Gallerist and curator Hamza Serafi talks to Art Radar about the inaugural Jeddah Art Week and the changing face of the Saudi Arabian art scene.
From 25 to 28 February 2013, Saudi Arabia hosted its first major visual art event, Jeddah Art Week. Art Radar spoke to Jeddah-based gallerist and curator Hamza Serafi about the importance of the event for the country’s artists and what the future holds for Saudi contemporary art.
The first Jeddah Art Week brought together established and emerging artists from across the Gulf region, combining four large art exhibitions, gallery openings and a series of public lectures and debates. Hamza Serafi, co-founder of Athr Gallery in Jeddah, sees the event as the culmination of years of commitment from Saudi arts practitioners, as well as a turning point for the national art scene.
Can you give Art Radar an insight into the recent history of the Saudi Arabian contemporary art scene, and your role within it as a curator and gallerist?
My partner and I established Athr Gallery in Jeddah four years ago, although I’ve been involved with the art movement since the mid nineties, so in that time it’s been an interesting journey. The Saudi contemporary art movement started later than in other countries, 1995-98 perhaps, it was then that we started seeing the green shoots of the contemporary movement. Before that we were little oases in the vast land of Arabia, because at that time art was not the main concern for the development movement. But art is like the soul, it doesn’t disappear or go away, it’s part of human nature, and so we existed in little in oases.
Then there was growing interest in art from the Middle East – Iran, Egypt, Syria – and the Gulf started to appear. One of the first things [to happen] was Art Dubai. I went to see the fair just out of interest the first time, and my business partner went too, and we met later in Jeddah and said to each other, “We have good art but there were no Saudi artists at the fair!” So we decided to start a gallery. [Art movement] Edge of Arabia was just a dream then, so we spoke to [founders] Stephen Stapleton, Ahmed Mater and Abdulnasser Gharem about the possibility of creating a show together, and so I became part of the Edge of Arabia founding team at the time.
Edge of Arabia have been heralded as the pioneers of contemporary art in Saudi Arabia since the movement was established in 2002. Does the group continue to wield influence in Saudi’s contemporary art scene today?
Of course! Edge of Arabia was the cornerstone. The art movement was ready for something like this: we had good artists and the artwork grew in the right direction. This had to do with the collaboration of people in Edge of Arabia, as well as other things that happened later to promote Saudi art, like the establishment of private galleries like Athr. So yes, Edge of Arabia gave a big start to the Saudi art movement, but I think now the Edge of Arabia artists continue to be important, for example, by selecting the young artists in the Saudi Arabian pavilion at this year’s [2013’s] Venice Biennale.
Are Saudi artists gaining recognition on the international art scene? If so, why?
I think Saudi has always been almost like Aladdin’s lantern: you like the look of it, but don’t know exactly what lies inside. When people started to pay attention and rubbed the lantern the right way, something interesting, true and genuine came out. With this attention comes positive and negatives, so we try to work to avoid the negatives.
Can you describe the positives and negatives that come with increasing international attention?
The positives are that when people come and see the work they get interested and we are able to show more of the full spectrum of our society: how our young people think and the issues that we’re debating locally and internationally. The negative is that there is a rush from commercial outlets to cash in on this interest. This is very dangerous because our market is still very young and we don’t yet have a wide collector base. So at Athr, our policy is to keep prices affordable so we can expand and develop our collectors. They’re a very important part in the existence of an art movement, the collectors who buy for passion and not for investment. We tell people, “Buy the artists that you love, that’s how you should buy.” Buy a painting that means something to you. If you want an investment, go and buy stocks or land, but don’t buy art.
The first Jeddah Art Week happened in February 2013. In your opinion was it a success?
Of course, it was a great success as a first time event. I think it had a very good impact on culture and society. The number of people who came to see the show, the way the show was done and the events during that week showed very good collaboration among galleries, among communities, among supporting sponsors. Athr had the chance to produce an exhibition called “Mostly Visible”, a very grassroots show where 22 young Saudi artists showed their work for the first time. Also Sotheby’s sponsored Jeddah Art Week and held an exhibition of highlights from their Doha show, which was the first time we’ve seen big corporations get involved. For a while we’ve been talking with auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s and telling them if they want to enter the Saudi art market they should give us education, first and foremost, lectures and things of that sort, to educate people about the value of art and why they should buy it.
