A British Museum exhibition challenges misconceptions about ‘Islamic art’

Huda Lutfi's 'Al-Sitt and her Sunglasses,' a portrait of the singer Umm Kulthum. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
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Huda Lutfi's 'Al-Sitt and her Sunglasses,' a portrait of the singer UmmHuda Lutfi's 'Al-Sitt and her Sunglasses,' a portrait of the singer Umm Kulthum. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied) Kulthum. (Supplied)
Shafic Abboud (b. 1926 – d. 2004), Nu. Gouache and charcoal on paper, c. 1969. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
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Shafic Abboud (b. 1926 – d. 2004), Nu. Gouache and charcoal on paper, c. 1969. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
Sulafa Hijazi (b. 1977), Untitled. Digital print on archival paper, 2012. (Supplied)
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Sulafa Hijazi (b. 1977), Untitled. Digital print on archival paper, 2012. (Supplied)
Nicky Nodjoumi (b. 1942), The Accident. Ink on paper, 2013. Funded by Maryam and Edward Eisler. (Supplied)
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Nicky Nodjoumi (b. 1942), The Accident. Ink on paper, 2013. Funded by Maryam and Edward Eisler. (Supplied)
Marwan Kassab-Bachi (known as Marwan) (b. 1934 – d. 2016), Gesichtslandschaft (Face Landscape). Etching and drypoint, 1973. (Supplied)
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Marwan Kassab-Bachi (known as Marwan) (b. 1934 – d. 2016), Gesichtslandschaft (Face Landscape). Etching and drypoint, 1973. (Supplied)
Yehuda Bacon (b. 1929), Four figures. Etching, aquatint and drypoint, 1957. (Supplied)
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Yehuda Bacon (b. 1929), Four figures. Etching, aquatint and drypoint, 1957. (Supplied)
Hayv Kahraman (b. 1981), Honor Killing. Sumi ink and acrylic on paper, 2006. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
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Hayv Kahraman (b. 1981), Honor Killing. Sumi ink and acrylic on paper, 2006. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (known as Monir) (b. 1922 – d. 2019), Untitled. Coloured markers and mirror on paper, 2005. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
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Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (known as Monir) (b. 1922 – d. 2019), Untitled. Coloured markers and mirror on paper, 2005. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
Burhan Doğançay (b. 1929 – d. 2013), A Look at the Bright Side. Gouache on paper, 1970. Gift of Joanna G. Freistadt in honor of Alice Schwarz-Gardos. (Supplied)
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Burhan Doğançay (b. 1929 – d. 2013), A Look at the Bright Side. Gouache on paper, 1970. Gift of Joanna G. Freistadt in honor of Alice Schwarz-Gardos. (Supplied)
Rafa Nasiri (b. 1940 – d. 2013), A Library Set On Fire. One of six silkscreens in portfolio, 2008. Gift of May Muzaffar. (Supplied)
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Rafa Nasiri (b. 1940 – d. 2013), A Library Set On Fire. One of six silkscreens in portfolio, 2008. Gift of May Muzaffar. (Supplied)
Hengameh Golestan (b. 1952), Untitled. Black and white photograph printed on Epsom Exhibition fibre paper, 1979, printed 2015. Funded by Art Fund. (Supplied)
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Hengameh Golestan (b. 1952), Untitled. Black and white photograph printed on Epsom Exhibition fibre paper, 1979, printed 2015. Funded by Art Fund. (Supplied)
Taysir Batniji (b. 1966), Untitled. Aquarelle on paper, 2016. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
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Taysir Batniji (b. 1966), Untitled. Aquarelle on paper, 2016. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
Khalil Joreije and Joana Hadjithomas (b. 1969), Faces. Photography and drawing, From a series of forty-two images, 2009. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
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Khalil Joreije and Joana Hadjithomas (b. 1969), Faces. Photography and drawing, From a series of forty-two images, 2009. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
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Updated 13 February 2021

A British Museum exhibition challenges misconceptions about ‘Islamic art’

A British Museum exhibition challenges misconceptions about ‘Islamic art’
  • A new exhibition at the British Museum reveals the diverse experiences of a region that cannot be defined solely as “Islamic”
  • Beyond religion, artists in the collection narrate personal stories, highlight taboos, convey expressions of nostalgia and evoke exile 

LONDON: At first glance, the description of a new exhibition and accompanying book celebrating a decade of the British Museum collecting contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa appears unnecessarily cumbersome, if not evasive.

