A feminine look at Saudi Arabia’s “GENERA#ION” at Minnesota Street Project, San Francisco

San Francisco’s art space Minnesota Street Project presents a major survey of contemporary art from Saudi Arabia.

The large group exhibition “GENERA#ION: Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia”, running from 11 August to 6 September 2016, showcases the work of Saudi Arabia’s new generation of artists, addressing present cross-cultural issues and claiming the need for a dialogue and a mutual understanding.

Abdulnasser Gharem, 'The Path (Siraat)', 2012, installed at Ever Gold Projects. Image courtesy the artist and Minnesota Street Project, San Francisco.

Abdulnasser Gharem, ‘The Path (Siraat)’, 2012, installed at Ever Gold Projects. Image courtesy the artist and Minnesota Street Project, San Francisco.

The ambition of “GENERA#ION: Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia” is the most noble one: to bridge a divide between cultures, religions and nations. A separation – often escalating to a racial conflict – that has been incited by the 9/11 terroristic attack to the New York’s World Trade Center, and that, like a virus, has quickly infected beliefs, relationships and approaches.

The exhibition addresses a fundamental question: Why do we need art? According to Leo Tolstoy in his essay What is Art (1899),

In order correctly to define art, it is necessary, first of all, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure and to consider it as one of the conditions of human life. Viewing it in this way we cannot fail to observe that art is one of the means of intercourse between man and man.

“GENERA#ION” is a survey show that builds upon the concept of art as a means of “intercourse between man and man”. Travelling across the United States, from the East to the West Coast of the country, the intention is to confront the local public with completely different aesthetics, social and political issues. This new exhibition on Saudi contemporary art at San Francisco’s Dogpatch district-based Minnesota Street Project, is a further independent investigation on the Middle Eastern arts scene, but with its origins in projects from 2014.

At that time, the new philanthropist initiatives Edge of Arabia and Art Jameel partnered for a three-year cross-cultural tour across the nation that saw the opening of exhibitions like “Soft Power” at the Middle East Institute, Washington DC (2014), “Culturerunners” at Rothko Chapel, Houston (2014), and the launch of the new ISCP (International Studio & Curatorial Program) residency in Brooklyn, New York. The purpose of such triennial plan was to foster an uneasy exchange and dialogue between cultures, as well as to promote the work of artists from the MENAT region (Middle East, North Africa, Turkey) beyond the Mediterranean borders.

Rashed Al Shashai, 'Heaven's Doors', 2014, Image courtesy Hafez Gallery, Jeddah, KSA.

Rashed Al Shashai, ‘Heaven’s Doors’, 2014, Image courtesy Hafez Gallery, Jeddah, KSA.

Supported by The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (ithra) and organised in collaboration with some internationally acclaimed Saudi artists, among which the ones affiliated to the Gharem Studio, the San Francisco’s stop is the third chapter involving a selection of 15 artists, working with video, drawing, photography, sculpture, installation and design. In addition to the five profiled below in this article, the exhibited artists include:

Minnesota Street Project, an independent art space founded by the couple of collectors Deborah and Andrew “Andy” Rappaport, will set the stage for a confrontation with the historical issues of identity, religion and nationalism in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

As artist and founder of Gharem Studio, Abdulnasser Gharem explains in the press release (PDF download),

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. Rather than analyzing art and society separately, the artists confront art as a reflection of society, positioning themselves as its mirrors.

In order for the reader to fully understand the importance of such exhibition in our current artistic and geo-political context, Washington’s NPR News correspondent from the Middle East Deborah Amos further expands on the examined art scene saying:

Conceptual art is new in Saudi Arabia — a visual language that is easily understood by a young generation steeped in Internet culture, but flies just as easily past Saudi censors. Gharem and his band of young artists push the boundaries of critical speech now, not with words but with images.

Shaweesh, 'Captain America - US Government Urged To Take A Stance On Refugees', 2013.

