Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Art in Saudi Arabia is driven by social hues

In spite of the hostile and fragile socio-political climate, a few determined artists are vehemently dealing with issues such as the impact of Islamic traditions on peace and capitalism in Mecca. Art in Saudi Arabia has meant paintings of horses, or else ornate calligraphy traditionally. Nothing much else usually gets look-in; younger artists are made to face a hostile cultural scenario as art has to contend with a restricted platform in the backdrop of ultra-conservative kingdom. One seldom comes across fine art schools, cinemas and galleries.

However, a new breed of edgier artists is keen to push Saudi Arabia faster into the contemporary art domain, with artworks that tackle quite a many controversial issues like Mecca’s glitzy redevelopment, as mentioned above, finding a wider international audience, and managing to fetch record prices.

This new school of thought hasn’t had any easy time at all. At a studio in his villa located in the southern city of Abha, artist Ahmed Mater mentions how his works incorporate both respect for religion and social critique. Having exhibited at the Venice Biennale and the British Museum, his photos as well as film (Artificial Light/Desert of Pharan) reveal concerns about the ruling family's redevelopment of Mecca. "When you’re in Mecca, you get to see all the iPhones click in the sight of the clock towers. It's turned into this capitalist city."

Mater is probably at the centre of the noticeable contemporary art boom in Saudi, acting as Edge of Arabia’s co-founder, a conceptual Arab artists’ collective formed in 2003. It has exhibited across the Middle East and Europe. Six creations by its artists went for £647,000 at Christie's in Dubai in 2011, with the top sale being of Abdulnasser Gharem. His ‘Message/Messenger’, a sculpture, converts the Dome of the Rock (on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount), into a bird trap. It was sold for £521,449, a new record for any of the Gulf states’ artist.

In an effort to capitalize on this growing buzz and reputation, the collective has already opened a gallery in London, just next to Battersea’s Royal College of Art's campus.

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