The exhibition “Reflections: Contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa,” writes Venetia Porter, the museum’s curator of Islamic and contemporary Middle East art, is “about a collection of works in the British Museum … made by artists born in or connected to countries that include Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Tunisia, states that belong within the region known today as the Middle East and North Africa.”

In fact, far from being evasive, Porter is exercising precision, and mounting a challenge to what she sees as the frequently misused term “Islamic art,” and the perception in the West that there is only a single narrative at play in a region rich with a vast diversity of cultures, histories and current concerns.




Visitors are seen in the Great Court after the British Museum reopened in London on December 3, 2020 after England emerged from a month-long lockdown to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. (AFP/File Photo)

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what this material from the modern and contemporary era is,” said Porter as the museum put the finishing touches to an exhibition that was due to open on Feb. 11 but which, thanks to COVID-19 restrictions, will now be launched only virtually.

“Some people will call it contemporary or modern Islamic art and I have issues about that. For a start the term ‘Islamic art’ is very complicated. It was created by western scholars and to a certain extent we are stuck with that now.”

But it is, she says, a “very reductive,” or simplistic term, and “the modern and contemporary art from this wide region is something that is so far removed from that description.”

Talking about Middle Eastern or North African art, she admits, “isn’t perfect either, although I feel it just gives it a bit more flexibility.”




Taysir Batniji (b. 1966), Untitled. Aquarelle on paper, 2016. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)

But in the future, she says, “perhaps we shan’t have to use these terms at all.” One day, perhaps, “we will be able to talk just about ‘art’.”

This is not the first time the concept of modern and contemporary “Islamic art” has come in for robust scrutiny. In 2006 New York’s Museum of Modern Art staged “Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking,” an exhibition of 17 artists of diverse nationalities “who explore contemporary responses to Islamic art while also posing questions about issues of identity and spirituality” and who “work outside the expectations suggested by the term ‘Islamic art’.” 

For MOMA curator Fereshteh Daftari, to describe the creativity of a region that stretched from the west coast of Africa to Indonesia as “Islamic art” was equivalent to “calling the art of the entire Western hemisphere ‘contemporary Christian art’.”

Porter could not agree more. The problem with the term “Islamic art,” as she writes in the foreword to the book accompanying the exhibition, is that it “perpetuates notions of a single identity, implying a unity within the vast output of production from across this slice of geography.”




Hengameh Golestan (b. 1952), Untitled. Black and white photograph printed on Epsom Exhibition fibre paper, 1979, printed 2015. Funded by Art Fund. (Supplied)

In fact, she says, there are multiple narratives at play, as both the book and the collection of art from the region that she and the British Museum have built up over the past ten years demonstrate graphically.

A great deal of the importance and veracity of the British Museum’s collection stems from the guidance offered by the members of its Contemporary and Modern Middle Eastern Art group (CaMMEA), a body of patrons and art collectors whose views — and donations — have played a key part in the selection of works collected by Dr Porter and the museum since 2009.

The book’s preface is written by London-based art collector and philanthropist Dounia Nadar, whose husband Sherif Nadar, the founder and CEO of asset management company Horizon Asset, is also a member of CaMMEA. It was Mrs. Nadar’s meeting with Porter at the British Museum’s 2006 exhibition “Word into Art: Artists of The Middle East” that led to the formation of the group in 2009.

