Returning, in 1977, to the Arabian Peninsula he had documented in the 1940s, the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger wrote that his former Bedouin companions ‘had adjusted themselves to this new Arabian world’. It was something the author of the classic Arabian Sands (1959) professed himself ‘unable to do’. If Thesiger found the jets above Oman’s Jebel Akhdar disconcerting and Abu Dhabi an ‘Arabian nightmare’ back in the 1970s, what would he have made of these places today? Decades on, Thesiger’s lament for the demise of tradition and heritage in the face of what some deem ‘progress’ and ‘modernity’ is being echoed by young Saudi artists at home and abroad.
In ‘Shift’ at The Mosaic Rooms, Dana Awartani, Zahrah Al-Ghamdi and Reem Al-Nasser explore the impact of globalization and cultural shifts on their native country. Part of the fourth edition of Shubbak, London’s biennial festival of contemporary Arab culture, ‘Shift’ is the UK’s first all-female exhibition of artists from Saudi Arabia.
In the front gallery, viewers encounter Awartani’s I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembered I’d forgotten you. I was dreaming. (all works 2017), a delicate installation of pallid arabesques created from sand that the artist has meticulously hand-dyed and arranged on the floor. A film from 2016 shows the artist sweeping away the same installation in her home in an old area of Jeddah, near Mecca. Serving as a metaphor for her country’s fast fading cultural heritage, Awartani’s transient patterns share a sensibility with Mohammed Alkouh’s hand-coloured photographs of old and abandoned buildings in Kuwait.
Cell of the City, Al-Ghamdi’s sand, clay and cloth installation, built on site in the vein of work’s by the late Hassan Sharif, also brings to the fore the risk of cultural loss. Striving to evoke the aesthetic of a traditional building in the southwest of Saudi Arabia, the rough ripples of the structure present a critical contrast to the smooth and sleek surfaces of the country’s many modern high-rise buildings (as epitomized in Ahmed Mater’s 2012 photographs of a crane-ridden Mecca).
While the works of Awartani and Al-Ghamdi deal with fears about a vanishing past and way of life, Al-Nasser’s audio-video installation Silver Plate (2017), in the gallery’s basement, instead looks towards the future as a release from a stifling past and present. Relating her experiences as a young woman in the city of Jizan, Al-Nasser uses audio snippets and video loops to create a sense of emotional discord and anxiety. Voices whisper areeb (near) and baeed (far), as if to both beckon viewers nearer and push them away, while the sight of silver plates simultaneously drummed by fingers and splashed by water brings the experience to an unsettling sensual climax. Afterwards, visitors are handed booklets containing pages of blank layered circular diagrams. ‘Free space for your feelings’, reads the outmost rung of one, in both English and Arabic.
At a time when the House of Saud is being criticized at home and abroad for an incessant zeal for outward displays of modernity (amongst other thorny issues of domestic and foreign policy), ‘Shift’ provides a timely counter-narrative. In looking to the past, these women emphasize the importance and beauty of particular aspects of Saudi culture and history; in looking towards the future, they make clear that modernity – in its truest sense – can only be achieved by leaving other things behind.
Main image: Zahrah Al-Ghamdi, Cell of the City (detail), 2017. Courtesy: The Mosaic Rooms, London; photograph: Andy Stagg