The first Diriyah Biennial in Saudi Arabia marks a new era for the Kingdom’s cultural scene

On the evening of December 10, around 300 guests from Saudi Arabia and abroad gathered just outside the Diriyah Biennale Foundation in JAX, a new creative district in an industrial area of ​​the historic district of Diriyah in Riyadh, for the opening of the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale. – a historic moment for Saudi Arabia, and which marked the first time that the Kingdom had hosted a biennial devoted to contemporary art.

The crowd was silent as they listened to a moving opening speech by Philip Tinari, curator of the biennial and also director and CEO of the UCCA Contemporary Art Center in China. The title of the biennial, Cross the River Smelling the Rocks, comes from a Chinese saying signaling the attitude toward China’s reform and openness to the world that began in 1978 – a popular metaphor Chinese leaders use. to describe the path they took after the economic reform. Tinari used it to also refer to the current moment of cultural and social change in Saudi Arabia.

“As we prepared for this biennial, this slogan spoke to me on two levels, first for its relevance in Saudi Arabia today, where we are privileged to witness a similar moment of dynamism, optimism and opening, and with it, a transformative change. said Tinari.

The biennial, which officially opened to the public on December 11 and will run until March 11 next year, is located in the newly converted warehouses in the JAX district. It takes place in six sections, showcasing works from around 64 artists from around the world, with a focus on 27 Saudi artists.

The Diriyah Biennial Foundation has commissioned 29 new works for the exhibition.

The six sections explore the subthemes of spiritual in art, environmental heritage and conservation, gender issues, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and community building. Dialogue through culture is one of the goals of the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale, which was established in 2020 with the support of the Saudi Ministry of Culture.

“Having non-commercial spaces in Saudi Arabia is extremely important because it generates very different types of art,” artist Dana Awartani told Arab News. “For a long time, artists here have been used to exhibiting in galleries or participating in art fairs. For me, the work you create in a biennial is the highest level of art because you are able to experiment and push the boundaries of what you want to do without thinking about creating something that is for sale.

Awartani’s breathtaking 23.7 x 13.5 meter clay work, entitled “Standing in the Ruins of Aleppo (2021)”, takes the form of a long tiled floor and addresses the theme of cultural destruction through the subject of the Great Mosque of Aleppo, prompting guests to reflect on the effects of cultural destruction on society.

“A biennial is about intercultural dialogue,” she added. “You learn from your peers and for me this is one of the most exciting things about being in a biennial, and it is so important that we have one in Saudi Arabia. “

Artists and curators will tell you that an exhibition of this kind is long overdue in the Kingdom.

“I really hope this will be a turning point for these individuals and for the scene in general, as we are now in a position to put these amazing Saudi artists in a global dialogue on their own territory and on a level playing field with the rest. of the world, ”Co-Commissioner Wejdan Reda told Arab News.

The exhibition opens with two powerful works placed side by side: the “Circle of the Red Earth” by American artist Richard Long, created in the 1980s for an exhibition in Paris which established itself as the first exhibition. world of contemporary art, and Saudi artist Maha Malluh’s “World Map” from his “Food for Thought (2021)” series, which includes 3,840 cassettes to represent a map of the globe. , says Malluh, “forces you to pause, contemplate and think more about your surroundings.” The works in this series, which form Arabic images and letters, do just that. Around the corner are several Vintage cathode ray televisions showing an animated archive of photographs from “Saudi Arabia in the prognosis (desert reunion) (2021)” by Saudi artist Ahmed Mater.

In the first section, works from an older generation of Saudi artists showcase the roots of the current Saudi art scene which has flourished thanks to numerous government initiatives. A collection of works from the 2000s of the Al-Mansouria Foundation is on display, which reveals works on canvas by artists such as Fahad Al-Hejailan, Jowhara Al-Saud, Munira Mosli and Ayman Yossri Daydban.

The art of this biennial invites the visitor to wonder about the social and artistic characteristics common to the moments of change of epoch. Can there be an aesthetic of reform? The common sense of urgency found in the works on display – despite their diverse aesthetics and chosen mediums – seems to suggest that there could be some, especially since a culture is on the verge of a big change.