The list of members who have supported CaMMEA since 2009, recorded in the acknowledgments at the end of the book, reads like a Who’s Who of wealthy art lovers from or connected to the region. They include Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan bin Khalifa Al-Nahyan, grandson of Sheikh Khalifa, the president of the UAE; arts patron Sara Alireza, a member of the Saudi Art Council; and the British-Iranian art collector Mohammed Afkhami, the founder of Dubai-based financial consultancy MA Partners DMCC.




Rafa Nasiri (b. 1940 – d. 2013), A Library Set On Fire. One of six silkscreens in portfolio, 2008. Gift of May Muzaffar. (Supplied)

The works going on show, most of which have been acquired with the collaboration of the museum’s CaMMEA supporters, demonstrate that the art from or related to the region, and the experiences of the people who call it home or whose lives are rooted there, are hugely diverse.

There are, says Porter, “ideas about poetry, music and war. Some of these works also examine traditions of Islamic art — such as calligraphy or miniature painting – or even turn them on their head,” while “others narrate personal stories, highlight taboos, convey expressions of faith or nostalgia, and evoke exile.”

But “as we dig deep into what lies behind the image, however, and as the multiple histories of the region are seen through the prism of personal experience, that reflection becomes refracted: there is no one narrative but a multiplicity of stories.”

Porter has made enough contemporary artists from the region to know that few choose to be “pigeonholed” by the term “Islamic art … which is why I don’t use it at all in the book or the exhibition, except to set out the argument.




Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (known as Monir) (b. 1922 – d. 2019), Untitled. Coloured markers and mirror on paper, 2005. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)

“You will have some artists who may consider themselves to be deeply religious and continuing an Islamic art tradition, but I want to hear it from them first before I actually put that label on them.”

The exhibition testifies to the right of any artist to represent any aspect of the human condition as they see fit, without having their art stifled by the expectations of artificial categorization.

For example, “Nu,” a gouache and charcoal drawn in 1969 work by the Lebanese artist Shafic Abboud, who died in 2004, is a figurative work that owes more to his training and life in Paris than it does to any overt Islamic influence.

By contrast “Le Bouna,” an earlier work by the same artist, evokes a folk tale told to him by his grandmother in the village of Mhaidse, northeast of Beirut, where Abboud spent much of his childhood.




Marwan Kassab-Bachi (known as Marwan) (b. 1934 – d. 2016), Gesichtslandschaft (Face Landscape). Etching and drypoint, 1973. (Supplied)

The exhibition opens with “The Accident,” a 2013 ink drawing by the Iranian-born artist Nicky Nodjoumi, which draws on his own experience of being interrogated by Iran’s secret police in the 1970s upon his return to the country from studying in New York. This work, says the British Museum, “challenges preconceptions about Middle Eastern art and highlights the complexities of being an artist in diaspora.”

The Cairo-born Huda Lutfi’s striking “Al-Sitt and her Sunglasses,” on one level a paint-and-collage portrait of the singer Umm Kulthum, includes a handwritten verse from Al-Atlal (The Ruins), by the Egyptian poet Ibrahim Naji, and is part of a body of work that is “rich in allusions to, as well as criticism of, the cultural and political concerns of contemporary Egyptian society.”

Perhaps the most resonant work in the exhibition, highlighting “one of the defining issues of our time,” is “Natreen” (We Are Waiting), a 2013 portrait by the Moroccan-French photographer Leila Alaoui of Syrian refugees attempting to flee the terror of their bitterly divided home country.

To Alaoui, who was brought up in Marrakesh, “the subject of migration and its humanitarian consequences was of paramount interest.” She was killed in 2016, aged 23, in a terrorist attack in Burkina Faso while working on a photographic project about women’s rights for the charity Amnesty International.

