By Rob L. Wagner
4 March 2016
Jeddah – The Saudi government in the 1960s had a high regard for its artists. Many were sent abroad on university scholarships and then returned to teach. As bright as the art scene had burned, a decade later it went into hibernation.
Nearly 50 years later the Saudi art scene has re-emerged stronger and more vibrant thanks largely to an eclectic group of modernist and abstract painters, street artists and those engaged in multimedia. Many of these artisans are flourishing through 21,39 Jeddah Arts, a non-profit initiative of the Saudi Art Council. 21,39 Jeddah Arts, named for the geographical coordinates of Jeddah, is hosting its annual Central Exhibition at venues throughout the city through May.
While the exhibits are expected to draw considerable attention, the core element of the project is its education programme.
“The key factor is the school tours and more importantly the government school tours,” Sarah Alireza, who heads an education committee at 21,39 Jeddah Arts, said. “We work with the Ministry of Education and will receive about six schools [per day] with each group having about 30 students for tours.”
Saudi Art Council members Hamza Serafi and Mona Khazindar are curating the show. “This popular event aims at making a meaningful contribution to the development of Saudi society,” Serafi said.
Now in its third year, the Central Exhibition comes at a time when Jeddah is emerging as an important cultural and arts centre after a long struggle. Saudi artists enjoyed a renaissance in the 1960s and 1970s with Jeddah’s public art at the city’s roundabouts a testament to its bold approach. Artists were heavily influenced by Lebanese and Egyptian expatriates who brought a cosmopolitan sense to the art scene. Art, however, took a dramatic turn by the early 1980s following the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.
Artistic expression, while taught in public schools, was limited to students learning to draw inanimate objects. Instructors discouraged representation of the human figure. The movement went dormant as such subjects as engineering — perceived as a more practical occupation — took centre stage in education.
“Artists were not highly appreciated when I started,” said Jeddah artist Fatima Baazeem, who is not participating in 21,39 Jeddah Arts. “Many artists were drawing for their own leisure and for their families. Some took it further and went to bazaars to show their work on a small scale, especially among the middle class.”
Alireza said attitudes are changing. “We (Jeddah Arts) are playing a role in changing those attitudes,” she said. “Looking through school books I have to say the schools today have quite a good curriculum. Now how to promote that is a different question.”
Rima Takieddine, an organiser for 21,39 Jeddah Arts, said that it was a matter of better exposure for artists.
“There is more exposure now for artists in the sense that we have more serious galleries and showings,” Takieddine said. “Before it was more decorative art and how to fit it in homes. We are trying with an education programme for the new generation to see conceptual art. There has always been Saudi art: Tribal embroidery, geometrical, Islamic calligraphy. It has always been present.”
Alireza said: “Being an artist no longer has the taboos it had in the past.”
Baazeem agreed, but noted: “Saudi art is maturing but there is also a lack of individuality and identity. People tend to go after big ideas imported from the West.”
To boost Jeddah’s reputation as a cultural centre, and perhaps recapture the city’s original artistic bonafides, the Ministry of Education has given 21,39 Jeddah Arts organisers wide latitude in taking students to workshops, Alireza said.
“There have been no problems with the government,” Alireza said. “Every artwork proposed has been viewed by the Ministry of Culture and Information and so far we have had no problems. At end of the day we want to sustain what we are doing.”
Organisers are expecting at least 5,000 students from 200 schools to tour the main exhibition and perhaps as many as 300 to sign up for the nearly two dozen workshops and discussion panels. The exhibition and workshop instructors can accommodate up to six schools a day but the number of young artists participating in workshops is determined by instructors. An extension programme in March is to feature panel discussions that include filmmakers.
Takieddine said the programme is attempting to broaden its range, saying: “We have international artists this year and we are looking from the perspective of all artists, a more universal look. We expect more students at the university level to participate.”
The programme is employing various city venues to showcase contemporary art, including showings at the Serafi Mall on Tahlia Street.
Among the artists scheduled with exhibitions in February are designer Ahmad Sami Angawi displaying forgotten Hijazi crafts and a solo exhibition by the visual artist Emy Kat at the Nassief House in Al-Balad.
In addition, Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al-Khalifa, president of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, and Farouk Hosny, an artist and former Egyptian minister of Culture, will participate in a panel discussion. Other participants include Venetia Porter, curator of Islamic and Contemporary Middle East Art for the British Museum, and Maha al-Senan, executive director of Saudi Society of Preservation of Heritage.
Information and schedules: http://www.21-39.com.