Saudi artists shine as Art Dubai opens its doors post-coronavirus

The 14th Art Dubai is underway in the emirate with an exhibition giving creatives from the region the first chance to show their work since the COVID-19 pandemic took over the world, and giving art lovers a glimpse at some up-and-coming talent.

Al Arabiya English spoke to Saudi exhibitors at Art Dubai, who portrayed a country brimming with young creative talent that is making the most of recent reforms in order to showcase their work to the world.

Photographer Kholood al-Bakr is from the Saudi capital Riyadh. Her work is saturated with dreamy mysticism caught in snippets of time.

Her lens is drawn to the beauty in fleeting everyday scenes that is ordinarily missed, she told Al Arabiya English.

“What attracts me always is people and their stories. I just love to talk to people. I love people and I love to learn from them… I get inspired by scenery that has warmth.

“Some other people might find it’s not warm enough, but I see warmth in specific scenes in my country,” she added.

Al-Bakr’s work is being displayed at Riyadh-based Mono Gallery’s Art Dubai booth.

Alia Fattouh, director of Jeddah’s Athr Gallery, spoke to Al Arabiya English about the major changes seen in the Kingdom over the last few years and how they have affected the art scene.

She described a “reverse brain drain” that involves young Saudis returning to their home country, seeing new opportunities arising at home after having lived abroad.

“The idea of Saudi culture is for the first time being exposed to the world, and so is the Saudi identity,” Fattouh said.

Athr Gallery’s first inception was at an Art Dubai booth in 2009, with the Jeddah gallery opening shortly afterwards.

It provided a channel for Saudi art nearly a decade before the Kingdom’s Ministry of Culture was established in 2018.

“We were filling the gap by creating an education program and workshops and really encouraging students to come and visit, so it had a very important role locally in building the art scene, but also acting as an ambassador for Saudi art when nobody knew there was an art scene in Saudi,” the gallery director said.

According to Fattouh, there has been a major change in the way art is seen in Saudi Arabia as reforms are implemented, and programs are created to support artists and galleries. Societal changes are also reflected in the artwork itself.

“As time went by, there has been more and more ease at showing people in the work. Before this, a lot of the work was more abstract,” Fattouh explained.

One piece displayed at Athr’s booth was a video installation by Sarah Abuabdalla, featuring a triptych of intimate shots from her family home.

“A few years ago, artists weren’t comfortable showing themselves in video, but now they are and this is an important change,” Fattouh added.

Qaswra H Hafez, founder of Jeddah’s Hafez Gallery, spoke to Al Arabiya English about how the rapid social changes in the last few years have boosted the profiles of Saudi artists and allowed many to take up creative endeavors as full-time careers.

“Since the Establishment of the Ministry of Culture, we have seen leaps,” said Qaswra. “The culture of practicing art, of selling art, is all developing rapidly.”

Founded in 2014, Hafez Gallery has participated in more than 55 exhibitions. It works almost exclusively with Saudi artists.

One of the pieces on display is Rashed al-Shashai’s Brand 14, an installation of multicolored lightboxes depicting supermarket goods behind metal grates that Qaswra described as a “conversation about the rise of commercialism.”

Qaswra said “We’re very happy” after the government’s recent refocus towards supporting the creative arts. “Finally, there is a recognition of the power of culture and how we can connect with the rest of the world in a common language that everyone understands, be it film or art or music or food or design.”

Mono Gallery, based in Riyadh, was founded in 2017 with the aim of bringing Saudi Arabia’s art to a wider audience.

“We wanted to show the world that we have had Saudi art since forever. It’s just that they might have lacked a bit of international exposure,” gallery consultant Reem Yassin told Al Arabiya English.

One of the more striking artists whose work is displayed at Mono Gallery’s booth is Lulwah al-Homoud. Her calligraphy is created through an intricate, mathematical process inspired by traditional Islamic art, which involves processing letters of the Arabic language through code before deconstructing them into complex geometric shapes.

“She’s really fascinated by both geometry, math, and then she embeds in a very, very special spiritual depth into it,” Yassin said of al-Homoud.

The 14th edition of Art Dubai is being held at Dubai International Financial center until Saturday April 3.

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