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Twitter: @JonathanGornall


‘All the Women Inside Me’ a complex tale of coping with family, society

‘All the Women Inside Me’ a complex tale of coping with family, society
Updated 06 December 2021

‘All the Women Inside Me’ a complex tale of coping with family, society

‘All the Women Inside Me’ a complex tale of coping with family, society

CHICAGO: Shortlisted for the 2021 International Prize for Arabic Fiction is the novel “All the Women Inside Me” by award-winning novelist and journalist Jana ElHassan. The story is about the complex life of a woman and how she copes with her family, society, and the unhappiness that plagues her. Translated into English by Michelle Hartman, ElHassan’s novel is an intimate look at the many things that seem to be out of the young woman’s control and how she navigates a path to help her survive.

Sahar is 30 years old and lives in Tripoli, Lebanon. Her story does not have a linear timeline. Instead, it is told in vignettes of memories: of her leftist father who rejects love, religion, and relationships for the sake of keeping his political persona alive; of her mother who yearns for a love that always seems too distant for her to grasp; of her husband Sami whose love she must now escape from; and of Hala, a friend whose misery matches hers but who gives her the strength to go on.

Admitting as much, Sahar observes her life just like her readers. She is disconnected from reality, which is too harsh and loveless. She believes that those who submit to reality are the ones who are caged and that she is free in her imagination to love and be loved. Although she grows up in a large house, everything has always been closed-off and separated. Each room has always been meticulously kept, not to be lived in but to show a certain decorum, as ElHassan describes: “The place was like a gun with a silencer; there was always continuous pressure on the trigger. Shots were fired and penetrated deep.”

ElHassan seamlessly weaves Sahar’s story into the city of Tripoli and its society. Patriarchy runs deep in the world of her character and so ElHassan’s story is of a woman trying to understand her position in the world, to see where and if she belongs. She explores how society reacts to this woman and pushes to the forefront the choices people have in life. Some live according to their principles, some choose joy, some choose to be miserable and subservient and scoff at those who choose independence. As for Sahar, her choice is to escape.


The hottest tickets at the Red Sea International Film Festival

The hottest tickets at the Red Sea International Film Festival
Updated 06 December 2021

The hottest tickets at the Red Sea International Film Festival

The hottest tickets at the Red Sea International Film Festival
  • Must-see movies at the long-awaited inaugural edition of Saudi Arabia’s first major film festival, which starts December 6

‘Huda’s Salon’

Hany Abu-Assad has long been one of Palestine’s most lauded filmmakers, receiving an Oscar nomination for his now-classic 2005 film “Paradise Now,” and another for 2013’s “Omar.” Both movies chronicled men struggling under occupation, uncertain of how to best live their lives for themselves, their families, or their country. With “Huda’s Salon,” Abu-Assad returns to Palestine for the first time since 2015’s “The Idol” for another true story. This one focuses on the plight of Palestinian women, however, and has been labelled a ‘feminist thriller.’ Abu-Assad’s long-time collaborator Ali Suliman brings his trademark naturalism to the role of Hasan, but it is Maisa Abd Elhadi as Reem and Manal Awad as Huda who shine most brightly, as two women caught in a suspenseful game that pushes past the trappings of the male perspective with intention.

‘Feathers’

It is unlikely that any other Arab film this year will be as hotly debated as the feature debut of Omar El-Zohairy, the latest genuine visionary to emerge from the rich world of Egyptian cinema. With this absurdist satirical drama El-Zohairy has crafted a story in which the circumstances may not resemble our own — in “Feathers,” a woman is forced to support her family after her husband is turned into a chicken — but the struggles certainly do, as the magical realist concept gives way to an unflinching look at modern society, and the very real suffering of women in rural Egypt. Already a big winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the film has caused uproar in El-Zohairy’s home country, which may have denied it a potential Oscar-nomination. But doesn’t make it any less of a must-see on the Red Sea.