Shaweesh, ‘Captain America – US Government Urged To Take A Stance On Refugees’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

The imagery coming out from the exhibition “GENERA#ION” is still populated by burqa-dressed women, desert areas, omnipresent floral and star patterns, and the Islamic calligraphy. This is part of the Middle Eastern heritage and identity, this is the way it has to be. However, no-frills, thought-provoking, vitriolic, sometimes sarcastic, eventually moving is the artists’ approach to their own roots, while commenting on the recent Islamophobia spreading in the Western world, and the social and gender issues of women empowerment and education in contemporary Saudi Arabia.

Art Radar profiles the work of the five female artists in the show:

Sarah Abu Abdallah, 'Saudi Automobile', 2011, Video. Image courtesy the artist.

Sarah Abu Abdallah, ‘Saudi Automobile’, 2011, Video. Image courtesy the artist.

1. Sarah Abu Abdallah

Sarah Abu Abdallah was born in 1990 in Qatif, Saudi Arabia. She studied at the College of Fine Arts in Sharjah and is currently continuing her education in Digital Media at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Trained as a painter, Abu Abdallah developed a strong interest in making video, which she employs as both performance documentation and video work itself.

Belonging to the Generation Y, digital media and web-based user-generated content are familiar to Abu Abdallah. Her work is deeply imbued with the aesthetics of the Internet, for which there is no space and time linearity, and thoughts flow following a rhizomatic schema.

The cybernetic routes the mind moves along are vividly portrayed in videos like The Salad Zone (2013), Delighted to Serve (2014) and The Turbulence of Sea and Blood (2015). While one may detect a subtle homage to Palestinian artist Omer Fast’s CNN Concatenated (2002) in the editing, these works build upon a non-linear fragmented narration of situations she draws from both digital material created by users on the Internet and her daily life. She then cuts the content and makes a compilation of video frames, of which the juxtaposition relies upon an artful association of images, concepts, actions.

On another level, the video Saudi Automobile (2011) is the documentation of a series of actions responding to the ban on women driving cars in public spaces. As a woman, she is forbidden to drive her car, but she tries at least to make it her own by painting it in a private domestic yard, in pink, a colour commonly associated with women. On the one hand the fashion in which the artist holds the brush, gracefully touching the surface of the car, recalls the way cakes are garnished and other typically womanly DIY home decorations, positioning her actions in the appropriate sphere of female activities; on the other hand, repetition, goals achieved after multiple exhausting attempts, hope and desperation reveal her vigorous fight to escape this system, calling for a change.

Ahaad Alamoudi, 'v=noyFiYKlFJU ', 2016 , lithography print  and perspex box. Image courtesy the artist.

Ahaad Alamoudi, ‘v=noyFiYKlFJU’, 2016, lithography print  and perspex box. Image courtesy the artist.

2. Ahmad Al Amoudi

Ahaad Al Amoudi was born in 1991 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She shares with Sarah Abu Abdallah an interest in the virtual media, enriched with a caustic reflection on her national identity. Graduated in Graphic Design from the all women Dar Al-Hekma University in Jeddah, she is currently studying Print at the Royal College of Art in London.

Al Amoudi looks at the Internet and the social sharing platforms in relation to the country’s history and transformation. She doesn’t consider the modes the web “speaks” or mimic individual’s thoughts and movements, as Abu Abdallah does. Rather, through installations, photography and video, she addresses her research to the understanding of the consequences of virtuality on present society, particularly the Saudi Arabian one. She reflects on the use of technology, the notion of conflict and the construction of multiple fake identities.

The installation v=noyFiYKlFJU (2016) shows a title probably drawn from the final part of an url, framing the work in the internet-based sphere of production. The printed part of it illustrates the hero of the Arab Revolt in 1916, Auda ibu Tayi, commonly known in the West as Lawrence of Arabia. On the artist’s website, the work is presented bi-dimensionally as a collage of presumably gifs of Lawrence’s cavalry, excerpts from the dedicated page on Wikipedia and web-circulating photographs and close-ups of the Howeitat’s leader. Al Amoudi combines past and present; she intervenes on the flow of history by reconstructing her own web research-based version of the life of the protagonist of the Arab heritage. At the same time she emphasises the massive presence of technology in our experience of daily life by overlapping frames, moving images, glitch effects and user-generated content, which feature the hyper-connected language most of society speaks today.

