In the West, Saudi Arabia is often perceived as a culture-less theocratic monarchy dominated by Wahhabism, a fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam that has censored the visual arts, cinema, literature, and other forms of creative expression. But a group of over a dozen Saudi artists, supported by The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (ithra), are intent on changing perceptions about their country’s artistic output.
With GENERA#ION, a multi-city Saudi artists' tour of the United States, one group hopes to create an alternate artistic and cultural dialogue between the people of Saudi Arabia and the US. The roving, Culturunners-produced exhibition’s most recent stop was in San Francisco’s Minnesota Street Project. It is now heading to Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, Maine, and other major U.S. cities.
GENERA#ION highlights the impact of participation. The Saudi artists explore this in a variety of ways, including mixed-media installations, videos, and performances that incorporate collectivity, while attempting to engage with local Saudi audiences.
Simon Sakhai, one of the show’s organizers (alongside Aya Mousawi), tells The Creators Project that artists in GENERA#ION are “pushing the boundaries in what is considered art production in Saudi” while “exploring universal value systems of hospitality, trust, honor and accountability and incorporating that within Saudi society.”
Ahmad Angawi, for instance, was born in the heart of Saudi and the larger Muslim world—Mecca. As seen in GENERA#ION, the Jeddah-based artist, who studied industrial design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, is pushing both interactive and cultural boundaries with his installation, Street Pulse. For this work, Angawi installed various microphones around Jeddah. Participants record messages into these microphones, which can now be through listening stations beside a gigantic ball of microphones.
While Angawi is definitely one of the most exciting conceptual Saudi artists, it is another another artist who typifies the duality of being creative in Saudi Arabia. Abdulnasser Gharem is an artist who lives a double life: by day he is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Saudi army, and by night he is visual artist.
Not wanting for ambition, Gharem has created a number of large-scale installations, including Messenger/Message, a nearly 10-foot-wide wood and copper dome symbolizing the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Underneath the dome hides a small dove, while the dome’s body and rim are decorated in an elaborate floral relief. For GENERA#ION, Gharem is showing one of his three-foot sculptures of the bureaucratic stamps he uses in his military job.
Defying other Western perceptions, the exhibition also features five notable female artists—Sarah Abu Abdallah, Ahaad Al Amoudi, Njoud Alanbari, Dana Awartani, and Manal Al Dowayan. After early studies at the College of Fine Arts in Sharjah, Abdallah now pursues a degree in Digital Media at the Rhode Island School of Design. Like many artists of her generation, she uses the internet as both a medium and personal aesthetic. In the video The Salad Zone (2013), for instance, she weaves warped stories of everyday life in Saudi Arabia, including teenage dreams of other cities and family tensions. In her video Saudi Automobile (2011), Abdallah, wearing traditional abaya dress, takes on the Saudi law prohibiting women from driving cars by painting a junked car pink.
“As both artistic and urban infrastructures develop parallel to each other, these artists become a microcosm of those who choose to expand on traditional concepts,” he says, “bridging Western art practices as part and parcel of a new contemporary art creation never created anywhere else.”
Sakhai says that GENERA#ION grew out of artists Stephen Stapleton and Abdulnasser Gharem’s vital work in cultivating a long relationship with the contemporary Saudi art scene. After meeting 15 years ago, the two began encouraging contemporary arts practices through exhibitions across the West and within Saudi Arabia. Abdulnasser founded Gharem Studio to inspire more Saudi art production by the rising younger generation, though it has also attracted a wide audience of artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers.
“The artists in this show present a new intellectual paradigm that utilizes unique concepts and terminology to define the artists’ role within their society and their generation,” Gharem says. “Rather than analyzing art and society separately, the artists confront art as a reflection of society, positioning themselves as its mirrors.”
As Sakhai explains, the artists come from various regions across Saudi Arabia, and many have beeb exposed to different cultures while traveling and living abroad.
“Those who are self-practicing in studios are complementing their art production while working in art design or educational programs in Saudi,” says Sakhai of the artists. “Many who are pursuing arts degrees are working either in the US or Europe, while also tracing their inspirations to their upbringing within Saudi.”
“For example, artist Ahaad Alamoudi grew up in the UK, and then rekindled her Saudi heritage while continuing high school and university in Saudi—she he now is completing her masters at the Royal College of Arts,” he adds. “Manal AlDowayan is another artist who has completed work both in Saudi Arabia, as she takes part in local participatory projects, but she also has completed residencies abroad in London, Dubai, and Cairo.”
For Sakhai, and indeed the Saudi artists in GENERA#ION, global media’s highlighting of the Middle East’s instability and religious extremism has dehumanized the region’s people. They want to correct this in course of expressing themselves artistically.
“GENERA#ION offers a chance to hear these stories from Saudi Arabia, giving artists the power to narrate their personal stories and offering a small but humanist window into these Saudi cities and local villages.
Click here for more background on GENERA#ION.