‘Casablanca Beats’

Morocco’s official submission for Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards 2022, “Casablanca Beats” is a lively, often-joyous look into the country’s music culture, following a former rapper named Anas (Anas Basbousi) who takes a job at the Positive School of Hip Hop, a real-life cultural center in Casablanca. Anas’ non-traditional teaching techniques inspire his young students in ways they never thought possible, with each finding their own voice through rap, showing the intense spirit that can follow a dream ignited, as well as the pain of the societal realities that may get in the way.

‘Ghodwa’

Tunisia’s Dhafer L’Abidine has had a career full of twists and turns. Once a professional footballer in his homeland, he moved to London and found success in British film and television before becoming a massive star in Egypt. With “Ghodwa,” his directorial debut, L’Abidine has turned his attention back to Tunisia with a stark and serious look at the political challenges in modern Tunis. The story follows a father (played by L’Abidine) and son for whom Tunisia’s political past and present collide in ways neither is prepared for.

‘The Choice’

Ask any Egyptian director who inspired them to become a filmmaker and there’s one name that you will hear again and again: Youssef Chahine. Thirteen years on from his death, Chahine’s reputation as a chronicler of Egyptian life both big and small who showed generation after generation through his layered melodramas the many facets of what film could accomplish has only grown. If “The Choice” is your first venture into classic Egyptian cinema, you’ve picked a good place to start; this beautifully shot, thrilling adaptation of Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz’s novel is Chahine at his best.

‘The Lost Daughter’

Given their ubiquity, we may feel that we know the Gyllenhaal family all too well at this point, but “The Lost Daughter,” the directorial debut of Maggie Gyllenhaal, shows there is plenty left to discover and that the hugely talented actor may also be one of her generation’s best filmmakers. Her adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel of the same name features another powerhouse performance from Oscar-winner Olivia Colman (“The Favorite”) and also gets the best out of Dakota Johnson, in this story of a woman who becomes obsessed with another woman while on holiday. It’s a film that becomes just as unsettling as you may expect from that premise.

‘Becoming’

This anthology weaves together stories from five different Saudi filmmakers — Sara Mesfer, Jawaher Alamri, Noor Alameer, Hind Alfahhad and Fatima Al-Banawi — to show different sides of a changing Kingdom. For example, an 11-year-old girl arrives at her aunt’s house one day just before Friday prayers only to find that she can suddenly express everything she had been keeping secret from her conservative parents; a bride disappears on her wedding night; and a divorced mother grapples with an anxiety disorder. The stories are bold and uncompromising, showcasing women who are destined to shape the future of Saudi cinema in front of and behind the camera.

‘The Gravedigger’s Wife’

An audience hit at Cannes, this debut from the Finnish-Somali filmmaker Khadar Ayderus Ahmed follows a man in Djibouti who discovers his beloved, vivacious wife will die unless he can come up with $5,000 for emergency surgery — a sum he has little hope of accumulating. While this intimate film is small in scale, its heart is huge, and the film’s cultural specificity and assured direction make it stand out. It’s an inviting look into an unfamiliar world that is wholly relatable, with characters you won’t soon forget and just enough social satire to leave you with plenty to discuss.

‘Ennio’

Few composers have as outsized a reputation as the late Italian maestro Ennio Morricone, and with good reason — across the 500 films he helped bring to life through his music, many have become cultural milestones, including “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly,” “The Thing,” and “Cinema Paradiso.” When Morricone passed away in 2020, the latter’s director, his old friend and collaborator Giuseppe Tornatore (head of the Red Sea Film Festival’s jury) gathered some of his most famous collaborators, including Quentin Tarantino and Clint Eastwood, for a look back at the life and work of a true genius, with all the joy and emotion that Tornatore and Morricone famously brought to the tear-stained finale of “Cinema Paradiso.”


What We Are Reading Today: Armies of Sand by Kenneth M. Pollack

What We Are Reading Today: Armies of Sand by Kenneth M. Pollack
Updated 06 December 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Armies of Sand by Kenneth M. Pollack

What We Are Reading Today: Armies of Sand by Kenneth M. Pollack

In Armies of Sand, Kenneth M. Pollack’s powerful and riveting history of Arab armies from the end of WWII to the present, assesses these differing explanations and isolates the most important causes.

