Saudi artists benefit from cultural projects in Saudi Arabia

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Al-Ula (Saudi Arabia) (AFP) – Saudi Arabia has unveiled a magnificent artistic project in the desert “The Valley of the Arts”, which will exhibit works by local and foreign artists in 2024, illustrating the Conservative kingdom’s desire to open up to culture and tourism.

The initiative, presented on Monday, will exhibit the works of five artists, including two Saudis. Among them is Ahmed Mater, a dedicated artist whose one of the flagship works, “Evolution of Man”, representing the atrocities of the oil industry, has long been considered too delicate to be exhibited in the kingdom.

Through the transformation of a silhouette on luminous panels, the artist condemns the influence of oil on the world. This work was created in 2010 and was finally shown to the Saudi public in June in Riyadh.

“I believe in change when it comes from the base, but if we can encourage it from above, it’s even better,” Ahmed Mater told AFP, referring to the momentum given by the authorities to encourage art in the kingdom.

Saudi artist Ahmed Mater in his studio on June 19, 2022 in Riyadh. Fayez Nureldine AFP

“It’s the new thing,” he adds.

– “The Valley of Art” –

Around Al-Ula, a town in the Medina region in the northwestern part of the country, the Wadi AlFann project – the “valley of art” – will exhibit 65 square kilometers of desert works inspired by the movement of “land art”, an art form consisting of large-scale encroachment on nature and landscapes.

One of the pioneers of this movement, the American of Hungarian origin Agnes Denes, is one of the three foreign artists selected for this project.

Photo provided by the Royal Commission on Al-Ula on June 22, 2022 by Hungarian-born American artist Agnes Denes
Photo provided by the Royal Commission on Al-Ula on June 22, 2022 by Hungarian-born American artist Agnes Denes – Royal Commission on Al-ULA / AFP

The idea is also to make Al-Ula, famous for its Nabataean tombs scattered among the mountains and sandstone wadis, a tourist destination.

The ambitious and monumental project is expected to attract visitors across generations, says project curator Iwona Blazwick, former director of London’s Whitechapel Gallery.

Saudi artist Manal AlDowayan, whose works analyze women’s place in Saudi society, is pleased to have been selected for this project.

If she admits that she has been exhibited abroad more often than in her country of origin, she emphasizes that she has never been worried in her career as an artist by the Saudi authorities.

“I was dealing with very tough topics at the time when the context was really oppressive and I had no problems (…) I was never censored,” she says.

For researcher Eman Alhussein, of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, visual artists dealing with conceptual art have always had more freedom than activists because “their works can be interpreted in different ways.”

Since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) came to power in 2017, the country has sought to modernize its image by focusing in particular on art.

To the point that Manal AlDowayan is surprised now to be “constantly revealed” in the kingdom.

Photo provided by the Royal Commission on Al-Ula on June 22, 2022 by Saudi artist Manal AlDowayan
Photo provided by the Royal Commission on Al-Ula on June 22, 2022 by Saudi artist Manal AlDowayan – Royal Commission on Al-ULA / AFP

“I have been rediscovered by my people, my community. They used to follow me on Instagram. Now they can actually go and see the works of art,” she rejoices.

another time

Ahmed Mater also claims he had no problems with the authorities.

But that is not the case for everyone, he adds, citing the situation of Ashraf Fayadh, a Palestinian poet living in Arabia, jailed for nearly ten years for apostasy and sentenced to death, a sentence reduced to eight years in prison.

Saudi artist Ahmed Mater in his studio on June 19, 2022 in Riyadh.
Saudi artist Ahmed Mater in his studio on June 19, 2022 in Riyadh. Fayez Nureldine AFP

For the artist, this affair certainly illustrates another era, but it should not be forgotten. “Ashraf needs to get out of the shadows,” he says, hoping for his friend’s release soon.

Meanwhile, Ahmed Mater continues his dedicated work.

In the “valley of art” he will create tunnels where visitors will be able to walk, who will also see their image, their holograms projected on sand dunes, as a kind of mirage.

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