West Asia Review: ALAAN ARTSPACE OF RIYADH SAUDI ARABIA2nd March 2015
Click here to read the original article by James Medina
Right in the heart of Riyadh, a small group of fashionable young Saudis, laden with shopping bags, quickly glance up with intrigue at the striking black and white Arabic letters that spell ‘alāan’ (‘now’) above the entrance of a sleek yet beautifully crafted ultra-modern building. They hurriedly walk on by towards more designer stores before disappearing into the city’s bright lights; the opportunity to experience something new at this cultural addition to the staunchly conservative capital has passed them by.
Venture through Alāan’s doors and you are greeted with a microcosm of art, design and education in the making. The peacefulness feels a million miles away from the city’s infernal gas guzzlers and cacophony of commercialism. This multifunctional contemporary art space boasting a majlis (styled as a bookshop-cum-café) and a restaurant holds the first fully curated project of its kind in Riyadh. It’s the vision of Alāan’s founding directors Neama AlSudairy and her brother Mohammed, and a place where the entire founding team other than Mohammed are women. Raw talent and ability is the focus here, irrespective of gender.
Neama, an anthropologist who later went on to study fine arts in New York, Boston and Paris, passionately believes that art is an intrinsic part of our existence. Sat in the majlis sipping coffee and surrounded by books ranging from the British Museum’s Hajj exhibition portfolio (featuring Saudi contemporary artist Ahmed Mater’s Magnetism, a stunning vision of the Ka’aba) to guides on how to create your own advertisements, I ask Neama about the degree to which she sees anthropology and art as intertwined. ‘I definitely feel as though art is essential for human development. There is this innate desire to communicate and express which goes beyond basic questions of food, water and shelter,’ she shares. ‘It is that intangible desire that is behind all forms of creation and this is why art has such universal potency, beyond any one medium or region or language.’
For Neama, the name of the gallery reflects ‘a sense of urgency and opportunity’ and ‘the time has come,’ she says, for a new art space such as Alāan, which opened in October 2011.
Alāan provides a sanctuary for Saudis and local expatriates to immerse themselves in an emerging contemporary art scene unique to the Kingdom. There are varied entry points for different audiences, with newcomers to art often visiting the gallery as an add-on after the main purpose of their trip: the dining. Others come through the doors to take part in specially designed exhibition workshops, screenings and meetings with the artists.
Helping Saudis develop a creative flair, who, unlike Neama, may not have had the opportunity or family support to pursue artistic goals, is also imperative for the gallery. Alāan is offering a vehicle for social expression and pedagogy not only through art, but with video, photography, contemporary design, art history and youth outreach projects to tap into nascent Saudi talent. ‘While there has long been a cultural appreciation of poetry and works in the oral tradition in Saudi, there is a real groundswell of support now also for students in the Kingdom interested in exploring other creative fields and the potential to see the visual arts as a career,’ the gallery’s founder explains.
Alāan’s inaugural exhibition Soft Power, curated by its founding curator Sara Raza (a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art, London), showcased the works of two highly talented emerging Saudi contemporary artists, Sarah Abu Abdallah and Sarah Mohanna Al-Abdali, as well as the established, internationally recognised Manal Al Dowayan. Not artists who shy away from exploring sensitive social themes, their works were cleverly connected to provide a glimpse into the quotidian domestic lifestyle of Saudi women. In a press release for the Soft Power exhibition, Reza writes that it will be successful in probing and encouraging ‘alternative ways of looking and being seen’ and ‘provides a space for contemplating the interwoven narrative of three dreams in collision and harmony that aim to raise questions, yet not necessarily provide answers.’
Visitors journeying through these dreams were able to pick up on the artists’ quirks, frustrations, hopes, questioning of cultural norms, depictions of female beauty and subjects many might consider taboo. Abu Abdallah’s photographic series Misfit shows dirty and uncomfortable living conditions inhabited by a veiled woman, while Al-Abdali, whose hybrid practice fuses graffiti art with intricate detailed drawings, explored traditional marriage rituals in her series Four Wives. Earlier this year, Alāan’s interim exhibition Vitra Miniatures shifted away from fine arts and highlighted another of the gallery’s interdisciplinary passions – design. It supports Neama’s belief in exploring the connections between fine art, design and functionality.
Vitra Miniatures offered an aesthetic journey through 188 years of seminal furniture design, from the radical years of the industrial revolution through to the 1990s. Chronologically laid out in a way that allows visitors to mingle among the illuminated glass-covered displays, one hundred miniature replicas showcase the most curious and widely sold chairs in history. The journey covers early pioneers such as Thonet, Rietveld and Frank Lloyd Wright, modern masters like Eames, Le Corbusier and Mies van Der Rohe, contemporary classics by Frank Gehry and Marcel Wanders, and new icons like the ‘vegetal’ chair by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec.
The retrospective element is useful for visitors completely new to industrial furniture design, as each miniature boasts a precise and perfectly detailed reconstruction. What also makes a visit to Vitra Miniatures so worthwhile is the documentation that accompanies the exhibit: a timeline of the designs, informative wall-mounted panels and a booklet with photographs and original drawings. With a lack of museums, Riyadh desperately needs more spaces that encourage the study of global history.
Alāan is starting to go deeper in its outreach, too, by inviting schools from Riyadh to the gallery for drawing and screenings, publishing Hamzat Al Wasel (its quarterly newspaper that is distributed for free) and offering internship placements in education, development and marketing. Mohammed, who focuses on Alāan’s business and marketing strategies, from managing overall finances to acquiring design merchandise and commissioning local designers for the gift shop, is at the core of any potential future development.
With a good balance between showcasing a treasure trove of homegrown Arab talent and producing hands-on educational material relevant to the history of art and modern western design, Alāan’s resilience and hard work to overcome a range of social and financial challenges is beginning to pay off. It is now firmly established on the Saudi art scene, along with galleries such as Lam Art and non-profit organisations such as Edge of Arabia. Slowly, more and more visitors, both young and old, are walking through Alāan’s doors and entering a new world of art, blissfully disconnected from Riyadh’s 24/7 shopping and mall culture.