Over the course of the book, he examines the combat performance of fifteen Arab armies and air forces in virtually every Middle Eastern war.

He then compares these experiences to the performance of the Argentine, Chadian, Chinese, Cuban, North Korean, and South Vietnamese armed forces in their own combat operations during the twentieth century.

The patterns of behavior derived from the dominant Arab culture “was the most important factor of all.”


Hayy Jameel multidisciplinary arts center opens to public in Jeddah

Staple: What’s on your plate? installation at Hayy Jameel. (Supplied)
Staple: What’s on your plate? installation at Hayy Jameel. (Supplied)
Updated 06 December 2021

Hayy Jameel multidisciplinary arts center opens to public in Jeddah

Staple: What’s on your plate? installation at Hayy Jameel. (Supplied)
  • Building celebrates 75 years of Jameel family’s art patronage in Middle East

JEDDAH: In a city known for a rich cultural heritage, its newest art house is opening its doors to the public in Jeddah in honor of a tradition that has spanned generations and continents.

Located in Jeddah’s Al-Muhammadiyah district, the prominent white structure of the new multidisciplinary arts complex called Hayy Jameel stands proud. On its facade is a colorful commissioned artwork by Saudi artist Nasser Al-Mulhim featuring abstract curved forms. Distinct from other buildings in the vicinity, Hayy, which means “neighborhood” in Arabic, draws the spectator’s gaze.

After many years in the making, on Monday, Dec. 6 it will officially open to the public. Designed by multi-award-winning architectural Wai Wai Studio, based in the dynamic arts complex, it commemorates the Jameel family’s 75 years of arts patronage and community development throughout the Middle East.

After years of establishing projects abroad, including the annual Jameel Art Prize, an international award for contemporary art and design inspired by Islamic tradition staged at the V&A in London and the Jameel Arts Center in Dubai as well as the Jameel House of Traditional Arts in Cairo and the Jameel House in Jeddah— both of the latter focusing on the heritage of Islamic art and culture — Hayy symbolizes the family’s rich art patronage returning home to Saudi Arabia with its largest space yet.

The center, characterized by multi-purpose spaces set across three floors and numerous courtyards fostering creative dialogue and exchange, also includes the Kingdom’s first independent cinema— an element that just a few years ago would not have been possible in Saudi Arabia— symbolizing the significant change that has swept the Gulf nation over the past several years.

“We’re thrilled to be able to launch Hayy Jameel’s opening season at this time of such artistic dynamism in Saudi Arabia and to complement December’s major events with the inauguration of a new institution and home for the arts in Jeddah,” director of Art Jameel, Antonia Carver, told Arab News.

“This is just the beginning for Hayy Jameel; we’re marking this moment with a range of exhibitions and commissions featuring both Saudi and international artists, grounded in Jeddah and the Kingdom yet marked by global collaboration and exchange. Over the next few months, the Hayy Residents, our creative partners, will launch their spaces, and Saudi’s first independent audio-visual center, Hayy Cinema, a 200-seat cinema, will open its doors. Hayy Jameel is all about building community, about bringing the various creative disciplines together in one destination and fusing the arts with new audiences.”

Inspired by Jeddah’s diverse population, on view now is the Noor Riyadh capsule, featuring a selection of light-based works shown earlier in Riyadh. In Staple: What’s on your plate? — co-curated with London-based partner Delfina Foundation — the exhibition explores what we eat and how our food is entangled with memory, heritage, place of residence and ecology.

More than 30 artists from Saudi Arabia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Thailand, India and Bangladesh investigate how the food we eat goes beyond nourishing the body and is connected to the crucial politics socio-economic structures that affect our world.

