28-year-old Saudi artist, recently completed a two-month residency with Residency Unlimited in New York.

“It was amazing and added a lot to my experience. I learned a lot on many levels,” said Alamoudi, who is now back in Jeddah. The residency program, which ran between July and August, addressed participants’ needs and demands with its focus on network support, project production assistance and public exposure.

Residency is a new idea in the Saudi art scene. It’s a great chance to learn more.

Moath Alofi, Artist

“It was nice to be exposed to a new city, discover the art scene there, and meet different types of artists and curators who were part of the residency,” Alamoudi said.
“I had meetings scheduled with different people from the industry, including curators, artists and designers, and collaborated with one of the residents to produce a video artwork.”
She was able to exhibit three of her video works in the New Museum of Contemporary Art as part of a daily screening series. A longer video piece was exhibited in the museum’s weekly cinema event.
Alamoudi, who aims to alter the historical portrayal of the Kingdom through her work, considers the present time an exciting one for Saudi artists.

“There’s a lot of art emerging from Saudi Arabia, and many powerful artists are addressing important, sensitive topics intellectually,” she said.

The changing social landscape in Saudi Arabia is Alamoudi’s primary source of inspiration. In her four-hour video work “I was Told Ice Wouldn’t Melt in Heat,” she addressed the current changes in Saudi Arabia with a male performer who braves the harsh desert weather in a bid to prevent 250 blocks of ice from melting.
By the time the video ends, the ice has melted completely. “In this piece, I’m trying to stretch the moment of change out and trying to make sense of it,” she said.
Alamoudi is optimistic about the youth-driven revival of art and culture in Saudi Arabia. “The emerging art scene is powerful, young and very strong. It’s surely the foundation for a stronger future,” she said.

2019 ARTIST RESIDENCY LIST

● Ahaad Alamoudi at Residency Unlimited in NYC.

● Rund Alarabi at International Studio & Curatorial Program in NYC.

● Mohammed Alfaraj at Can Serrat in Barcelona

● Moath Alofi at Beirut Art Residency in Beirut.

● Badr Ali at Bethanien, Berlin.

● Abdulmohsen Abdulaziz at Al Mansouria Atelier in Paris.

The contemporary art movement in Saudi Arabia is the topic of a book entitled “Changing Saudi Arabia: Art, Culture, and Society in the Kingdom” by Sean Foley, a professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University.
Foley borrows the American political scientist Sidney Tarrow’s term “rooted cosmopolitans” to refer to young Saudi artists who are globally connected yet nationally oriented.

Foley says such artists are “distinguished by their linkage of the ‘global with the local’ and the use of ‘domestic and international resources and opportunities’ to realize significant change at home.” Their ability to create art that is “recognizably Saudi while still adhering to global norms” is the unique characteristic of the Kingdom’s evolving art and culture scene.
This inclusivity and openness is leading to a higher level of cultural dialogue between Saudis themselves, and between the Kingdom and the rest of the world.
Moath Alofi, a prominent Saudi artist who is preparing to begin his three-month residency in Beirut, said Saudi Arabia is a “very good medium for creativity.”
He added that the Kingdom has the potential to be a regional cultural hub for young local and non-local artists to flourish and grow in their career paths in different forms of art.
The upcoming stint with Beirut Art Residency will be the second residency in Alofi’s career.
He intends to make it an educational journey, to pick up new skills and hone his artistic talent. “It’ll give me time to focus on my art,” Alofi said.

“Residency is a new idea in the Saudi art scene. It’s a great chance to learn more. The experience depends on what the artist’s aims are and what the residency’s orientation is.”
He has been an artist, explorer, and culture and heritage researcher for the past five years. His photographic and documentation works focus on urban, architectural, human and cultural transformations. Alofi is inspired by the wide and diverse geography, history and culture of Saudi Arabia.

“There’s so much to discover in this country,” he said.
Both inside and outside the Saudi artistic community, there is a common complaint that limited access to sound artistic education deprives the field of informed criticism. However, Alofi sees this as a blessing in disguise.
“We might have missed an essential part of the journey, which is artistic education, or critical artistic skills, on the personal and social levels. But this (gap) has created a unique genre, which is tough and highly experimental,” he said.
“Saudi Arabia surprises me with new, unexpected, exceptional places. It gives me a lot of material to work with. There’s a lot of untapped creativity in the Kingdom. There’s a lot of potential.”


Akiba Cafe: Your manga escape in Saudi Arabia

Visitors to the cafe can order their drinks and browse Akiba’s collection for free at diner-style tables, or enjoy their experience solo as they catch up on their favorite manga tales. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)
Updated 10 August 2020

Akiba Cafe: Your manga escape in Saudi Arabia

  • Jeddah destination provides a taste of Japan with anime, comics, desserts and films

JEDDAH: Japanese comic books, known as manga, have captured the hearts of some Saudis so much that a 31-year-old citizen decided to give the genre’s fans a specialist Jeddah cafe so that they can pursue their passion as well as meet others who share it.

