JEDDAH: As a Saudi arts professional, Sara Al-Omran has first-hand experience of the booming artistic scene in her home country. Since the establishment of its Ministry of Culture in 2018, Saudi Arabia has launched an international film festival, hosted concerts by internationally renowned musicians, and is creating the world’s largest open-air museum at the ancient Nabatean site of AlUla.
“The last five or six years have seen a transformation,” Al-Omran tells Arab News. “It’s been really exciting for all of us involved in this scene to see this growth in cultural production and the establishment of new institutions and initiatives.”
Al-Omran describes the port city of Jeddah as Saudi Arabia’s ‘capital of art.’ Like everywhere else in the Kingdom, it is undergoing some major changes, but it also has its own unique modern cultural history. Back in the 1970s, the late mayor of Jeddah, Mohammed Said Farsi, decided to turn it into a ‘city of sculpture.’ Jeddah’s streets, squares, corniches and fountains were lined with around 600 works by renowned artists including Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, and Julio Lafuente. Jeddah is also the headquarters of the Saudi Art Council and is home to a number of contemporary art galleries, including Hafez and Athr.
And now there’s a new kid on the block. Hayy Jameel has the ambitious aim of becoming Jeddah’s home for the arts. The 17,000-square-metre, pearly white complex is an offshoot of the Art Jameel organization, set up independently by the Jameel family to support the arts in the region and to collaborate with foreign cultural institutions. In recent years, Art Jameel has opened the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai and Atelier Cairo, which provides artisanship workshops and preserves traditional arts in the Egyptian capital.
Visual and performing artists, filmmakers, photographers, designers, entrepreneurs and art enthusiasts are all welcome to join the Hayy Jameel community, its organizers say. With its state-of-the-art facilities and wide scope of interests, this creative hub is a first for the country.
In Arabic, the term ‘hayy’ means neighborhood. It’s a fitting name, as the new center will be located in an accessible residential area, Al Muhammadiyah, which contains a number of other smaller cultural venues.
“We’re trying to build bridges with everybody that’s here,” says Al-Omran, who is the center’s deputy director. “There are two wide sets of stairs that take you inside Hayy Jameel. There are no gates. Everybody is encouraged to come into the building and just wander around, any time of day.”
Designed by the Tokyo and Dubai-based architectural firm waiwai, Hayy Jameel is wrapped around an airy main courtyard — called Saha — that is dotted with trees. “The way it’s built takes inspiration from traditional Levantine houses in Syria and Lebanon, where you have a central courtyard and everything surrounds it. That is really exciting for us, because it allows us to share audiences,” explains Al-Omran. Four different spaces surround the courtyard: Hayy Arts, Hayy Cinema, Hayy Learning, and Hayy Studios. There is also an integral focus on championing Saudi-based entrepreneurs — those who’ve started a baking institute, or a comedy club, or a concept store selling handmade goods, for example — who can become partner-tenants at the center.
Hayy Arts will host temporary exhibitions as well as works from Art Jameel’s collection, while Hayy Learning is dedicated to research and in-person virtual education. Hayy Studios will provide bespoke spaces for makers selected for participation in the center’s residency program, which will begin in 2022. Hayy Cinema is a game-changer, billing itself as the Kingdom’s first independent cinema. It houses a 200-seat theater and a screening room.
The facility will not only support aspiring film directors from the region, but also highlights the deep-rooted changes happening in Saudi society.
“In 2017, the ban was lifted on cinemas in Saudi and that allowed for the cinema industry to be established,” Al-Omran says. “So far, there has been a big focus on commercial cinema. We’re very excited to offer something slightly different — a space that really looks to support independent and more experimental film productions. It’s a space where filmmakers can meet their peers and research, learn, and develop their scripts.”
The center’s opening exhibition opens December 6 in collaboration with London’s Delfina Foundation. “Staple: What’s on your plate?’ examines the thought-provoking complexities of food culture and its impact on the world’s communities. It features 21 artworks — including installations and sculptures — by artists from the Gulf, Europe, and South Asia, and delves into the entanglements of food, industry, trade, colonialism, and labor. It is in keeping with Hayy Jameel’s programming ethos of “having a conversation that is rooted locally, but contributes to a global conversation,” according to Al-Omran. The exhibition will be accompanied by food tours and a few culinary workshops, enlightening participants on, for example, Jeddah’s traditional cuisine.
In addition, Hayy Jameel will host a special installation for three months, in which 11 Saudi artists, including Manal Al-Dowayan, Rashed Al-Shashai and Dana Awartani — will present large-scale light works. It is adapted from the recently launched “Noor Riyadh,” a festival of light that takes over the Saudi capital.
While it is very much a part of the ambitious plan of cultural enhancement currently underway nationwide in Saudi Arabia, Hayy Jameel manages to be an intimate, contained space. But the purpose behind it and the ideas and activities it promotes are expansive.
It’s specific but universal in its goal of providing a platform for creatives, enthusiasts and learners. And it serves the very necessary function of bringing art lovers together in a permanent single location.
“One of the center’s main objectives is to establish a much-needed infrastructure to support the growth of different creative entities and enterprises,” says Al-Omran. Hayy Jameel works on a circular model: Inspiring and nurturing local talent and, ultimately, giving back to the community. Its slogan is telling, then: ‘From Jeddah to Jeddah.’