“I wanted to create a space for the community and to encourage existing and future generations of creatives in Saudi Arabia and beyond,” Fady Jameel, deputy president and vice chairman of Abdul Latif Jameel, chairman and founder of Art Jameel, told Arab News. “If someone wants to see art, watch a film, do research or meet like-minded people with creative interests, they can come here, to Hayy.”


Misk Art Week showcases artists from Saudi Arabia and international community

Afra Aldhaheri’s “End of A School Braid” (2021), part of the Misk Art Grant exhibition “Under Construction” at Misk Art Week 2021. (Omar Al-Tamimi)
Afra Aldhaheri’s “End of A School Braid” (2021), part of the Misk Art Grant exhibition “Under Construction” at Misk Art Week 2021. (Omar Al-Tamimi)
Updated 03 December 2021

Misk Art Week showcases artists from Saudi Arabia and international community

Afra Aldhaheri’s “End of A School Braid” (2021), part of the Misk Art Grant exhibition “Under Construction” at Misk Art Week 2021. (Omar Al-Tamimi)
  • For its fifth year, Misk Art Institute’s annual event features several exhibitions exploring the nature of identity

RIYADH: Inside Riyadh’s Prince Faisal bin Fahd Arts Hall, multimedia artworks are displayed across the venue’s two floors on the theme of Takween, which means “form” in Arabic, and its relation to one’s identity.

As part of Misk Art Week’s fifth outing, taking place until Dec. 5, artists from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, North Africa and the wider international community present art that questions identity — specifically how an individual’s social, historical and cultural origins influence their past, present and future.

From video works produced with AI to paintings, textile-based art and installations, the art on show aims, according to the Misk Art Institute, to offer a “critical platform for the creative community,” fostering cultural dialogue and intellectual exchange.

As visitors enter the hall, they are confronted by two dark figures by Saudi artist Filwa Nazer, made of black polyethylene industrial netting and titled The Other is Another Body (2021). The figures seem to guard the vibrantly colored wool-weave tapestry work hanging on a wall between them, titled Palm (1985), by American artist Sheila Hicks.

The works are part of Here, Now, the third in a series of the Misk Art Institute’s annual flagship exhibition, curated this time by British writer and curator Sacha Craddock alongside Misk’s assistant curators, Nora Algosaibi and Alia Ahmad Al-Saud.

The show, which features a mix of emerging and established artists and runs until Jan. 30, 2022, is the first in the Saudi capital to present works by both Saudi and international artists, including ones by well-known Saudi artists such as Manal Al-Dowayan’s abstract black and white work, I am Here (2016), Ayman Yossri Daydban’s Tree House (2019), and Sami Ali AlHossein’s colorful abstract figurative works on canvas. There is also a painting by renowned Sudanese painter Salah Elmur titled The Angry Singer (2015) and delicate floral drawings by Korean artist Young In Hong dating to 2009.

While without an overarching narrative, the show prompts the spectator to question, like the exhibition’s title, “why here and why now?” It encourages the visitor to reflect on the artworks and the nature of identity in a reflective, personal and subjective manner.

Upstairs is Under Construction, an exhibition of Misk Art Grant recipients who hail this year from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Algeria. The grant funds up to SR1 million ($266,632) and has been distributed among the nine participating artists and collectives.

Basma Al-Shathry, lead curator at Misk Art Institute, said: “This year’s Misk Art Grant exhibition, ‘Under Construction,’ explores how identity is perceived as an emblem of growth, continuity and endless iterations of cultural representation throughout history. It has been a delight to bring together artists and designers from both the Middle East and North Africa to address the theme as a process of development, repetition, distortion and incompleteness in a time of synthesis, understanding and promise for the future.”

Mira AlMazrooei and Jawaher AlMutairi’s “Glass Libary” (2021). Part of the Misk Art Grant exhibition titled  “Under construction” at Misk Art Week 2021. (Omar Al-Tamimi)

The works on show also respond to the theme of identity while focusing on how identity can be perceived as a method for growth and renewal, as well as social and historical continuity, via the incorporation of cultural representations throughout history.