Al Amoudi’s approach is a poetic and zen one. Her works don’t yell, they delicately let viewers enter her world, drown themselves into her vision of today’s intricacy, according to which a profound comprehension of who we are must be ruling upon today’s excitement and schizophrenia. Based between her homeland and the UK, the artist’s work, straddling West and the Middle East, investigates on the way the two parts of the globe look at each other and, in doing this, she reckons the Western-centrism as the evil problem hindering the dialogue between the two different cultural heritages and their mutual deeper knowledge.

Njoud Alanbari, 'Elementary 240', 2015, Still from the video. Image courtesy the artist and Minnesota Street Project, San Francisco.

Njoud Alanbari, ‘Elementary 240’, 2015, still from the video. Image courtesy the artist.

3. Njoud Alanbari

Njoud Alanbari was born in 1989 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She graduated from the city’s Prince Sultan University and started her career in the arts as an interior designer, working with Gharem Studio. Founded by prominent Saudi artists Abdulnasser Gharem and Ajlan Gharem in 2010, the studio is a space for independent artistic research and practice, and fostering the education as a means of freedom, change, humanity and non-violence.

In a country where the number of schools is dramatically low and even lower is that of art programmes, the strong educational vocation of the studio has shaped Alanbari’s research. One of her great interest is the relationship between culture and education, particularly when referred to the basic guidelines for women. “No music [when not approved by the government], no pornography, no travel”, reads one of the Kingdom-authorised posters on the walls of a pink, girls-only public school in Riyadh.

The seven-minute video Elementary 240 (2015) draws inspiration from the school propaganda warnings and emphasises the nonsense of such bans addressed to classes of little girls. The semiotics plays a role in this work: while the pink colour attracts the kids to play with and draw on the wall, the swords underlining the restrictions suggest the presence of a menace, alongside the feeling of oppression and instability, being these schoolgirls at the mercy of the arbitrary interpretation of Quran diktats. Alanbari’s body of work aims at providing viewers with the correct knowledge and tools to understand and look at those non-senses – believed “normal” and “common” – in a different, fresh and much more critical way.

Dana Awartani, 'When it All Adds Up II', 2015, shell gold, natural pigment and ink on paper, 42 x 42 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Dana Awartani, ‘When it All Adds Up II’, 2015, shell gold, natural pigment and ink on paper, 42 x 42 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

4. Dana Awartani

Dana Awartani was born in 1987 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She graduated in Fine Art specialising in Saudi Arabian traditional tribal textiles and patterns from Central Saint Martins and continued her studies in manuscript illumination at the The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London. Such passion for geometrical patterns and motifs brought her to Istanbul to pursue the Manuscript Illumination Apprenticeship, under the training of Master illuminator and calligrapher Ayten Tiryaki.

As the artist’s website writes, Awartani defines herself as a “contemporary Islamic artist”. Such a statement sheds light on the focus of her work, deeply connected with religion and Islamic illuminations and paintings, of which one can spot resemblances to Italian medieval artist Giotto’s frescoes. The small-scale decorations, alongside the employment of gold, bright natural pigments – such as blue, red and green – and geometric motifs are central to Awartani’s work, while creating the common ground for a dialogue on painting tradition between the Christian and Islamic worlds.

Dana Awartani’s use of repeated units at different scales recalls the natural phenomenon of fractals that is directly linked to the mathematical notion of expanding symmetry. This interpretation highlights the focus of Awartani’s research on the relationship between geometry, nature and religion – three disciplines that have been connected to each other since time immemorial and whose bond can be found in both the study of sacred geometry as well as in the psychedelic (hallucinatory) representation of reality as recounted by Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception (1954). In fact, some of Awartani’s paintings and drawings flirt with the works by prominent Op Art artists like British Bridget Riley, San Diego-based Kelsey Brookes and Brazilian Almir da Silva Mavignier, for the repetition of a set of motifs and geometric forms like circles, triangles and polygons, the use of diverse proportions and the choice of a vibrant palette confounding retinal perception. 