Also, Art Week gave us the chance to have both big exhibitions and smaller shows: we had the Sotheby’s show, the grassroots exhibition and a group show “Pen to Paper” to help and support Al Madad Foundation. We had an exhibition, curated by Ashraf Fayad, where we called on the collectors and small museums in our network to share works that we thought fitted in with the educational theme of the exhibition. It was interesting to see how a collector looks into his collection and sees how an artwork fits with a curatorial concept. And we made a book about this because part of our mission is to expand the collector base. We want people to be able to buy and start collecting artwork for the right reasons.
Athr Art Gallery participates in exhibitions and projects across the region, such as a recent collaboration with Artspace Dubai and your representation of Palestinian artist Hazem Harb. Is cross-country collaboration important for a young art scene such as Saudi’s?
Yes, very important. Not only on the Gulf platform, but internationally. This is what Saudi artists and galleries have been doing over and over again by participating in things in Artissima in Italy, Art Basel, Art Dubai, Abu Dhabi Art, Art13 London. So we’re not just waiting for the art lovers to come and see the work, we’re going to them. It’s such a good feeling. I can’t express how delightful it is to go outside of the country and see how people receive art from Saudi: you totally take them by surprise when they see the quality of the work, the level of culture and the way we are able to tell our own stories and not just fall into a narrow stream of stereotyping.
But there are still issues for artists and creatives in Saudi, for example, surrounding freedom of expression. How do you as a gallerist deal with that?
It’s not that we’re denying the issues that face Saudi and are stereotyped. Yes we have issues in our society just like any other society. But they’re not the only issues, and for the first time we’re taking them into our hands and raising our voices ourselves to the outside world. I think also right now there is a new level of expression in the kingdom inspired by discussions about dialogue with religion, freedom of expression, human rights…. There’s definitely more freedom of expression now and that’s made a huge difference. So this year  at Art Dubai, we were able to collaborate with Artspace Dubai to create the exhibition “A Line in the Sand”, and already two artists in the exhibition have signed with international galleries. Galleries, and I’m talking about private galleries like Athr, are not just there to sell art, but also to open up opportunities for artists and bring them to international galleries. We like to play a public role and do the right thing, promote art and artists and curators and residencies. The whole nine yards, or whatever it is in English.
Will Jeddah Art Week happen again next year, and how will you build on the foundations laid by the event?
Hopefully it will happen next year, hopefully with more organisation and more people, and not only on the local scale. This year was really aimed at the local level, and I think we achieved what we set out to do. But Jeddah Art Week also generated a lot of international interest, for example, Art Radar talking about it now.
Apart from holding events like Jeddah Art Week and building stronger connections to the international art circuit, what other things does the Saudi art movement need to do to keep developing?
We’re already trying to establish residencies and workshops, and also scholarships to send artists to workshops or residencies internationally. Also, we need dialogue: we like to present the work that’s not really about criticism, but dialogue, because only through dialogue can you heal a society and raise it up. The whole world is still trying to find a means where culture and religion have a dialogue and an understanding of each other, building and introducing culture benefits to the whole world not only to themselves. Prosperous developments only happen when we learn to accept the Other and learn to accept ourselves; unity through diversity not through individuality. Sometimes I think I’m just a dreamer, but so far we’ve been able to achieve part of this dream and I hope we can continue. It’s just like a crisp morning when you see new artists excited to show their art work and getting opportunities to do so. It’s a good world.
- Art Dubai 2013 explores West African “Cities in Transition” – picture feast – April 2013 – African art centre-stage in the Gulf’s biggest art fair
- Walid Raad explores exploding Middle East art infrastructure in Louvre exhibition – March 2013 – the first part of a three year collaboration between Raad and the Paris Louvre
- Middle East heads West: Ayyam Gallery opens in London, Jeddah – October 2012 – a rising art scene means great international presence for Saudi galleries
- Saudi’s Alaan Artspace opens with a feminist exhibition – The National – October 2012 – fresh art spaces spearhead a contemporary renaissance
- First forays for Saudi art in international art market – March 2009 – a relative art world newcomer, Saudi art hit the Christie’s auction floor in 2009
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