One of the most poignant works is by Emirati artist and designer Latifa Saeed’s Sand Room (2021), which presents an assembly of sand-encased glass panels in the form of a cube that one can enter to observe the desert sand sediments that she collected from construction sites around Dubai.

Latifa Saeed’s “Sand room” (2021). Part of the Misk Art Grant exhibition titled “Under Construction” at Misk Art Week 2021. (Omar Al-Tamimi)

“My research and work is always about transformation, whether it be of a city or of one’s mentality,” Saeed told Arab News. “I began by building an archive of sand from Dubai because the sites from where I collected the sand we cannot visit anymore because they are now construction sites.

Saeed visited development sites in Dubai, and before the construction started she would collect sand from the area and label it accordingly. She now has more than 200 different types of sand from these areas.

“I am archiving, preserving and documenting the Dubai landscape, topography and the material itself,” she said.

Near to Saeed’s mesmerizing room of sand specimens is Emirati artist Afra Al-Dhaheri’s End of a School Braid (2021) — a large installation of twisted and backcombed off-white colored rope that hangs from the ceiling. In this piece Al-Dhaheri examines how hair can be seen as the keeper of memories, preserving not only time but cultural norms and heritage.

Bahraini artist Noor Alwan’s Sacred Spaces (2021), a series of hanging textile-based tapestry works, similarly seeks to preserve personal and collective memories. Growing up, she would watch her grandfather ritually draw hundreds of patterns on paper — a tradition that stemmed from his childhood and that immersed him in a meditative process of repetition. Alwan recalls his trance-like process of art creation and likens it to a shared Arab collective practice — with elements mirroring the mesmerizing geometric forms of Islamic art.

Nour Alwan’s “Sacred Spaces,” (2021). Part of the Misk Art Grant exhibition titled “Under Construction” at Misk Art Week 2021. (Omar Al-Tamimi)

Moving into the rapidly developing digital landscape is an engaging work by Saudi artist Obaid Alsafi, titled Beyond Language (2021), in which a poem by the late revered Saudi poet Muhammad Al-Thubaiti Poetry (1952-2011), titled Salutation to the Master of the Arid Land, is transformed into a video work with sound via artificial intelligence. For the work, which captivates the viewer through its colorful abstract images — some seem like palm trees while others appear to be figures — Alsafi trained the AI through data collection and machine learning to understand poetry and produce visual representations of each verse with accompanying machine-made sound.

“The first form of art in the region and the way we connected with each other was through poetry,” Alsafi, an artist who studied computer science, told Arab News. “Al-Thubaiti, one of Saudi’s pioneer poets, changed the way that poetry was written and read. Everyone sees AI as robotic, but my vision, I want to see how we can make the machine more human so that it understands language, learn and develop artwork depending on the vision of the artist. I believe artists can use AI as a tool to develop their work.”

Lastly, there is the second iteration of works created in the Masaha residency program, located in the basement of the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Arts Hall.

The program, part of Misk Art Institute’s mission to support Saudi and international practitioners across the artistic disciplines in the research and production of new works via mentorship opportunities, can be viewed on the ground floor. Titled HOME: Being and Belonging, the works by 10 visual artists from the UK, Guatemala, Morocco, India, South Korea, and from across Saudi Arabia, examine questions of how an individual and collective sense of belonging and nostalgia for one’s culture and heritage stems from one’s socio-cultural and ethnic background. The works on show explore how our sense of belonging changes and transforms with time.

The residency offers international artists the opportunity to create work on site at Masaha over a three-month cycle. Many of the participating artists are showing their work for the first time in the Kingdom — demonstrating once again Misk Art Institute’s broader aims to expand Saudi Arabia’s cultural landscape through international creative dialogue.

Hana Almilli’s “Through The Earth I Come Back Home” (2021). Part of the Masaha Residency showcase during Misk Art Week 2021. (Omar Al-Tamimi)