"Jeddah Gheir," or Jeddah is different, is a commonly used phrase by Saudis to describe the city on the Red Sea coast. The difference is of course in regards to the larger Saudi landscape.
During Jeddah’s Art Week events, I discovered that Jeddah is in fact different than the rest of Saudi cities, not only socially and economically, but also culturally. With great initiatives such as the Jeddah Art Week and "21,39" you see a blossoming art scene that is not defined by the stereotypes often associated with Saudi Arabia. I was impressed to see how much interest there is in art and culture. I have never seen a larger crowd attend an art exhibition opening, so eager to see and learn about contemporary art. The fact that the 90% of the artists are from Saudi, and the curators, the organizers and the patrons are all Saudi makes it a truly homegrown affair.
One of the key exhibitions as part of this initiative is "Moallaqat." The name comes from the pre-Islamic phenomenon of the "Seven Suspended Odes." The seven finest poems by the most renowned poets of the time were hung around the Ka’aba in Mecca. The "Moallaqat" represented themes such as history, identity, language, heritage, love, and war. Inspired by the themes of the Moallaqat, a group of contemporary Saudi artists created works using painting, photography, video and installations.
"This exhibition demonstrates that while the world has changed dramatically since the time of the Moallaqat, there is nevertheless a way of life, modes of thought, and cultural foundations that have survived and that have been passed down from generation to generation along with the legend," says Aya Alireza, Co-Curator of the exhibition.
Amongst the participating artists are two of my favorite Saudi female artists, Manal Aldowayan and Maha Malluh. Manal’s work "The Tree of Guardians" is an installation of hundreds of suspended delicate metallic leaves that have names of Saudi women marked on them. The work is a celebration of the many generations of unnamed women who served as protectors of families and messengers of authenticity. Maha’s work on the other hand, is a large-scale installation of old aluminum cooking pots. Titled "Food For Thought (Moallaqat)," it is a direct reference to the literary heritage of the Arab culture and a testament to the current hunger for everything visual.