In the show, When it All Adds Up II, from the eponymous series (2015), is an emblematic work merging mathematics, history and mysticism. The use of the 3×3 and 4×4 magic squares references the dawn of Arab scientific thought at the beginning of the seventh century, and pays tribute to the Islamic people who are believed to be the inventors of astrological calculations. Arranging them into a grid, Awartani draws floral motifs, triangles, circles, stars and small scale squares to which she assigns values, colours and codes. Specifically, she refers to the numerology of gender – eventually confirmed by Islamic tradition – according to which odd numbers symbolise masculinity, whereas even numbers stand for femininity.

The artist’s investigation into symbols aims not just at addressing the gender issue in both Western and Middle Eastern society nowadays; Awartani’s research also explores the possibilities for the discovery of a new language to interpret the Quran and our globalised cross-cultural context, in which the unknowns one has to challenge are undefined.

Manal Al Dowayan, 'Tree of Guardians', 2014 , 2000 brass leaves, ink, fish wire and 400 ink on paper drawings.  Photo: Phil Bond Photography. Image courtesy Sabrina Amrani Gallery, Madrid.

Manal AlDowayan, ‘Tree of Guardians’, 2014 , 2000 brass leaves, ink, fish wire and 400 ink on paper drawings.  Photo: Phil Bond Photography. Image courtesy Sabrina Amrani Gallery, Madrid.

5. Manal AlDowayan

Manal Al Dowayan was born in 1973 in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. She pursued her studies in advanced computing obtaining a Master’s Degree in Systems Analysis and Design. AlDowayan’s work spans photography, large-scale installations and participatory projects.

Her research departs from the injustices and occurrences involving women in Saudi Arabia, and revolves around the themes of female collective memory and identity to claim women’s existence as both independently thinking human beings and the fundamental ring in the evolution of mankind. AlDowayan’s perspective analyses the state of disappearance: how can one keep the memory of the past lively? How do we pay tribute to our ancestors? The act of remembering in the artist’s work manifests mainly through photography and community-based projects.

Sharing, dialogue and relationships are central to the environmental installation Tree of Guardians (2014), which was realised in collaboration with a group of women keen to pay tribute to older generations of sisters, mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers that helped the Saudi Arabian nation to develop and change the consideration of the woman across eras. While the element of ‘tree’ recalls the idea of family and ancestry, the term ‘guardians’ refers to those women who, in the artist’s words, have served “as protectors and messengers of authenticity”. The installation consists of 400 ink drawings and 2,000 brass leaves suspended from the ceiling, overwhelming viewers into a timeless dimension in which they can think of their past, in order to figure out the present and construct their own future.

Manal Al Dowayan, 'Tree of Guardians' (detail), 2014 , 2000 brass leaves, ink, fish wire and 400 ink on paper drawings.  Photo: Phil Bond Photography. Image courtesy Sabrina Amrani Gallery, Madrid.

Manal Al Dowayan, ‘Tree of Guardians’ (detail), 2014 , 2000 brass leaves, ink, fish wire and 400 ink on paper drawings.  Photo: Phil Bond Photography. Image courtesy Sabrina Amrani Gallery, Madrid.

The artist further explains thus:

In periods of social and economic change, men often had to adapt to the shifting mores of the dominant system in order to earn a living and advance within the society.  Thus it was women—mothers, grandmothers, aunts and older sisters—who became both the repositories and the transmitters of traditional culture, ethics and ideals, often in an oral fashion. Nursery rhymes, poems, stories, riddles, parables, fables—these became the information packets through which traditional identities, attitudes and values were actively transmitted to subsequent generations, with women acting as their guardians, preservers, and transmitters.

Carmen Stolfi

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Related topics: Saudi artists, women power, memory, historical art, identity art, ancestors, nature, art and the internet, video, installation, photography, painting, museum shows, events in the USA

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