21, 39 is an arts initiative organized by the Saudi Art Council in Jeddah. Their objective is to make "art and culture accessible to all, to instill it as a right, not a privilege, to be experienced and enjoyed as part of daily life, and equally important, to provide the tools through which it can be appreciated and understood." Their yearly programming consists of exhibitions and educational outreach into the schools (grades 4 - 12) in the form of workshops and field trips to art exhibitions and artist studios. Their yearly conference gathers artists, curators, critics, cultural leaders, and scholars to exchange ideas and learn more about the art scene in Saudi Arabia.
This year’s conference was overshadowed by the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and the official three days of mourning. The public symposium and many of the festivities were cancelled in respect for the King’s passing. I had trouble sleeping the night of the King Abdullah's funeral and found myself surfing the web looking for articles and images pertaining to the his death. Images of the late King covered in simple cloth and carried by men in red and white traditional headscarves on a wooden stretcher to his grave captured my attention. The New York Times featured an image of men grieving around his unmarked grave covered in stones. I could not help but think of the new Martin Luther King memorial in Washington DC that gazes over the water towards the Lincoln Memorial that I had just visited the week before. I was deeply moved by the humility and anonymity in the Saudi King’s burial, but I also saw the value in watching visitors of every age and ethnicity read the quotes at the MLK site and getting their picture taken with the Reverend’s statue. What importance do memorials play in our act of remembering history? Do memorials play a tangible role in the actions we take as a nation and our own sense of patriotism? What affect do humble funerals of national leaders have on a country? The question of consecrating history continued to run through my week in Jeddah.
Fast Forward, curated by Bashar Al Shroogi examines the history of artistic development in Saudi Arabia from 1960 - Present. The show combines archival research - newspaper clippings, photographs, invitations to the first art openings, diplomas and transcripts from the first art school - and works of art. The show creates a historic narrative that has been lacking and it is powerful to see the threads of artistic initiatives begin to take a form that can be evaluated in terms effectiveness and repeated patterns of creation and dissolution. Dr. Mohammed Rusayes’ dissertation, 'The Significance of the Development and Emergence of Art and Crafts Museums in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia' (1989), researches the history of artistic and cultural production in Saudi and creates a road map of actions and suggestions for the future. Some suggestions include:
1. Providing all supplemental publications as far as possible about Islamic art, Arabian contemporary art and the local traditional crafts.
2. Providing audio aids with simple and direct information about the museums’ objectives and functions, major collections, or pavilions and public support.
3. Providing convenient surroundings for the pleasure of children and family gatherings.
4. Creating educational correlations with public schools for daily visits of student groups.
5. Presenting monthly lectures about the various aspects of Islamic art, Arabian contemporary art and local traditional crafts, with open discussions and/or dialogues.
6. Presenting six annual art exhibits of Arabian artists with gallery talks and/or lectures with slides.
7. Permanent art studios for amateurs, and permanent workshops for different types of traditional crafts.
8. Offering a weekly social gathering with artists, craftsmen, historians, and other scholars.
Twenty six years later, these suggestions are remarkably relevant. In the exhibit, one is struck by the ambitious stuttering attempts by individuals that take hold for a certain amount of time and then dissolve or lose steam; “Cultural Weeks”, launched in 1973 and lasted for over twenty years, promoted international cultural exchange and introduced the world to Saudi arts and culture, the creation of the Jeddah Dome Art Center in 1978 that is now boarded up, and Malwan - the Jeddah Biennale launched by Saudi Arabia airlines in 1992 and stopped in 2003. The lack of continuous government support make the initiatives dependent upon individuals and this is a difficult model to sustain over time.
Saudi artists. Shadia and Raja Alem, who created “The Black Arch” for the Saudi Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011, were present at the Fast Forward exhibition. The show’s timeline suddenly made them feel a part of Saudi history - a part of an artistic continuum that they were not aware of before. This is the power of the show - to see one's history and efforts in a historical context and to understand that one is not free falling through time, but instead operating in a continuum with fellow travellers populating the past and probable future.
While Fast Forward starts to create an official narrative, Aya Alireza and Raneem Farsi’s show, Inner Voices, captures the unofficial voices of graffiti art in Saudi Arabia.
"As a counteraction against the commercialization of street art, this non-profit show "Inner Voices" seeks to bring this characteristically public art back to the people. Set in the semi-outdoor space of an abandoned hangar in the historic district of Al-Balad, the show sees real examples of Saudi street art that can be found all over the country, converge in one location. In a democratic display that includes all forms of street expression; graffiti, stencil, wheat paste, stickers, performance and even the mysterious anonymous writings scattered across the walls of the Kingdom, Inner Voices gives a close up glimpse of the un-inhibited outpourings of a generation, which can only find expression on the streets."
The organizers have cleaned out an abandoned hangar in a South Asian and African neighborhood dominated by car mechanics. Kids play on the street and men gather outside of the car mechanic shops on plastic chairs to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. Kids who used the abandoned space as their own hangout have helped to clean up the space and now take responsibility for its safety. The pop-up exhibit opens February 30th, 2015 to the public and will host photography workshops for the neighborhood children in the coming weeks. Alireza and Farsi have joined a long international tradition of community and participatory art, but this is the first of its kind in Jeddah. Their improvisational, nimble, and humble approach sets them up to succeed. They have no expectations about how many children will participate in their workshops - it may be two or it might be twenty. Inner Voices would have been a wonderful FIND Fellowship because it is an experiment that includes research, artistic practice, and social innovation. I am so impressed with Alireza and Farsi’s interdisciplinary approach and entrepreneurial spirits. For them, the pop up exhibit and community work in this location may be over in a few weeks. Soon there may be only traces of their presence on this street, but their work has just begun.
I leave Jeddah wanting to understand the landscape and its inhabitants in more depth. The unmarked grave of King Abdullah has left an indelible mark on my consciousness and reinforces what I have already come to know - that I have much to learn from the Muslim world.