The Art Newspaper: Saudi Arabia breaks onto contemporary art scene23rd August 2012
Saudi Arabia is making its mark on the global contemporary art scene: works by Middle Eastern artists such as Talal Al Zeid and Mohammed Farea are available at Lam Art Gallery in Riyadh, the Empty Quarter photography gallery in Dubai was founded by the Saudi photographer Princess Reem Al-Faisal, while Message/Messenger, a 2010 installation incorporating a wood and copper dome by the Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem, was the top lot at Christie’s Dubai in April 2011, fetching $842,500 (with buyer’s premium; est $70,000-$100,000). A new contemporary art gallery called Alaan Artspace, which opens next month in Riyadh, also hopes to succeed in the field.
“There is a tremendous amount of energy around the arts in Saudi, but relatively few institutions and Alaan Artspace is Riyadh’s first curated contemporary art platform,” says Neama Alsudairy, the founding director of the new gallery. “Revenue from the shop, restaurant and cafe give us the flexibility to hold non-commercial exhibitions, commission new works, stock an art research library, and offer free non-profit educational arts programming.” In a significant move, the venue will also host commercial shows.
The opening exhibition, “Soft Power” (26 September-10 December), represents a breakthrough, featuring three Saudi female artists. Sarah Mohanna Al-Abdali’s paintings and works on paper depict female figures whose bodies are cloaked in geometric patterns, including a series of arayis (brides) planted head first into the soil. Sarah Abu Abdallah’s video, meanwhile, presents a wrecked car sourced from a local junkyard. “The artist superimposes her own experience onto the object,” says Alsudairy. Manal Al Dowayan’s installation incorporates large prayer beads, decorated with the names of individual anonymous women, which were painted in community workshops.
“The works are each very different but together present a complicated and even humorous approach towards questions [about] the position of women within contemporary society. Like our artists, we seek to turn the narrative on its head but to do so with solidarity, ambiguity and a heavy dose of irony,” says Alsudairy. “Soft Power” and Alaan Artspace’s educational programmes are organised by Sara Raza, the former curator of public programmes for Tate Modern in London who has also worked at the South London Gallery.
Alsudairy adds that the show reflects an important art world trend, in that a significant number of leading artists and dealers in the Middle East are women. In Jeddah this January, when the UK non-profit organisation Edge of Arabia organised the 40-piece exhibition “We Need to Talk” for instance, more than a third of the works were by women.
And what about the thorny issue of censorship in the notoriously restrictive state? “We are not seeking to alienate anyone and we are also not going to shy away from showing art that has real potency… we feel as though we have a great deal of flexibility to share works, hold a dialogue and support an open discussion of what contemporary art means in Saudi and how artists in the Middle East and North Africa region create.”