Akiba Cafe is the brainchild of Mohammed Saeed Baghlaf, an urban planning engineer who spent over a year living in Japan after graduating from college in the US and was working on a project for Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics.
Manga cafes can be found in most cities across Japan. They are a place where people can spend hours reading manga, and they are also considered to be a cultural space where people can relax and have conversations about manga.
He was inspired by the concept of manga cafes while he was in Japan, and took notice of the growing love for manga in the Kingdom. As an urban planner, he was able to grasp the Japanese concept and implement it in Saudi Arabia with a few tweaks and changes to suit the local audience.
“Manga cafés are all over Japan, albeit executed differently,” Baghlaf told Arab News. “They’re a little like internet cafés where people can spend the night. Of course, recreating that here doesn’t go along with our culture and traditions, so we recreated the concept in a way that accommodates that.”

Signature drinks
Akiba has only been open for a few months but, by the time Arab News visited the manga hotspot, people have already been flocking to the cafe to try out its signature drinks and read their favorite comics.

We have contracted a company in Tokyo to get the rights for a bunch of shows and, after many discussions, we get to air an episode an hour after it airs in Japan with Arabic subtitles for our customers.

Mohammed Saeed Baghlaf, Urban planning engineer

Friends and families can be seen relaxing together on the ground floor flicking through the pages of a comic book, or delving into a more accessible e-reading option as manga is still in short supply in Saudi Arabia.
Visitors to the cafe can order their drinks and browse Akiba’s collection for free at diner-style tables, or enjoy their experience solo as they catch up on their favorite manga tales.
Akiba also airs popular anime and animated films throughout the day, uploading their schedule on their Twitter and Instagram pages.
Baghlaf is an avid gamer, but watching anime and reading manga is definitely on his list of favorite things to do. Keeping up with popular stories also helps him to figure out what manga volumes to acquire and which anime films to screen.
The urban planning engineer noticed the Kingdom’s approach in linking many objectives in the Vision 2030 reform plan to entertainment and, as cafes continue to draw large crowds in Saudi Arabia, he felt encouraged about going for Akiba.
“Specialty cafes are very popular here nowadays, so how am I going to be special? I went for a manga or anime cafe,” he said.
The cafe’s target audience are those who are interested in specialty coffee, manga and anime. For people with a sweet tooth there are Japanese desserts on offer, including cheesecake.

BACKGROUND

• Akiba Cafe is the brainchild of Mohammed Saeed Baghlaf, an urban planning engineer.

• He spent over a year living in Japan after graduating from college in the US and was working on a project for Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics.

• He was inspired by the concept of manga cafes while he was in Japan, and took notice of the growing love for manga in Saudi Arabia.

• The name Akiba comes from Akihabara, a popular area in Tokyo that is a hub for anime, gaming and electronics retailers.

• It also has specialty cafes throughout its busy maze of streets.

• Mohammed Saeed Baghlaf wants to support local talent by initiating artist nights at Akiba so that people can come and get sketches and put local manga on display for readers to discover.

Baghlaf has to make frequent trips to Japan to discuss screening rights with creators in Tokyo. “We’ve contracted a company in Tokyo to get the rights for a bunch of shows and, after many discussions, we get to air an episode an hour after it airs in Japan with Arabic subtitles for our customers.”
Due to the deals Baghlaf has made with distributors, he receives the episodes prior to their airing date to green-light them in terms of translation accuracy and censorship, in order not to air anything that goes against the Kingdom’s culture.
The same goes for manga. “I would bring in a story with 70-something volumes and, out of those, one book could end up with something inappropriate and I’d have to shelve the whole series.”


Baghlaf believes that the market for Japanese storytelling is massive in Saudi Arabia and continues to grow each day.
“It’s definitely popular and it’s why you see major events happening like Comic Con and Anime Expo, which I’ve been to myself with 200,000 others. It was so crowded,” he said.

Friendship
The Saudis have grown up with Japanese stories for decades, as well as slapstick US cartoons such as Tom and Jerry and the Loony Tunes that lack storytelling or arcs, according to Baghlaf. The Japanese stories have taught generations of Saudis about friendship, brotherhood, integrity and how to deal with others.
“There’s also a huge likeness between Japanese and Arabic culture. Within families, respecting those older than you whether through language, which has levels of formality where elders deserve the most respectable form when talked to and they have a lot of respect for familial bonds as well.”
The cafe owner revealed that the name Akiba comes from Akihabara, a popular area in Tokyo that is a hub for anime, gaming and electronics retailers. It also has specialty cafes throughout its busy maze of streets.
Baghlaf wants to support local talent by initiating artist nights at Akiba so that people can come and get sketches and put local manga on display for readers to discover.