What takes place in the curvy halls and countless spaces of the exhibition are multidisciplinary works by artists from Saudi Arabia, the Middle East and elsewhere, brought into dialogue as they seem to call in unison. to be seen and heard almost urgently. Elsewhere in the first section, the works explore ideas of urban transformation, economic history, social structures and progression. One of these works is a powerful video installation, “Sakura”, by the famous American artist Sarah Morris. It captures historic moments and places, from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the frenzy of downtown Manhattan to the cultural and industrial landscape of Rio de Janeiro.

There are also the vibrant paintings of abstract shapes by late Moroccan artist Mohamed Melehi; South African William Kentridge’s eight-channel video installation “More Sweetly Play the Dance (2015)”, depicting an endless joyous procession of dancers and musicians from start to finish of the installation; the installation of Saudi artist Dania Al-Saleh “What remains (2021)”, investigating the disappearance and preservation of cultural memory in the face of globalization through representations of ancient footage and images from Saudi Arabia ; paintings from the “Closed Communities Series” by Egyptian artist Ibrahim El Dessouki, as well as “Five Women” by Saudi artist Filwa Nazer, a group of sculptural works made in textiles and haberdashery exploring themes of transition and memory by deconstructing the designs of traditional Arabic feminine dresses.

It would be hard not to notice the powerful works of 12 Chinese artists featured throughout the exhibition. They illustrate the parallels between China’s moment of reform in the 1980s and Saudi Arabia’s rapid socio-economic changes instituted largely as part of Vision 2030.

“I live and work in Beijing and run a place called UCCA Center for Contemporary Art,” Tinari told Arab News. “Over the past 10 years, I have done a lot of academic and curatorial research on the Chinese avant-garde. I saw parallels between Saudi Arabia’s current situation and China’s in terms of openness to the world, culturally speaking.

Simon Denny’s “Real Mass Entrepreneurship (2017-2021)”, for example, reveals an installation that fills an entire room. It explores the changes that have taken place in the city of Shenzhen, in southern China, since the establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone in 1980 and how the city has served as a hub for China’s economic reforms – a process of transformation that coincided with the growth of contemporary art in the country. .

A two-channel video work by Lei Lei & Chai Mi, titled “1993-1994 (2021)”, commissioned by the Diriyah Biennale Foundation, was inspired by the accidental discovery of family archives. Much of the footage was shot by Chai’s father, who worked in the UAE for seven years in the 1990s. Decades ago, Chai’s father documented his daily life in the Gulf on a tape. video on the background of Cantonese pop music.

Among the Saudi contingent of artists are notable works by Sultan bin Fahad, titled “Dream Traveled (2021)”. It reveals a surprisingly beautiful tent piece made of colorful beads depicting Hajj murals and images from the Holy Quran. There is also “Soft Machines (2021)” by Sarah Ibrahim, a video installation exploring the human body as a vessel of memory, site of transformation and vehicle of communication and, ultimately, a place where each and the collective can transcend themselves. Abdullah Al-Othman’s cheerful installation “Manifesto: The Language & City (2021)” reveals a large-scale, pulsed work done in neon, LED, and wood signage found to recreate the road signs of Riyadh, where the artist condenses the city into a visual, cultural and architectural language.

Conceptual artist Muhannad Shono’s bizarre but captivating “On Losing Meaning (2021)” features a programmable robot covered in petroleum jelly and spikes of pigment, creating an abstract shape as it moves across the ground. “As a kid my imagination was everything, an escape and a way to reshape the environment around me,” he said in a statement. “By creating stories and drawing characters, I was able to create the world as I wanted to see it. “

The final section, Concerning the Spiritual, seems to suggest that social and cultural reform could possibly be met with a mindset that transcends the earthly realm. The works in this section are ethereal structures infused with light, most notably Larry Bell’s large blue glass sculpture titled “Iceberg (2020)”. He transports the spectator out of his own reality towards something greater, towards the idea of ​​the infinite. The first edition of Saudi Arabia’s first contemporary art biennial thus concludes with an exploration of how, whatever challenges the world faces, art can uplift us, transcend us and transport us to something bigger than ourselves.


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