Jeddah abuts the Red Sea, but one rarely notices when driving around Saudi Arabia's Western port. The only eyeful of ocean I got during my weeklong visit was from the window of my beachside hotel. The view wasn't glamorous—a long strip of cranes broke up the horizon line. The sobriety of Jeddah's architecture, which consists of monolithic malls and Western fast food chains like Krispy Kreme and Applebees, and widespread desolation, belies the truth: behind closed doors, a progressive creative movement is flourishing, led by Saudi Arabia's next generation of artists.
I had the privilege of meeting some of these visionaries during Jeddah Art Week, while on a discovery trip with a group of curators and artists. Like all travelers, I arrived with my own baggage: I struggle with languages, and my Texas high school conspicuously left the Middle East out of both ancient and modern history. My only point of reference was three months of local news.
But I learned that unemployment rates in Saudi Arabia are high, and two-thirds of the employed work in the public sector. Oil is the mainstay, but the government is trying to diversify the economy. I saw this play out in Jeddah through the injection of both private and public supports into the arts. One of the largest examples of this is the recently finished King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Riyadh, a monumental structure that will host traveling exhibitions, films, lectures, and workshops in design and art.
My first day in Jeddah was spent looking through the encyclopedic curiosities of the Al Tayebat City Museum, privately owned four-floor collection ranging from pre-Islamic antiquities to contemporary motivational posters. The museum served as my introduction to the Saudi art world: no public art institutions or theaters exist. Culture is at the mercy of individual interests.
This autonomy has become a tool for Saudi Arabian youth, who use social media as a means of expression. On an after hours visit to Pharan Studio, a cultural clubhouse run by Ahmed Mater, I learned that 60% of the Saudi population is under 30 and that the country is the leading consumer of YouTube content. Late at night, a group of twenty-something artists are grilling in the communal space, which Mater and his wife, Arwa Al Neami, have run since 2010.
The energy of Pharan was only matched by an evening of gallery-hopping. Jeddah's main contemporary galleries are tucked inside a mall, including Athr, where artist Monira Al Qadiri, a member of GCC, opened a solo exhibition titled Legacy. Her 3D-printed sculptures interrogate the role of the oil industry in Saudi Arabia. On the gallery roof, Athr invited food vendors from all over the city to set up stands, offering a welcome twist on the traditional seated gallery dinner and a convivial vibe not unlike that found at Pharan Studio.
My final day in Jeddah was spent with architect Sami Angawi, whose legendary home is another epicenter of creative activity. His son, Ahmad Angawi, runs a studio next to his compound, where he leads community workshops, teaching traditional methods like wood carving to local artists. The Abaya Factory, a fashion line producing contemporary head scarves that transform into jackets, is also on the premises. These progressive initiatives are the first signs of a budding creative scene. Small businesses and cultural centers thrive throughout Jeddah, with dreams of scaling up.
To learn more about Jeddah Art Week, click here.